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The Resurgence of Coups: A Worrisome Trend in West Africa

coups in west africa

One of the key features of the political landscape of West Africa in the last one year is the violent take-over of government. Is the subregion returning to another era of coups and military rule?

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Within the past one year, violence has apparently been the mechanism for enthroning a non-democratic transfer of power in West Africa, with Guinea, Mali (twice in the past 13 months), and Chad seeing new leaders rise from their respective militaries. The West Africa’s post-colonial history has been fractured by coups, but after Nigeria the regional powerhouse moved from military to civilian rule in 1999, there was a strong sense that the days of military coups were indeed over. During the presidency of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria was active diplomatically against coups; West Africa’s regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), strongly condemned coups, as well as imposed stringent sanctions until they were reversed.

The recent string of coups; Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, Chad in April 2021 and Guinea in September 2021 have sobering implications on instability in a region already beset by growing security threats. Once the precedent for a coup as a viable means to gain power takes hold, what is to stop others? Countries in the sub-region are dangerously teetering on the precipice of democratic backpedalling.

While the actions of the coupists are outright undemocratic, retrogressive and unacceptable, the sit-tight and capricious tendencies of some leaders unwittingly provide a fertile avenue for these coupists to fester and inflict serious damage on the weak democratic institutions obtainable in most of these countries. In Guinea, Mali, and Chad, heads of state removed from office had enjoyed dubious legitimacy. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé had been elected to a third term in a questionable and perhaps unconstitutional circumstances. In Chad, Idriss Deby had been all but “president for life” until he was killed by rebels, and thereafter succeeded by his son in an extra-constitutional process. In Mali, the bout of instability dates from the 2012 coup against long-time political strongman Amadou Touré. Current Malian Interim President Assimi Goïta in June removed the country’s interim head of state, less than a year after Goïta initiated a coup against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and installed himself as an interim vice president. French President Emmanuel Macron aptly characterised the most recent Mali coup as “a coup within a coup.”

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In the three countries, the ruling elite largely separate or isolate from the people they ostensibly lead. The commoners are widely under siege, with challenges to government orderliness ranging from immiserating poverty, insecurity, economic mishaps and to the dire consequences of climate change. In the most recent wave of coups, transfers of power have tended to be within ruling cliques; a personnel reshuffling largely without social consequences or betterment for ordinary citizens. They are characterised by anti-corruption rhetoric and little change in behaviour by those newly in charge. With the rare exception of Ghana’s 1979 coup which brought Jerry Rawlings to power, coups have not been the vehicle for social revolution in Africa. Military coups in Africa have a terrible track record for the well-being of citizens, with Guinea a curious case in point; Colonel Lansana Conté took power in a 1984 military coup, he then oversaw more than two decades of repressive rule characterised by human rights abuses and misgovernance. Following Conté’s death in 2008, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara led a military coup that plunged Guinea into further instability. Notoriously, during a protest against Camara’s rule in 2009, security forces killed at least 150 protestors and dehumanised many others at the national stadium in the capital city, Conakry. These experiences of forceful military rule have left Guineans traumatised, impoverished and economically isolated.

In the early postcolonial decades when coups were rampant, Africa’s coup leaders virtually always offered the same reasons for toppling governments: corruption, mismanagement, poverty. While they may sound cliché, these justifications still resonate with many Africans today for the simple reason they continue to accurately depict the worsening reality of their countries.

When it comes to poverty, an already tragic situation has been worsened by the battering Africa’s fragile economies took from the coronavirus pandemic. One in three people are now unemployed in Nigeria, West Africa’s largest economy. The same goes for South Africa, the most industrialised African nation.  It is now estimated that the number of extremely poor people in sub-Saharan Africa has crossed the 500 million mark, half of the population.

These conditions create the motivation for coups, and also encouraging the increasingly desperate young Africans who have lost faith in their corrupt leaders, to welcome coupists promising radical change. This was witnessed on the streets of Guinea following the takeover, with some elated Guineans hailing and praising the soldiers.

The leader of Guinea’s recent coup, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, echoed these justifications, citing “poverty and endemic corruption” as the reasons for overthrowing the 83-year-old president Alpha Conde.  The soldiers who led a coup in neighbouring Mali last year claimed “theft” and “bad governance” prompted their actions. Likewise, the Sudanese and Zimbabwean generals who toppled Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and Robert Mugabe in 2017, respectively, held on to similar arguments.  It is disturbing, however, as these power grabs threaten a reversal of the democratisation process Africa has undergone in the past two decades, and a return to the dark era where bloody coups were the norm.

