There have been enough coups and attempted coups in West Africa and the wider Sahel over the past two years to suggest that there is a pattern to the problems in the region. Poor governance, Islamist conflicts and perhaps the environmental challenges of life in the Sahel are all part of the dangerous cocktail, but determining the reasons for such instability is never an exact science. Yet is the trend likely to continue and is there anything that the rest of West Africa can do about it? Analysis by Neil Ford and Anver Versi.
There is no doubt that the number of coups in West Africa is rising, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres declaring last September that “military coups are back”. This year has already seen the army seize power in Burkina Faso plus a failed coup in Guinea Bissau, while the established governments of Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan were all overthrown last year and a military takeover was repulsed in Niger.
Democracy has been relatively weak in most of the countries where coups have taken place. Some of the common observable traits include: limited tolerance of political opposition; restrictions on freedom of expression and an independent media; and a judiciary heavily influenced by the government.
Following the death of the Chadian President, Idriss Déby, last April, the army quickly moved to appoint his son, Col. Mahamat Déby, in his place. Idriss Déby came to power himself by staging a coup against Hissène Habré in 1990 and ruled Chad with an iron fist, violently and brutally suppressing several protest movements against his continued rule. His son, chairman of the Transitional Military Council, is de facto the ruler and continues what many see as the start of a dynasty.
Coup leaders usually promise that their intervention will be short-lived but this is rarely the case, unless they themselves are removed from power by another military intervention.
There seems to be a lack of international interest in the countries concerned, while regional organisations seem to have limited power to do very much about them. The Economic Community of West African States did impose sanctions on Mali following its coup but has not been equally firm in its stance towards other countries affected by coups. The African Union has generally taken a firm line but lacks the power to impose the necessary sanctions.
There has been an average of about four successful African coups a year since 1960 but they have come in spates, often related to regional economic difficulties or food supply problems, or international interference.
They were more common in the 1960s and 70s at the height of the Cold War but have been rarer since then. Since independence, coups have been more common in West Africa and the Sahel than elsewhere; and within West Africa, more common in Francophone than Anglophone Africa, giving rise to the phrase, Africa’s coup belt.
Perhaps surprisingly, they have been less common in Central Africa, although this has mainly been because opposition to autocratic governments there has been unable to secure sufficient armed support to move against the region’s autocrats.
About half of all coup attempts since independence have been successful but it is difficult to be sure exactly when genuine coup attempts have been defeated, as some governments have a tendency to invent planned coups as a pretext to crack down on opposition. At the same time, those seizing power usually claim some legitimacy and reject the idea that they are overthrowing a leader – elected or otherwise – by force.
There are challenges to democracy in most African countries but the overall trend is generally positive in the bulk of the continent. The main area of weakness covers a broad band across Africa, from Guinea through the Sahel and on to the Horn of Africa.
This geographical focus may partly be linked to the geography of the region, with semi-arid conditions creating economic and food supply insecurity; competition for water resources; and frontier areas in which Islamist militants can secrete themselves. Climate change may be intensifying such problems.
Moreover, the African troops fighting militants in the Sahel are often undersupplied, underpaid and underappreciated, while militant activity in the Sahel has also created a proliferation of weapons. It is noteworthy the coups have not taken place in the continent’s most rapidly developing economies. Weak economies mean low living standards but also a lack of opportunities for growing numbers of young people.
At the same time, any form of violent insecurity, from military coup to open warfare, is more likely to take place in any particular area when it is already occurring in a neighbouring territory. Insecurity breeds insecurity. This trend of negative proximity makes it even more important for more stable countries to help tackle near instability.
At the same time, however, any talk of democracy fading in Africa is overblown. While a handful of governments have been overthrown, democracy continues to strengthen in many more.
Even in West Africa, contemporary Côte d’Ivoire is starting to put some distance between it and the years of insecurity, partly on the back of strong economic growth, while Ghana becomes a more high-profile example of democratic growth with each new election, particularly when power passes peacefully between the two main parties.
The sad fact is that while coups mark the sudden, violent overthrow of established government, whether democratic or autocratic, the roots of democracy grow at a far slower pace, inching further into a nation’s consciousness with each year that passes. This is far less spectacular and far less newsworthy but its longevity is important.
Timeline: Coups and attempted coups in West Africa since 2020
Mali, August 2020. Col. Assimi Goïta, responding to several street demonstrations protesting the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections, staged a coup, seizing President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and PM Boubou Cissé. The coup was greeted with joy in the streets, with a populace fed up with the corruption of the government and its elite cliques.
