In the past 18 months, there were six coups in West Africa. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are deeply concerned about the resurgence of militarism in the region and the steady decline in the level of democracy. But why now? In an intriguing podcast by RANE, a geopolitical risk assessment company, some trends and common regional characteristics are exposed to explain this occurrence. Firstly, the first coup in Mali increased political instability and volatility in all the region, expanding army and public discontent in neighbouring countries. Further, the Covid-19 pandemic and the global crisis ruined the already precarious economic conditions in these countries, decreasing governments’ support. Finally, the regional and international response to these coups is either weak or ineffective, providing further incentives to ambitious military leaders to fulfil their political aspirations.
Our timeline starts in Mali, where the first coup occurred in August 2020 after the army exiled President Keita following many corruption scandals and the inadequate administration of the conflict against jihadists in the north. Indeed, as expressed by the ECOWAS chairman, the Malian coup created a contagion or domino effect in the region, establishing a pernicious trend. Furthermore, Mali experienced a second golpe by Colonel Assimi Goita when President Ndaw and PM Ouane decided a government reshuffle. Indeed, neither Colonel Goita nor other military personnel was consulted in the decision to exclude two key military chiefs from the cabinet in May 2021. Therefore, the army response was swift and radical, arguing for the necessity to contrast the insurgency of the Tuareg rebellion (still rebelling and fighting since 2012) and of the numerous groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and ISIL. Further, the international condemnation was weak or ineffective. For instance, ECOWAS suspended Mali, closed its borders, and imposed additional financial sanctions. More recently, the European Union also imposed sanctions against military officials. However, while some countries are sanctioning Mali, others are promoting its military ruling. Indeed, during the celebrations for the expulsion of a French ambassador, people in the streets also brandished Russian flags, symbolling a partnership between the countries, especially regarding security issues.
Less than one year after the Malian first golpe, Chad suffered the loss of his President Idriss Deby after fighting in the front-line against the rebel forces present in the North of the country. However, the political vacuum was soon occupied by military leaders forming a National Transitional Council with General Mahamat Deby as its ruler, son of the perished President, in April 2021. Also in this case, the army argued that the takeover was necessary to not lose momentum in a successful month-long military operation against the rebels and maintain economic credibility and stability. Indeed, Chad is the first country to request to the IMF the option to restructure its heavy debt burden, especially after the Covid-19 recession. Further, except for some formal declarations against the non-violent military takeover, Chad is the only country not sanctioned by ECOWAS, proving the incapability of the international organisation to have a coherent policy against democracy promotion.
Guinea also experienced a coup in September 2021 by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. Similar to the second Malian golpe, the military response against the government was triggered by the ministerial decision to dismiss a senior commander from its role, increasing the discontent in the barracks. However, many Guineans on the streets celebrated and welcomed the coup as liberation from many years of political instability and poor economic condition, especially after the harshly contested third re-election of then-President Conde. Indeed, already in 2020, many protestors were killed by President Conde, and some soldiers started a rebellion blocking access to the city of Kaloum, but then the uprising was quickly dissolved. Although ECOWAS imposed sanctions and suspended assets on Guinea, asking for new democratic elections, the military governments expressed that it is not concerned and will maintain power to restore security.
A few weeks ago, in January 2022, Burkina Faso’s army, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba, deposed President Kabore and suspended the constitution. Again, the soldiers justified the coup claiming the numerous security concerns and the president’s incapacity to face the social and economic challenges. Indeed, violent unrest and armed conflicts against multiple groups and rebels are common traits in Burkina Faso’s politics since 2014, and the most recent discontent due to numerous lost battles triggered a mutiny in the barracks. Now, ECOWAS is deciding if to impose sanctions and what types of punishment against Burkina Faso and, finally, asked for a rapid proposal for an election timetable.
Finally, the last is an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau, where President Embalo survived the violent attack. The president claimed that the attack was connected to his policies against drug trafficking and corruption, although these problems are still common. Besides, there is no certainty on the identity of the assaulters since someone is arguing that it was not a real coup but only a “simpler” assassination attempt against the president and the government by drug cartels or traffickers. Although President Embalo is a former army general, there are some rumours that the grievances started in the barracks, especially regarding the investments allotted to the military and the security management.
All in all, the coup-wave in West Africa is still ongoing, and new coups will be highly probable in the near future. Although international organisations such as ECOWAS and the EU have imposed sanctions and restrictions on these countries, there is no progress in the democratic process with military rulers still firmly holding their power in the region. It should be emphasised that military golpes are endemic in West Africa, with more than 100 since 1946. What is worrying now is a speedy upsurge in them after a long period of relative peace and stabilisation. Some journalists and analysts have argued that these coups will be now more likely than ever due to the harsh economic and political conditions created by Covid-19. Further, two additional trends in later years established a fertile ground for these violent occasions. Firstly, after a period of democracy promotion following the end of the Cold War, the US and Western powers are now backsliding in their pro-democratic campaigning, especially after the rise of Islamist movements in Africa and the Middle East. For instance, political analysts now argue that Western countries, especially France since it held the majority of colonies in the region, based their foreign policies on military and security concerns, pursuing a “traditional strongman-favouring strategy”. Secondly, China and Russia are increasing their strategic and economic role in the regions and, most importantly, they are friends of autocracies and anocracies. Indeed, both the African Union chairman and the African public opinion favour economic and political relations with China rather than with Western powers. Probably, the wave-coup in Africa has only started
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