Democracy Teetering in African Countries Once Ruled by France

In Senegal, the president tried to cancel an election. In Niger, a military coup d’état toppled an elected president, who eight months later is still imprisoned in the presidential palace. In Chad, the leading opposition politician was killed in a shootout with security forces. And in Tunisia, once the only democratic success story of the Arab Spring rebellions, the president is steering the state toward increasing autocracy.

Democracy is in trouble in former French colonies in Africa. And the two ways it is being subverted — by the elected officials entrusted with upholding it, or by coup plotters overthrowing governments — are manifestations of the same malaise, according to some experts.

After they won independence from France in the 1960s, nascent states modeled their constitutions on France’s, concentrating power in presidents’ hands. And France maintained a web of business and political ties with its former colonies — a system known as Françafrique — often propping up corrupt governments. These are among the reasons analysts cite for the democratic crisis in these countries.

While a majority of Africans polled still say they prefer democracy to other forms of government, support for it is declining in Africa, while approval of military rule is on the rise — it has doubled since 2000. That shift is happening much faster in former French colonies than in former British ones, according to Boniface Dulani, the director of surveys for Afrobarometer, a nonpartisan research organization.

“People have been disillusioned with democracy,” he said.

Cars destroyed in July after a coup in Niger still littered the streets of the capital in December.Credit…Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

The ground has been primed for military takeovers. Eight of the nine successful coups in Africa since 2020 have been in former French colonies — the only exception is Sudan, a former British colony. Former French colonies have been “champions of coups” as well as champions of a hollow pretense at “constitutional order” and democracy, said Ndongo Samba Sylla, coauthor of a new book on France and its former African colonies.

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