Central African Republic, December -January, 2020-21. Rebels led by former President François Bozizé attempted to overthrow the government led by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra but failed. Clashes continue.
Chad, April 2021. Idriss Déby, a former military strongman who had ruled Chad for thirty years, had won the elections for a sixth term despite widespread protests when it was announced that he had been killed on the battlefield in an engagement with opposition movement FACT. His son Mahamat Déby dissolved the government and appointed himself as chairman of the ruling military council.
Mali, May, 2021. A second coup in Mali. Bah Ndow, who had been installed as President of The National Council for the Salvation of the People, a temporary government pending a general election, was deposed, along with Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. Col. Goita, who led both coups, was subsequently declared the Interim President. ECOWAS suspended Mali and imposed sanctions, as did the EU. However, public sentiment was very much in favour of the military and the expulsion of the French Ambassador from the country was widely celebrated.
Guinea, September, 2021. Alpha Condé, who had been Guinea’s first democratically elected President in 2010, was overthrown by the army who surrounded the Sekhoutoureah Presidential Palace. After a gun battle with pro-government forces, Condé was taken hostage and the leader of the coup, Mamady Doumbouya, dissolved the government, annulled the constitution and sealed the borders. Doumbouya was sworn in as interim President. Condé had been re-elected in 2015 and also 2020, although his second and third terms were marked by economic decline and harsh crackdowns on opposition and protests. He changed the constitution to allow him to reset term limits and seek more terms. This led to mass protests which were brutally repressed. He was released from military detention later.
Burkina Faso, January, 2022. Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, President of Burkina Faso from 2015 was deposed by the army, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba (below). Kaboré, who had been a banker prior to entering politics, was the Prime Minister between 1994 and 1996 and President of the National Assembly from 2002 to 2012. When he won the 2015 election, he became the first President in 49 years to gain office without military intervention.
Guinea-Bissau, February, 2022. An attempt “to kill the President, the Prime Minister and all the Cabinet”, according to President Umaro Sissoco Embaló, was foiled. He said the attempt was linked to the drugs trade and that the army had not been involved.
Coup leaders often benefit from the fact that they overthrow unpopular leaders. In some cases, coups merely represent a younger generation of army officers overthrowing an older generation. Whether or not a military man is actually head of state, the army often exerts too much political power behind the scenes. Indeed, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo has laid much of the blame for recent coups at the door of the overbearing influence of the military in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, where in each case the army overthrew democratically elected leaders.
Coups are not the only sign of shallow democratic roots. Many countries have placed constitutional restrictions on those in power, only to have those restrictions overturned, most notably two-term Presidential limits. The constitutions of both Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire were changed to allow Alpha Condé and Alassane Ouattara to stand for third terms following referenda that were criticised by observers. Economic growth may help to placate part of the Ivorian population but the ability to overturn such limits is generally a sign of a frail democracy, so Côte d’Ivoire’s position is far from secure.
Six of the seven attempted coups since 2019 have occurred in Francophone countries. However, it is difficult to decipher whether there is anything significant in the fact that recent coups have been concentrated in Francophone countries, as Anglophone West Africa had its fair share in earlier decades. Nigeria has remained thankfully coup-free since 1993, although there had been eight in the previous 27 years. Ghana suffered a similar level of instability until 1981.
Some sources claim that Russian influence encouraged the 2022 Burkina Faso and 2020 and 2021 coups in Mali. Indeed, Russian influence – particularly through the mercenary Wagner Group – has increased greatly in many of the affected states. However, it seems more likely that they have merely exploited political and military weakness in the coup states than actually directly causing established governments to be overthrown.
Similar accusations of external interference could also be levelled against former colonial power France, as it forged ties with several post-coup leaders.
What is the Wagner Group and what is it doing in Africa?
African conflicts have long hosted troops from outside the continent but the large-scale involvement of Russian mercenaries is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Most have arrived as part of the much-documented Wagner Group, which officially does not exist but which is believed to be funded by those with close ties to Vladimir Putin, and which some have claimed is actually controlled by the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Some of its members are said to be members of the far-right, an association that is also supported by the fact that it was named after the 19th-century opera writer, Richard Wagner, who has gained global notoriety as Hitler’s favourite musical composer.
