Sudan and Niger remind why principles matter

By Jędrzej Czerep
Two major crises in the Sahel the Niger coup and Sudan civil war illustrate African and international ambiguity about principles. Why has the initially strong and values-driven stance by ECOWAS on Niger lose momentum, and why have not any of the peace plans for Sudan brought us closer to a resolution? Mainly because of a lack of seriousness about principles.
On the surface, principles seem to be back in fashion. That’s good. After the messy decade of facts-denialism by Trump, Bolsonaro, and Magufuli, the return of coups, and mainstreaming of post-truth discourse, there has been a need to regain some sense of honest direction.
Some of the newly refreshed basics worth adhering to include the idea that free and transparent states work better than autocracies and that it is good to allow people to define and pursue their own aspirations, and please, don’t spoil those few good examples that are around.
That’s why the overthrow of the Nigerien president, Mohamed Bazoum, was one coup too many. Around 2015, it seemed coup d’états were long gone in Sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to 15 years of African solidarity in rejecting power grabs. Routine suspension from the AU and other major bodies, sanctions, and the imposition of timelines for military units to return to their barracks worked. Soldiers also understood they were not welcome as rulers anymore. But this changed as the continental and regional bodies seemed to be losing faith in their own principles. The resurrected old-style coup plotters in Zimbabwe (2017), Sudan (2019/21), and Chad (2021) mostly succeeded in avoiding consequences. Simultaneously, in West Africa, new trends in coups developed. Mali’s Goita, Guinea’s Doumbouya, and Burkina’s Damiba followed by Traore were all young and charismatic. Change-hungry youth not only embraced strongmen interventions, but wanted them to stay. “Mali kura” (“new Mali” in Bambara) was the call of the day in Bamako. The Malian and Burkinabe colonels portrayed themselves as revolutionaries taking on France and ending what remained of the post-colonial dependency. They also embraced Russia as a force symbolising a break with the status quo and instrumental in lifting Africa’s weight on the global stage, no matter how misleading the notion of a Russian alternative was.
In Russia, proponents of “multipolarity” see the continent’s role as limited to supporting the Russian pole, not forming an equal, African, one, as Russia’s African supporters tout. The trap of betting on Russia became even more evident during the recent Russia-Africa Summit. After scrapping the Ukraine grain deal, Moscow promised to supply cereals to six countries in need. But while posturing as a humanitarian actor, it simultaneously bombed Ukrainian grain stocks. Furthermore, Burkina Faso and Zimbabwe seemed to have been added to the list of beneficiaries only after they declared open support of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in front of cameras in Saint Petersburg. Not a request you would expect to hear from proponents of cleaner, principled partnerships.
Enter Gen. Tchiani, an old-guard officer who surrounded Niger’s presidential palace when Bazoum threatened to fire him. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for the AU, ECOWAS, and their foreign friends to put things back on the right track. Flex their muscles, see the coup-plotters backtrack, and democracy prevail in the end, that’s what Africans want. All the Afrobarometer surveys indicate vast majorities see democracy as the most desired system. Unfortunately, the same majorities are not happy with the state of the democracies they have and they measure what’s worth defending. Nigeriens remembered that Bazoum justified Kaka Deby’s power grab in Chad as bringing “stability”, just like French President Emanuel Macron did. The democratic qualities of leaders of the pro-intervention camp were also questionable. Nigerians primarily knew their Bola Tinubu more as an expert in behind-the-scenes machinations. Senegalese just saw Macky Sall arresting his main opponent Sonko. Ivory Coast’s Ouattara himself served a controversial third term after staging a “constitutional coup” in 2020. The result? Niger’s new junta quickly won popular support as it stroked the fashionable anti-French drum. Why did Tchiani’s dubious credentials, obvious personal ambitions, and pro-Russian masquerade outweigh the principled position of ECOWAS, which was right on the illegality of Niger’s coup and wanted to prove it was capable of enforcing African solutions to African problems? It is said a road sign doesn’t need to follow the direction it is pointing to, but for the sake of principles, it would be better if the pro-intervention camp genuinely represented the very values it said it was defending.
Sudan’s example is obviously far more dramatic. The devastating war there has entered its fifth month and shows no sign of ending. Not long ago, the atmosphere was very different. Since the 2018/19 anti-Bashir revolution, the country’s grassroots, non-violent resistance committees (RCs) embodied one of the world’s most inspiring, resilient, and principled pro-democracy movements—worth becoming a global icon. Indeed the Sudanese, especially following the October 2021 military/RSF takeover, felt part of the global “international of the oppressed”. To express that, they often linked their fight with that of the Myanmarans or the Ukrainians, similarly resisting the military might imposed on them. Except for no one really cared. Diplomatic interventions by regional states, the AU, IGAD, UN, or the U.S. were careful not to let the army or the paramilitary lose their grip on power and money. The result was that the momentum favouring a true transformation of Sudan into an inclusive, civic state became static. The moonwalking continued in the run-up to the eruption of the war on 15 April, and followed it.
As the devastating fight between Hemeti’s RSF (ex-Janjaweed), and Gen. Burhan’s Sudan Armed Forces backed by the Bashir-era Islamists has raged, masks dropped. Both of yesterday’s “statesmen” effectively abdicated from aspiring to any state functions. These were taken up spontaneously by the RCs trying to fill the gap in service delivery. Still, unsurprisingly, while both strongmen sought to grasp some legitimacy from referring to the 2019 revolution, both moved vigorously to harass the RCs, its last credible heir. And again, the flawed diplomatic approach to peacemaking persisted: the international community, be it the U.S., Saudis, AU, IGAD, or Sudan’s neighbours, never really took the Sudanese grassroots’ perspective seriously. Instead they kept on rewarding aggressors by placing them in the centre of the political process and alienating the most legitimate civic forces. The world seemed not to have learned from Ukraine’s post-2014 experience when Russia pushed for two Minsk “agreements” sealing the actual conquest of some of its neighbour’s lands in exchange for a promise of a respite a promise it never intended to fulfil. The more it got the more it wanted, and eventually went in for a full-blown invasion, just like Hemeti and Burhan turned on each other and against the Sudanese people for total control. In Ukraine it’s “no more Minsk” now, but “Minsk” is still in fashion where Sudan is concerned.
Half-measures might be OK if they are accompanied by an effort to make the best out of things, what Francis Deng called “idealism in realism”. For many, the Ethiopian government-TPLF Pretoria agreement seemed incomplete as it didn’t involve Eritrea. But in the end it did accelerate progress on the ground, and the prospects for a peaceful Tigray now look much better than back in November. But in the case of Sudan, no foreign supporter has tried to project a post-military state. For the diplomats, the process (talks, quotas, handshakes), not substance, represented a goal in itself. If in Niger problems arose from over-confidence in one’s ability to demand respect for principles, in Sudan it was the opposite war remained a sad memento of the impotence to follow their impulse. In both cases, we are reminded that principles only have value when treated seriously.

Jędrzej Czerep is head of the Middle East Africa programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), Sub-Saharan Africa analyst. He holds Ph.D. in Political Science and researches political cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa. Collaborated with think-tanks (Royal United Services Institute), international organisations (Council of Europe), media (Al-Jazeera, The Guardian). Lecturer at Collegium Civitas conductng self-designed courses on post-truth and the economy and politics of information. Works on a book on roles of new religious actors in African politics.

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