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This is why West Africa has so many coups


This is why West Africa has so many coups

Poor governance must be addressed, foreign influence resisted and socioeconomic and political conditions improved

Muhammad Dan Suleiman and Hakeem Onapajo
On January 24 military leaders took over the government of Burkino Faso.
NEW BROOM? On January 24 military leaders took over the government of Burkino Faso.
Image: Screenshot

West Africa’s latest successful coup, in Burkina Faso on January 24, has renewed unease about coups “returning” and democracies “dying” in Africa. The recent attempt in Guinea-Bissau recalled the first decades after independence, when coups were rampant.

By 2012 there had been more than 200 coups and attempted coups in African countries from their various times of independence. There was a coup attempt every 55 days in the 1960s and 1970s, and more than 90% of African states had a coup experience.

After the Cold War a neoliberal democratic programme was inaugurated in Africa. It promised to free the continent from authoritarianism and military seizures of power, in favour of political pluralism and the rule of law. Thus, many decades later, coups were supposed to be rare, if not a thing of the past, and dictatorships were supposed to be on the decline.

As one of us argued in a recent article, for this to be a “return” of coups, democracy in Africa must have made a forward move, enough to prevent or reduce them. To say African democracies are dying is to accept they were alive.

Either way, coups are rarely a solution to bad governance. The trend must be stopped in its tracks. Yet it also invites a reassessment of the neoliberal democratic project in Africa.

Our studies of the region’s political history show democracy tends to be superficial. Despite some gains, democracy remains largely cosmetic and the conditions that cause coups persist.

Recent coups in West Africa

A look at the history of coups in West Africa suggests some recurring themes as causes. These show how likely more coups are and what needs to change to prevent them.

In each decade between 1958 and 2008, according to one researcher, West Africa had the highest number of coups on the continent, accounting for 44.4%. Since 2010 there have been more than 40 coups and attempted coups in Africa; about 20 occurred in West Africa and the Sahel (including Chad). Since 2019 there have been seven (five successful and two failed).

Between 1958 and 2008 most coups in Africa occurred in former French colonies, as did six of the seven since 2019. Similarly, 12 of the 20 coups in the subregion since 2010 happened there. The latest successful putsch in Burkina Faso came on the heels of two attempted ones, in 2015 and 2016.

Coups in West Africa and the Sahel since 2019.
Coups in West Africa and the Sahel since 2019.
Image: Muhammad Dan Suleiman and Hakeem Onapajo

We can categorise the causes of coups in West Africa into inward-looking and outward-looking factors. Inward are those that emanate from challenges of national governance. Outward are those concerning global dynamics with significant impact on governance and security on the continent.

Governance deficits, non-fulfilment of the entitlements of citizenship, frustrated masses (most of whom are young) and growing insecurity are chief among the inward-looking causes. International factors, including external influence, are among the outward-looking.

These immediate factors, however, exist in a broader context that allows immediate causes to persist long enough to spark coups. Unimpressive democratic conditions in countries and the consistency of foreign influence in African countries make it unsurprising that there have been recent attempted and successful military takeovers of government.

Looking inward at democracy and governance

Despite modest democratic achievements, a more accurate picture of democracy in West Africa is that it is superficial. Elections are held periodically, but without crucial ingredients of democracy, such as informed and active participation, respect for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and civil liberties.

A survey of voting intentions in 16 African countries found that in countries with few dominant parties, voters prefer certain parties not because they support the policies of the parties, but because the voters are afraid of being “punished” by elected officials after the poll.

Another study found a trend in which political power is inherited rather than democratically contested. And people are appointed who answer to powerful political overlords. There are only a few instances of emerging liberal democratic governments.

Across the continent several sitting presidents have tampered with constitutional terms to stay longer in power, in just more than a decade. Many others have attempted, but failed, to do so.

Looking outward at external influence

Foreign influence and strategic competition make coups more likely to occur. In the first four decades of independence coups were set against Cold War politics as two global powers, the Soviet Union (now Russia) and the US, locked horns over the continent.

Like coups in the post-independence era, recent coups in West Africa also have foreign fingerprints. For instance, Russia is cited in the 2021 and 2020 coups in Mali, as well as the latest one in Burkina Faso.

Assimi Goïta, the leader of both coups in Mali, is also reported to have received US training and assistance. The influence of France in political developments in the subregion is almost a given, due to its colonial ties to West Africa.

Mahamat Déby’s covert coup in Chad, for example, received endorsement from Paris. China joined Russia in preventing France, which had the support of the US and the EU, from having the UN Security Council support a decision to impose economic and border sanctions on Mali. Indeed, whereas China criticised the putsch in Guinea, it has been quiet on Mali’s.

Thus, in the 21st century, the quest for strategic influence and advantage by foreign powers in Africa has involved them in coups on the continent. They tolerate local politics and authoritarianism as long as their strategic advantage is served.

The way forward

The conditions under which coups occur are dynamic. To avert future coups and respond to current ones there must be a radical change of direction. Countries, with the help of regional and global partners, must address governance deficits in the form of non-fulfilment of the entitlements of citizenship, socioeconomic frustration and growing insecurity.

Regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States and the AU must also be firm and unbiased in their show of contempt for all types of coups. International avenues for punishing coupists must be supported by global powers. Global intergovernmental bodies must equally check — and African regional organisations must resist — foreign interference in African countries that leads to political instability.

Democratisation in Africa also requires a reorientation to suit local circumstances.

Finally, a more sustainable response to coups is to eliminate the adverse socioeconomic and political conditions in national and international politics that allow immediate causes of political instability to hide behind a democratic façade.

Muhammad Dan Suleiman is a research fellow at the UWA Africa Research & Engagement Centre, University of Western Australia. 

Hakeem Onapajo is a senior lecturer in the department of political science and international relations, Nile University of Nigeria.

This article was first published by The Conversation.


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