Contagious coups: what is fuelling military takeovers across west Africa? By Emmanuel Akinwotu

Specific contexts differ, but underlying factors often include jihadist conflict and failures to provide inclusive governance

Empty Burkina Faso seat at summit
Appearing on state television, military officers read from a statement, calmly announcing the takeover of the state. In the capital’s streets, crowds celebrate, cheering as the coup is roundly condemned outside their country.

It is a scene that has played out on multiple occasions in recent memory in west Africa – in Mali in 2020 and again in August last year, in Guinea in Septemberand in Burkina Faso just last week. Coups have also taken place to the east, in Chad and Sudan. As recently as Tuesday, an attempted coup was thwarted in Guinea Bissau

At an urgent Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) summit of west African leaders on Thursday, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, reflected the alarm in regional capitals. “Emerging threats in our region … stem from the military’s interference in Mali and its contagious influence in Guinea and Burkina Faso,” he said.

Ecowas did not immediately adopt sanctions against Burkina Faso, as it did after the coups in Mali. Its lack of opposition to controversial constitutional changes and democratic failings has fuelled questions about its effectiveness at supporting democracies and preventing coups. 

In Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Guinea, young military officers aged between 38 and 41, largely from special forces units, took control of power from ageing, democratically elected leaders. While the specific contexts differ in each country, numerous underlying factors and major challenges facing the some countries in the region have come into focus.

Across the Sahel, jihadist conflict that began in Mali over a decade ago has left millions of people exposed to relentless attacks and caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Jihadists have exploited failures by governments to tackle corruption and provide inclusive governance in low-income, ethnically diverse countries. The impact of the climate crisis has added to insecurity in a region reliant on agriculture. A lack of opportunities for young and fast-growing populations, and a proliferation of weapons, are other factors.

Rising insecurity was cited by coup leaders in Burkina Faso and Mali. In Guinea, the military criticised political corruption following disputed elections.

Many in Burkina Faso had grown angry with the government before last week’s coup, especially over the scale of mass killings by jihadist groups in the last year. Insurgency has left 1.5 million people displaced in the country.

“People are dying daily. Soldiers are dying. There are thousands of displaced,” said a protester celebrating the military takeover last week. “This is an opportunity for Burkina Faso to retain its integrity.”

In November, 53 people, including 49 gendarme militia forces, were killed when jihadists attacked a camp in Inata. Compounding the grief were reports that many of the militia forces died hungry as the base had run out of food supplies, said Ibrahima Maiga, an activist and co-founder of the Movement to Save Burkina Faso, a prominent protest group.

“The president [Roch Kaboré] never went to the burial of any soldier who died in the last six years. He rarely ever visited the soldiers who were harmed during the combat. People felt like he never cared,” he said, describing how changes by Kaboré to top government and military officials at the end of last year were not enough.

Protesters from Maiga’s movement celebrated the coup, and the new regime has planned talks with civil society groups in the coming days after talks with opposition groups.

“The military has many people’s confidence,” said Maiga, adding that questions of democracy or military dictatorship were less critical because of the security crisis. “We love freedom, democracy, yes. But we are here at the level that we are trying to survive. The most important thing is providing safety and security.”

Years of jihadist insurgency have led people in the region to question the military, political and economic influence of the former colonial power, France, which is scaling down Operation Barkhane, the anti-insurgent operation it started in August 2014. 

The coups have forced people to reflect on whether democracy has resulted in tangible benefits, said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development thinktank in Abuja.

“West Africans have become quite republican. They provide their [own] food, generate their own electricity, infrastructure. They expect just a little from the state but the state still fails expectations,” she said. “They cannot see what democracy has brought, so in come opportunistic militaries that see these governance vacuums and are trying to fill it.”

There is also popular frustration that the international community often sound the alarm when coups occur, and not when democracies are routinely undermined.

“There is a focus on elections being free and fair, and not enough focus on the way democracies are undermined,” said Hassan. “Ecowas and the African Union continue to monitor elections without any form of preventing what happened with [Alpha] Condé and [Alassane] Ouattara,” she added, referring to constitutional changes in Guinea and Ivory Coast to allow those countries’ leaders to serve controversial third terms. Both won referendums that were rejected by opposition groups as fraudulent.

“Those were constitutional coup d’etats,” she said.

Observers worry that support for coups suggests that populations increasingly see coups as the answer to unpopular governments.

In Mali’s, capital Bamako, for instance, many thousands have rallied in support of the junta, including after unpopular Ecowas sanctions were imposed.

But the support for militaries has not been universal. Operations by national armies against jihadist groups have led to serial human rights abuses, often in rural areas where the conflict is most acute and where people will probably be less supportive of the military, said Oumar Bâ, assistant professor of International Relations at Cornell University.

“Many of the demonstrations showing support for these military regimes are in urban areas. But the people who live in the cities have a different perception from people who live in the rural areas, where you’re likely to find more worry,” he said.

According to a west African diplomat, Ecowas was finding it challenging to maintain pressure on military regimes to commit to transitions to democracy without alienating local populations.

“Some of the sanctions have been tough, but produced complicated situations, like in Mali, where they are really suffering from those sanctions now, but the people seem to be supporting the junta even more. I think there is definitely some soul-searching going on on how to deter these coups more effectively.”

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