Democratic backsliding across west and central Africa is showing fresh signs of emerging ahead of elections.

Authorities in Niger have shut down the internet and charged a former prime minister with attempting to overthrow the government following a disputed election last month. In Chad, security forces engaged in a gun battle at the main opposition candidate’s house, in which his mother was killed, ahead of elections next month. In Benin, where elections are also taking place in April, opposition candidates have been effectively outlawed thanks to a recent change in electoral law.

The events come months after Mali’s democratically elected government was toppled in a military coup, and leaders in Guinea and Ivory Coast won contested third terms that critics say violate constitutional term limits. Later this month, citizens of Congo-Brazzaville will vote in what analysts widely expect to be a sham election allowing the 77-year-old president Denis Sassou Nguesso to extend his 36-year rule. (A change in electoral law pushed through in 2015 removed a 70-year age limit).

“The trend [is] towards democratic regression across west Africa,” said Ayisha Osori, executive director of Open Society Initiative West Africa.

Francophone countries seemed to be leading the way, she noted, in part because their former colonial power’s influence has kept them from developing better democratic institutions. France maintains closer ties to its ex-colonies than most other former colonial powers in west Africa.

“France is more vested in the presidents [and] presidential candidates who will uphold France's interest,” Osori said. That includes Senegal’s president Macky Sall, who has been accused of targeting his political opponents with investigations that would disqualify them from office. Dakar blocked YouTube, WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media amid protests last week over the arrest of Ousmane Sonko on rape charges the opposition politician insists are politically motivated.

It also means Chad’s autocratic president Idriss Déby, a close French ally in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel who is all-but-guaranteed to extend his 30-year rule in elections next month, “gets a pass on human rights abuses”, she added. Chad has also throttled the internet and banned public demonstrations ahead of the election.

During a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called on Chad to “carry out an independent and impartial investigation” into the killings at opposition leader Yaya Dillo’s house.

Deby’s relationship with France is unlikely to suffer from those developments, however. So strong are the ties that, in early 2019, French warplanes deployed to fight terrorism in the region detoured into northern Chad to strike a rebel convoy that threatened the president’s hold on power.

The region’s recent signs of democratic erosion are part of a longer-term trend, said Ornella Moderan, the Bamako-based head of the Sahel programme at the Institute of Security Studies.

“Many things are at play . . . overall questioning [of] democratic norms, weak regional organisations that fail to uphold the rule of law, years of fighting insecurity that eroded human rights,” she said.

Neighbouring Niger was supposed to undergo its first peaceful transfer of power since independence in 1960. But violent unrest stretched over several days in the capital Niamey last week after the electoral commission declared that former interior minister Mohamed Bazoum had won presidential elections last month. Opposition leader Hama Amadou was imprisoned on Monday for what prosecutors allege was his role in the violence.

Amadou had supported opposition candidate Mahamane Ousmane, who has claimed he won a narrow majority of the vote rather than his official tally of 44.25 per cent, against Bazoum, former president Mahamadou Issoufou’s chosen successor.

Issoufou’s decision to step down after two five-year terms marked a watershed moment for Niger, another important western ally in the fight against jihadism in the Sahel, and a staging ground for foreign militaries. The country, which ranks last on the UN’s human development index rankings, “has been praised as a rare democratic example in West Africa”, Moderan said.

“But the post-electoral violence has revealed that Niger is no exception to the other recurring shortfall of West African elections: the inability of running candidates to accept results that are not in their favour.”