On July 26, military officers in the African country of Niger captured the democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, and locked him up. The officers who carried out this successful coup were trained by the United States.
A coup in Africa may seem like nothing new or newsworthy. Since the 1950s, there have been at least two coup attempts a year in African nations — more than 200 in total, half of them successful. In Niger alone, there have been five successful coups since the country gained independence from France in 1960. There have been 17 coups in Africa’s Sahel region since 2017, earning the region that’s south of the Sahara Desert the nickname “the coup belt.”
Persistent political instability in the Sahel makes it an attractive home base for terrorism. For 10 years, al-Qaida, ISIS and Boko Haram have carried out atrocities in the region. Of the world’s total deaths from terrorist attacks, nearly half have happened in the Sahel, and violence linked to militant Islamist groups nearly doubled there last year.
For decades, U.S. foreign policy has hinged on the idea that nations with strong democratic values and civilian-led militaries will be good partners in the global war on terror. The U.S. has tried to advance this goal by training military officers from foreign countries.
In 1946, the U.S. Army established the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Georgia, with the goal of educating officers about democratic values as well as advanced military tactics and counterterrorism warfare. The SOA and its successor school, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, has trained more than 63,000 soldiers from 21 countries, including thousands of African soldiers.
Now the strategy seems to be backfiring. Instead of building stable governments, SOA graduates have led coups to overthrow democratically elected political leaders and participated in torture and murder of their opposition. In the Sahel, U.S.-trained military officers have succeeded in eight coups, five of them in just the last three years.
Niger seemed like a success story in an unstable neighborhood. Niger transitioned to democratic rule in 2011 with active support from the United States. Since 2012, the U.S. has spent more than $500 million to build up and train the Nigerien military, teaching democratic principles alongside military tactics. Niger has been a critical partner for U.S. counterterrorism in the Sahel.
Niger’s coup shouldn’t be surprising. The U.S. is good at training foreign military officers, but it hasn’t had much success coupling military training with democratic values. Democracies need both strong militaries and an equally strong civil society, and U.S. support for democracy abroad has tipped too far toward military solutions. Niger’s coup is both an opportunity and a loud wake-up call for the United States to rethink and reset its support for democracies abroad.
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On Wednesday, Sept. 27, from 7 to 8 p.m., via Zoom Webinar, Dr. Ellen Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide, will speak about the Niger coup and the influence of Russia and China in Niger; Niger’s uranium resources for making nuclear weapons; devastating droughts and food insecurity; and justice mechanisms at the United Nations, the region and the U.S. This program is open to the public. Register here.
Lesley Bauer is a research and advocacy associate at World Without Genocide and a third-year law student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.