Last year in Dakar, running an errand near Sandaga market in the centre of town, I came across an armoured personnel carrier belonging to the police, parked on avenue Emile Badiane. Street vendors were lounging against the flanks of the vehicle; their trinkets were spread on the charcoal grey metal. The police sat around, helmets off, eating peanuts and trading pleasantries with passers-by.
For someone like me from Niamey in Niger, this resembled a scene from a fairy-tale. The Nigerien government keeps a similar armoured eyesore stationed at Toumo Square, where citizens used to rally for protests and demonstrations. In autumn 2009, when Niger’s then president, the former army officer Mamadou Tandja, scrapped the constitution and installed a civilian dictatorship, it was at Toumo Square that the opposition bravely sat every morning, as a kind of people’s parliament in session. Mahamadou Issoufou was the opposition leader at the time. In 2011 he became president and went on to install a civilian dictatorship in all but name.
Toumo Square has now been turned from the modest Nigerien equivalent of Tahrir Square into a market, depriving protesters and opposition movements of a convenient mustering point. A haridungo – ‘hot water’, the word in Zarma for a truck-mounted water cannon – is parked in Toumo Square for much of the time. People keep their distance; a sombre silence surrounds it. Its occupants are grim and vigilant; they never take off their helmets.
Civilian dictatorships are becoming the norm in Francophone West Africa. As the Nigerian political scientist Claude Ake argued, ‘in all too many cases, democratisation has been a matter of replacing a self-appointed dictator with an elected one.’ That word ‘elected’ looks ever more dubious. Civilian dictatorships in my part of the world begin with an electoral coup: the model can be found in 1958, on the eve of the Fifth Republic – de Gaulle had returned to the political stage and was serving as emergency prime minister of France – with the appointment of Don Jean Colombani as governor of Niger. He was tasked with ejecting the recalcitrant Djibo Bakary from his premiership in the country’s first independent government. Colombani captured the state institutions that counted (security, finance, territorial administration), put them to work for Bakary’s opponents, messed with the polling stations, frightened voters by wheeling out the army, and used the courts to hound Bakary’s lieutenants. The electoral process was turned into a war on voting rights.
The story of France’s former West African possessions followed a simple arc after decolonisation. Single-party autocracy and military rule drove competitive elections out of fashion for three decades. When they resumed in the early 1990s, they were sometimes touted as the guarantee of a ‘new independence’. Independence, after all, had never meant simply the end of colonialism; it meant access to the droits du citoyen that the French had waved in front of colonised peoples without granting them access. In the 1990s it looked as if these rights were close at hand – that at long last, former colonies were becoming true ‘republics’, on a par with the model presented by France. And in a chaotic and in some cases bloody manner (Ivory Coast), things did at first seem to be heading that way.
They began to go awry in the late 2000s. Curiously, the ‘innovations’ that opened the doors to the restoration of autocracy all came from Niger. It was in Niger that the idea of breaking the limit on terms in office was first tried out (by Mamadou Tandja in 2009). Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade and Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré followed in 2012 and 2014. These were all flops but future would-be autocrats learned from them. The tactic of jailing the principal contender for the duration of the electoral campaign was first tried in Niger (by Mahamadou Issoufou in 2016). Senegal’s Macky Sall used it in 2019 against Khalifa Sall (no relation), and Benin’s Patrice Talon has put it to work this year (elections are scheduled for Sunday): the opposition leader Reckya Madougou’s candidacy was thrown out by the electoral commission and in March she was arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate ‘several political figures’.
Finally, in the two rounds of elections in 2020-21, Niger’s rulers revived the full Colombani playbook – state capture cum political repression – and the haridungos rolled into action. At the same time, Alassane Ouattara in Ivory Coast and Alpha Condé in Guinea took the innovations in Niger a step further. They defied the limit of terms in office, took full control of the state apparatus, barred their contenders from campaigning, and unleashed state and para-state violence: dozens were left dead and hundreds were detained. Last month, in anticipation of elections in 2024, Macky Sall jailed Ousmane Sonko, his most likely rival. Senegalese voters were enraged. ‘Macky Sall is a ball and chain,’ a Dakarois friend told me. They took to the streets for days; in the city centre the drowsy policemen donned their helmets and leapt into their haridungos.
These vehicles and the militarised riot police are now the emblems of the war on citizenship waged by rulers in Francophone West Africa. And while the democrats of the early 1990s seemed to promise a new and genuine independence, today’s autocrats (sometimes the same people) are regarded as new colonial governors. In Dakar, rioters ransacked Auchan stores (Auchan is a vast French retail outlet) and in Niamey they attacked the house of Radio France Internationale’s correspondent Moussa Kaka, whose coverage of the electoral process was seen as propaganda for le pouvoir. France has openly supported some of these rulers, especially in Niger, a country seen – as it was in 1958 – as too strategic for its own good. Back then, its location south of Algeria and north of Nigeria was the decisive factor; today it is the French/US war on terror in the Sahel and the EU’s war on migration.
Colombani’s electoral coup in Niger more than sixty years ago was part of de Gaulle’s strategy to restore France to great power status. It was imperative to put a break on the Sub-Saharan colonies’ drift towards freedom and turn them into chips in the international arena and at the UN – an obsession that led to France’s sinister role, much later, in the Rwandan genocide. In September 1958, with the founding referendum on the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle forced the African leaders to enter a federation with the metropole (Bakary was thrown out because he resisted). It was short-lived but morphed into the shadowy structure known as Françafrique. France has never changed tack. It has trapped its former African colonies within a regressive history of its own. In essence, the instincts and routines of 1958 still determine its policies in the region, giving rise to an ever stronger ‘sentiment antifrançais’ that baffles the French, who know little about their country’s neocolonial role behind the scenes in West Africa.