Africa’s post-colonial landscape has not only been characterized by state-building and development efforts, but the efforts to promote democratic values and governance practices have been part of the new era of freedom since the late 1950s. While these efforts have been quite successful in creating a pathway for the continent’s development agenda, military intervention in politics through coups, especially in West Africa, has infiltrated political spaces on the continent. Data indicates that over 40 coups and attempted coups have occurred in Africa since 2010 and 20 of those coups occurred in the region of West Africa.
This analysis provides an overview of the recent rise in coups in West Africa and the reasons for the rise in popular support for coups, despite the growth of democratic culture since the second wave of Africa’s democratic project emerged in the 1990s. Why are coups becoming popular with ordinary citizens in West Africa, despite the growth in democratic culture of peaceful transfers of political power, is an important element of the debate that seems to be overlooked.
Recent Coups in West Africa: An Overview
The democratic euphoria that swept across the continent in the post-Cold War era after the demise of military regimes and other authoritarian governments gave hope to democratic West Africa. Generally, there has been a decline in coups in the 1990s and 2000s as compared to the 1970s and 1980s due to the popular support of democratic reforms and good governance practices since the 1990s. As underscored by some studies, a decade before 2021, on average, saw less than one successful coup per year in Africa. While coups are certainly not to be celebrated, the decline in coups has been encouraging, but the recent rise in coups in West Africa is creating apprehension for many observers. In just two years, West Africa witnessed a significant rise in coups in countries such as Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Chad, and Mali. For a third time in only five months, “political violence facilitated a transfer of power in West Africa, with Guinea, Mali (twice in the past thirteen months), and Chad”. The rash of coups in the region is showing no signs of slowing down given the attempted coup that occurred in Guinea-Bissau in February of 2022. While the increase in coups has kept many experts thinking about the worsening security situation in the region, others are also concerned about the democratic backsliding in West Africa.
Why the Rise in Military Coups?
As earlier stated, military coups have been on the decline in many parts of Africa since the 1990s. However, there has been a rise in coups and attempted coups within the last two years. While the rising coup d’états have become a source of worry given the global rise of authoritarian regimes, many are also concerned for West Africa, because of the threats to the region’s three decades of democratic gains. The question of interest is: Why the rise in these coups? This paper addresses this question from three standpoints.
The popular support for the recent coups in West Africa lays in the fact that juntas regularly takeover power at the time people are claiming for good governance in their respective countries.
First, from the standpoint of politics and governance. As underscored by some experts, the expectations from many Africans since the continent embraced democratic order in the 1990s have largely been disappointing, to say the least. In this case, the growing levels of poor governance practices, weak state institutions, and high levels of public corruption have left many African countries unable to deliver the needed public goods to their citizens.
Second, the increasing levels of socio-economic difficulties in many parts of West Africa, as with other countries, are responsible for the rising coups. For instance, it has been documented that poorer countries with weak and fragile state institutions are likely to be vulnerable to coups. The reverse is also true, as studies have suggested, for African countries doing well economically, are less prone to military coups. Third, some scholars have also raised the issue of external influences as partly responsible for the rising coups. Influences of what could be described as the “political indifference” on coups from countries such as China and Russia, two of the leading authoritarian regimes with growing influence in Africa might explain the indirect incentives for the rising coups. This next section offers some explanations for the popularity of coups with ordinary citizens despite the growing democratic culture in the sub-region since the 1990s.
Why the Popular Support for Recent Coups in West Africa?
The popular support for the recent coups in West Africa lies in the fact that juntas regularly takeover power at the time people are claiming good governance in their respective countries. “For example, the coup in Mali in 2020 came as a relief to many people (82% according to Afrobarometer), who had lost faith in the leadership of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. The sanctions imposed after the 2021 coup in Mali increased support for the coup leaders. Similarly, the January 2022 coup in Burkina Faso was also hailed by large and mostly youthful crowds as “what we want”. When coups perpetrators take power from ruling governments, they usually claim that they are responding to people’s demands.
Bad Governance and Political Instability
There is a linkage between governance and stability. The existence of fragile democracies in Africa creates conditions for unconstitutional changes in government. In many countries that experience an unconstitutional change of government (UCG), juntas usually takeover power following demands of the population that have not been addressed. In 2020, putschists accused the Malian government of the time of corruption, mismanagement of public funds, and failure to contain the terrorism situation in the country. Coups are regularly preceded by political and social unrest that is not addressed by the government. People who are responsible for uprisings are sometimes arrested and jailed. Since ordinary people don’t have weapons, power, or the strength to overthrow governments by the uprising, the military usually takes advantage of popular unrest to overthrow ruling governments “on behalf of the people.” This deepens the engagement of the population in supporting juntas. Continuing political repression, entrenched impunity, and election rigging are other triggers for coups. Most African countries that are victims of coups are countries where the democratic space is threatened.
Unresolved Social, Security, and Economic Demands
Drivers of UCG also “include corruption, extreme poverty, absence of rule of law, injustice, impunity of the political elite, and lack of economic opportunities”. Perpetrators of coups often point to poverty, mismanagement, and corruption as the causes of their putsch. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, leader of the recent coup in Guinea, cited poverty and endemic corruption as reasons for overthrowing Alpha Condé. In Mali, coup leaders claimed “theft” and bad governance prompted their actions. In Sudan, they provided the same arguments.
Government abuses have also led to unconstitutional change of government in Africa. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have documented thousands of unlawful killings and other abuses of civilians and suspects by the security forces of Sahel countries during the fight against terrorism and violent extremism. The low political will of governments in the region to promote and deliver justice to victims is one of the causes of political unrest that leads to coups, and which further leads to popular support for the perpetrators of these coups.
The recent coups in West Africa are without question creating uncertainties about the democratic future of the sub-region. At the same time, experts are hopeful that the current challenges will not last long since democratic rule is the only pathway or viable option for the continent. For this to be achieved, effective political leadership with good governance practices need to be vigorously pursued.
Dr. Felix Kumah-Abiwu is a non-resident fellow (Governance & Democracy Division) at Nkafu Policy Institute (Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation. Associate professor/director, Center for African Studies Kent State University, Kent, Ohio (USA). Dr. Delmas Tsafack is a senior policy analyst in governance and democracy at the Nkafu Policy Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history of international relations from the University of Dschang, Cameroon, and a master’s degree in international relations from the International Relations Institute of Cameroon (IRIC).
First appeared in On Policy Magazine.
Photo by AMISOM via Iwaria.