West Africa is undergoing a period of significant transition. Demographic changes, rapid urbanization, the spread of new technologies and the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area have created new development pathways for the resource-rich region, home to 16 countries and roughly 5% of the world’s population. Geopolitical shifts are generating new levels of foreign interest as well. With Western hegemony in decline, a splintering international order has produced opportunities for illiberal state regimes to offer African governments more diverse options for political, economic and military partnerships.
Regional involvement by these actors is not intrinsically negative. China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and others have all contributed to tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements, economic trade and development initiatives across the continent. This has benefited countries with growing populations that require better transportation and communications networks, more hospitals and schools, and greater access to finance, clean water and electricity. Spin-off economic activity has created jobs for locals and supported private enterprise by benefiting African suppliers, buyers, subcontractors and entrepreneurs, while boosting intra-regional trade.1 Consumer markets also now feature a wider array of affordable products and greater opportunities for cultural exchange.
The latent risk is the opportunity and potential for illiberal states to further their own interests by interfering with democratic processes in these same countries. Their objective being to prevent civil society groups and electorates from pressuring ruling parties to enact more inclusive and equitable approaches to economic development. Amid a period of intense political and social change made more complex by mounting climate crises, the Covid-19 pandemic and global food and energy shortages stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—West African nations are therefore vulnerable to having their democratic progress stifled as the autocratic tendencies of governments become reinforced by foreign enablers.
A primary tool in this process has been, and will continue to be the deployment of disinformation, by foreign and domestic actors alike. The goal being to influence electoral outcomes and shape public opinion to their advantage. Given West Africa’s rising geopolitical importance and rapid increases in local internet and social media access each year, combined with companies’ limited ability to police their platforms, this trend will only become more prominent.