According to a study by an African political think-tank, sub-Saharan Africa experienced 80 successful coups and 108 failed coup attempts between 1956 and 2001, an average of four a year. This figure halved in the period from then until 2019 as most African nations turned to democracy, only for it to once again be rearing its ugly head.

Truth is, the initial jubilations on the streets are usually short-lived because very soon,the people will be demanding action, and there are serious doubts that the military will be able to deliver on the expectations, basic service delivery, economic prosperity and dividends of good governance, all of which the toppled regime failed to provide.

What is undisputable is the fact that these coups pose a serious threat to the democratic gains African countries have made in recent decades, and there is the increasing probability that the coups may also make the sub-region in general less predictable and stable, a negative factor for investors that could also worsen the ailing economic situation.

Worrying still, more researches have shown that many Africans are increasingly losing confidence in the fact that elections can produce the leaders of their dream. Surveys conducted across 19 African countries in 2019 and 2020 showed just four in 10 respondents (42 per cent) now believe elections work well to reflect voters’ views and to enable voters remove non-performing leaders. In other words, fewer than half of the respondents believe elections will guarantee representativeness and accountability and key ingredients of functional democracies.

Across 11 countries polled regularly since 2008, the belief that elections enable voters remove non-performing leaders has dropped by 11 per cent points among citizens, according to the survey. It is not that Africans no longer want to choose their leaders via elections, it is simply that many electorate now believe their political systems are being manipulated. Leaders like the deposed Conde are part of the problem; the only reason he was still in power until the coup was because he engineered constitutional changes in 2020 to enable himself serve an inordinate third-term as president, a common practise by several leaders on the continent, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire.

Rising to arrest the ugly trend, ECOWAS, West Africa’s main regional bloc has imposed sanctions on the junta in Guinea and those slowing down Mali’s post-coup transition; in its toughest response yet to the run of military takeovers. The move was agreed at an emergency summit held in Accra in response to the putsch in Guinea and the perceived slow progress towards constitutional rule in Mali following a coup in 2020.

Regional heads of state decided to freeze the financial assets and imposed travel bans on Guinea’s junta members and their relatives, insisting on the release of President Alpha Conde and a short transition. It further demanded that in six months, elections should be held. The bloc also piled more pressure on Mali’s transitional government, demanding it should stick to an agreement to organise elections in February 2022, and present an electoral roadmap by next month, according to the post-summit communique. The summit further warned that anyone in Mali hindering preparations for the elections would face the same sanctions as those imposed on Guinea.

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While the outrage and condemnation over the series of coups are crucial as deterrents to other backdoor power grabbers, the only actors who truly have the power to reverse this disturbing trend are African leaders themselves. They are the ones in charge on the ground and so their response to these recent events that will be the deciding factor. They need to reignite the belief in the prosperity and peace which democracy can deliver to Africans. But, if problems such as abuse of power, wide-scale corruption, poverty, economic hardships, insecurity, which are symptoms of failed governance, and often being cited as justification for coups continue to worsen in today’s African democracies, then the temptation to try something else will continue to be dangerously tempting, both for the coupists and citizens alike.

Delivering his speech at the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, United States of America, President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari used the opportunity to sound a note of warning that the democratic gains of the past decades in West Africa sub-region are now being eroded due to these negative trends. Buhari therefore urged world leaders to reject coups, especially in West Africa. He decried the recent trend of unconstitutional takeover of power, which, he said, must not be tolerated by the international community. He also urged the international community to deal with the symptoms of conflict, as well as  the immediate causes that fuel conflicts in the first place. He further affirmed Nigeria’s support to efforts by ECOWAS, AU and the UN to address the growing challenge. According to him, leaders of individual Member-States need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of their countries, particularly on term limits; as according to him, this often generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region. Other factors that he identified as underlying coup-enablers include poor and undemocratic governance, human rights abuses, poverty, ignorance, injustice and inequalities.

The dereliction of both ECOWAS and the international community to enforce due democratic processes when Condé was seeking an illegal third term was part of what led to the predicament in Guinea. It means, ironically, that ECOWAS is in a difficult position of having to negotiate with coup leaders to restore Guinea to a democratic path when its previous democratic leader was scheming to perpetuate himself in power beyond constitutional limits.

The regional body should keep this lesson in mind when future incumbents attempt to circumvent term limits or oversee fraudulent elections. Acting to prevent unconstitutional seizures of power in any form, whether military coups, abuse of democratic power, or brazen political assault on established national constitutions, must be a priority for ECOWAS. Going along with such illicit schemes of sit-tight leaders, often justified at the time as being in the interest of maintaining stability, only sows the seeds of wreckage, bloody coups and future instability in the particular country and the sub-region at large.

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