Washington estimates the total number of Wagner employees in Africa at 3-5,000. About 1,000 appear to be deployed in Mali, with analysts guessing that they are being paid in kind with mineral resources by the military junta. It is often linked to the activities of Russian mining companies in the affected countries. The group has also been involved in Libya, Sudan and in countering Islamist militants in northeastern Mozambique, although apparently without success, as it was quickly replaced with the Rwandan army by Maputo.
Following human rights abuses in the Central African Republic, the EU imposed sanctions on three people and three organisations connected to the Wagner Group. The EU reported that the group had “sent private military operatives to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians in violation of international law, including international human rights law”.
Russia more generally is more involved in Africa than it has been for many years. This could explain the decision of more than 25 African countries not to condemn the invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, while Eritrea – which actually voted against a resolution condemning Moscow’s actions – hosts Russian military bases. However, there also appears to be some historic affection for Russia as a result of Soviet support for movements opposing southern Africa’s racist governments.
The invasion of Ukraine raised the possibility that the Wagner troops could be pulled out of Africa to fight in Ukraine. Russia had already recruited fighters from Chechnya and Syria to fight there. This could have a profound impact on some African governments, including the junta in Mali, which has ended support from France against rebel forces, choosing to rely on the Wagner Group instead.
Flawed systems at root of coups
The spate of coups and attempted coups over a relatively short period has so alarmed countries in the West African region that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) hurriedly called a summit in Accra, in February.
ECOWAS chairman, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said the coup in Mali in 2020 had been “contagious” and had, so to say, infected other countries in the region, leading to a domino effect of coups. This he said, “must be contained before it devastates our whole region”.
While we are all still battling the coronavirus, this analogy between the coups and an infectious disease sounds plausible – as does the fear that the contagion, like the virus, will spread further if not checked.
But on closer examination, the analogy does not hold. The coups have not been caused by an external agency that affects all and sundry and the solution will not be found in looking for malign germs affecting the body politic.
The coups, and the public reaction to them – which has almost universally been positive – have very specific and very local causes. They are symptoms of badly failed systems.
It is vital that ECOWAS and the AU remove their tinted glasses and ear-plugs and ponder over what the coups are telling them loudly and clearly. So far we have had knee-jerk reactions against the coups, demanding a ‘return to civilian rule as soon as possible’.
This mantra – ‘military rule bad, civilian rule good’ – which is often foisted on Africa, as if the continent’s complex issues can be reduced to a simplistic formula, is patronising at best and dangerous at worst. In every case in the current situation – with the possible exception of Burkina Faso – the ‘democratically’ elected civilian governments and their acolytes had been robbing the countries blind and the level of governance was abysmal by any standard.
Given an already febrile atmosphere, with various terrorist groups seemingly running amok, and carrying out brazen attacks with impunity, allied to rising prices of essentials, the poor-to-non-existent social services, and a political elite that cocooned itself behind brutal security forces while filling in their private coffers, is it any wonder that the hard-pressed populace came out in protests and demonstrations?
A people at the end of their tether
What was worse, any hope that the autocratic figures who had worked their way into power with no other thought than to enrich themselves, would be removed through a democratic system, were dashed as leader after leader changed their constitutions to allow themselves to remain in power ad infinitum. Is it also any wonder that when the military stepped in and removed these people, the public rejoiced? Where they had failed through their demonstrations and protests, the military had succeeded.
What the coups showed in most of these cases, was that the outward manifestations of democracy – the ritual electioneering, the voting (in most cases rigged) and the loud claims of victory at the end of the exercise – had been exposed for what they were: shameful distortions of what real democracy should be; horrible fakes that no longer fooled anybody, least of all the electorate.
This is the reality behind the public support for the military coups in the region recently. The public are fed up with charlatans who have become expert at occupying the seats of power and refusing to budge.
What ECOWAS and the AU should be seriously discussing is the reason why coups keep on happening in some African countries. Condemning the phenomenon and imposing sanctions without acknowledging the root causes – the hideous failure of governance by those who manipulate the system to gain power – will not stop more coups happening. Only a root and branch purging of the discredited systems has a chance of working.
The people have every right to expect real democracy, working towards the betterment of the majority of the people, not a small clique, to be the guiding principle in their countries. They will no longer be blinded by a show of fake democracy – they want the real thing, as others have it, and they will keep on demanding it until they get it. History shows us that sooner or later, the will of the people will prevail. Meanwhile, they will tolerate the military in its role as a sweep, clearing out the rubbish and hopefully laying the groundwork for real patriots, genuine leaders to emerge and take their countries forward.