West Africa: When coups paradoxically become a democratic breathing space

Dr. Bakary Sambe, director of the Timbuktu Institute (Bamako-Dakar-Niamey), talked to “L’Opinion”, a few days ago, about the genesis of the recent putsches in the Sahel countries and the new dynamics of protest in the region.


A Burkinabe lieutenant-colonel, Emmanuel Zoungrana, was arrested on 10 January for an alleged coup attempt. How do you explain the return of coups in West Africa?


The Burkinabe military complains that they are ill-equipped to deal with the jihadists they are fighting on the ground. The security situation has deteriorated in recent years. They have suffered many losses in the border areas. The state is so bankrupt that the authorities are delegating part of the national defense to self-defense militias, the Koglweogo. This is an admission of impotence. There is a risk that the officers are no longer in tune with the political leadership and are tempted to take responsibility. This leads to a paradoxical situation where coups are sometimes seen as a democratic breath of fresh air due to the rejection of local powers, a certain abandonment of democratic ideals by the international community and regional organizations considered illegitimate.


Faced with the risk of coups and the desire of juntas to perpetuate their reign in power, West African leaders adopted on Sunday very harsh sanctions against the Malian authorities. Are they justified?


This is not the time to take shots at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which, despite its shortcomings, remains a resource in terms of mediation and conflict management. The positions of this regional organization deserve to be supported in Mali. Sanctions are a necessary evil to help this country find its democratic trajectory so that it does not live under the regime of successive juntas. West African leaders waited until their eighth summit since August 2020, after several warnings, to sanction the transitional authorities, who cannot say they were caught off guard. They also provided for exemptions for the supply of food, pharmaceuticals and fuel so as not to penalize the population.



"There is now a myth of an 'Islamic awakening' or an 'Islamic conscience'. This leads to the establishment of these unprecedented alliances in youth circles, between Salafist movements and ex-militants of the nationalist left".



Do the protest movements in the Sahel not give rise to unholy alliances between leftists and supporters of political Islam, which coup officers seek to exploit?


Secular civil societies have weakened. They are less and less supported by their Western partners. The latter are in a logic of diplomatic pragmatism in order not to lose ground to the growing influence of other powers such as China, Russia and Turkey. Western states therefore tend to align themselves with the policies of the powers that be, sacrificing the fundamental principles and values that bind them to civil societies. Religious leaders take advantage of this and influence a rather idle youth in need of guidance. We can also observe the emergence of new alliances since the Arab Spring, between civil society actors and former leftists or neo-leftists who seek, through revolutionary processes, to gain access to power by making a pact with currents crossed by political Islam.


What is the role of social networks in the emergence of these new protests?


Western powers such as France are tending to gradually disconnect from real society, which is itself very connected to social networks that are in the throes of an informational influence war. Social movements use these relays to mobilize their supporters in an atmosphere marked by an Islamo-nationalism that is not challenged by left-wing currents that seek to find a new lease of life in protest. If the new powers of influence support this groundswell, a cold war could be reinstated, with the main danger being the loss of democratic gains.


How do you explain the attraction of young people to the Salafist movement?


It can be motivated by interest, social assistance or community prestige. We therefore need to think about Salafism from the point of view of local realities, and not subordinate the understanding of such a socio-religious phenomenon to a Western context. As the state no longer wishes to provide for educational needs, a genuine Arabic-speaking and Islamic elite has emerged from these institutions. This elite is challenging the hegemony of the dominant French-speaking executives in the administrative structures. They are considered responsible for the failure of governance since independence. This radicalism, considered as modernity out of spite, seduces entire sections of the educated youth. It is no longer a question of poverty or illiteracy. There is now a myth of an 'Islamic awakening' or 'Islamic consciousness' that permeates all spheres. This leads to the establishment of these unprecedented alliances in youth circles, between Salafist movements and ex-militants of the nationalist left, who see in this Islam an effective form of protest against the West or neo-liberalism.



"The French discourse on Islam discredits the defenders of secularism in the Sahel, and the fight against Western interference remains mobilising"



Do you see a danger for the post-independent Sahelian states?


It is not by simple doctrinaire adherence that the youngest and most educated adopt Salafism, but through new needs for religious expression, which orient young people more and more towards a rationalised and reformist Islam. Such a situation leads to a form of elitism of religious fundamentalism. These movements are thus taking over from the state, which has failed to provide social guidance for young people. This aggregation of facts could be a source of unrest in the medium term in urban and rural areas, and also of a social divide. This will give rise to "nation states" with the resurgence of a national feeling and a harmonised socialisation around an educational system totally controlled by Islamist networks. We therefore fear a clash of extremes in Mali, Togo and Benin, between fundamentalist Islam and evangelist Christian currents.


Is France, which has inspired the constitutions of the Sahelian states and their political life, not losing the battle for the influence of the social model?


France and the European countries have not taken sufficient account of our social models and their structures. The problem of the European gap in relation to the new socio-religious realities must be resolved. The socio-educational and humanitarian actions supported by the Arab countries are appreciated by the populations who consider them more useful and effective. The French discourse on Islam discredits the defenders of secularism in the Sahel, and the fight against Western interference remains mobilising. The growing demand of Islamic actors for a better representation of Islam and its values in political systems cannot be ignored any longer. Listening to the field is a prerequisite for overcoming conflicts of perception. It is therefore necessary to take into account the religious reality on the political level and not to lock oneself into a secularism of combat but rather to promote a secularism of consensus.


Are the secular constitutions inherited from the former colonizer still appropriate?


We are in constitutionally secular states that must govern the religious at a time when the security dimension requires the full attention of the authorities because of the radicalisation of part of the youth. It is necessary to adapt constitutions, which can be revised, to local realities in order to understand the religious factor in all its dimensions. For example, the countries of the Sahel suffer from a dual education system, with the official French-speaking school on the one hand, and the multiplication of Arab and Islamic schools on the other in an overlapping of educational offers, which threatens the fragile social cohesion in the still unfinished process of state building.



Specialist in radicalism


Founder of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, Bakary Sambe is a lecturer at the Gaston Berger University (Saint-Louis -Senegal). He is the author of numerous books including Islam and Diplomacy, Morocco's African Policy (2010), Boko Haram, du problème nigérian à la menace régionale (2015), Contestations islamisées. Senegal between influence diplomacy and political Islam (2018).