Lessons from West Africa’s wave of Coup D’état

Hussein El-Mobayad


Since 2020, the Western sphere of the African continent, including the Sahel region witnessed an unprecedented surge in Coup D’état after decades of democratic rule and ostensible political stability. The first of the wave began in Mali in August 18, 2020, by ousting President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The coup followed anti-government protests over the deteriorating security and economic situation, contested legislative elections and allegations of corruption. On May 24, 2021, a second coup followed only after 9 months, to disband the interim government led by Bah Ndaw, consolidating power in the hands of Colonel Assimi Goïta, the leader of both uprisings.

On March 31, 2021, a coup attempt was thwarted in Niger, two days before the inauguration of the newly elected president Mohamed Bazoum. A handful of military personnel attempted to seize power by force, which were later attributed to an air force unit based in the area of the airport in Niamey. As a result, several military personnel were arrested, while others were still being sought as the government regained control over the situation.

Not long after, in Chad, President Idriss Deby was killed while visiting Chadian troops fighting rebels in the north of the country. Subsequently, on April 20, 2021, the military quickly dissolved the parliament and assigned the late President’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby as the acting interim president, tasked with overseeing an 18-month transition to elections. This comes as a direct contradiction to the country’s constitution, which states that in the event of the sudden death of the incumbent president, the responsibility of governance falls into the hands of the Speaker of Parliament, which had led some observers to call the situation in Chad an “institutional coup”. Hence, it is yet to be seen whether true elections would be held and if the military would be willing to hand over power back to a civilian authority.

Another coup took place in Guinea on September 5, 2021, where, military officers, led by the special forces’ commander, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya surrounded the presidential palace in Conakry, capturing and detaining President Alpha Condé. Citing poverty and corruption as reasons behind their move for a political change.

In Burkina Faso, Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, led a military junta on January 24, 2022 which overthrew President Roch Kabore. Citing the government’s inability to deal with a deteriorating security situation exacerbated by the terrorist groups. In February 16, Damiba was sworn in as interim president and had since pledged to fight corruption and depoliticize the public administration, meeting with security forces, civil society, diplomats and politicians and promised to work with (ECOWAS) towards setting a timeline for elections and the return to democracy.

The wave concluded for now, with a failed attempt to overthrow Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo, on February 2, 2022. The context appeared different in Guinea-Bissau and the perpetrators of the attack remains unclear. However, President Embalo suggested that it was linked to the government’s fight against drug trafficking rather than an army plan to seize power. Arguably, this is due to Guinea-Bissau position as a major transit point for Latin American drug trafficking operations headed for markets in Europe, contributing to its perpetual instability. Thus, it has been mired in political deadlock and infighting, but does not have the same security concerns as Mali and Burkina Faso, where a spiralling Islamist insurgency has killed thousands and eroded faith in civilian governments in recent years.

This wave of political change has led Ghana’s president and current chairman of (ECOWAS), (Nana Akufo-Addo) to assert that “coups are contagious” in referring to the military takeover in Mali influencing Guinea and Burkina Faso. As one coup has succeeded another, this has generated a broader sense of destabilization in the region and empowerment among soldiers to attempt a coup. Similarly, in September 2021, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres voiced concern that “military coups are back,” and blamed a lack of unity amongst the international community in response to military interventions. Both statements may hold some truth that countries within the African continent are not immune to military coup, and countries that had survived attempted political changes like in Niger and Guinea-Bissaou may experience such attempts again at some point in the future.

This report will follow the recent wave of military coup, while focusing on Mali and Burkina Faso as the main units of analysis; drawing on the commonalities and differences that shaped their political change, in an attempt to map their trajectory and that of the Sahel countries prone to military coup.


Terrorism in the Sahel

In both Mali and Burkina Faso, the security crisis was used as a pretext for the coup, citing the need for a change in governance that will adequately address the crisis. It is true that for years, both countries alongside their neighbors in the Sahel have suffered tremendous loses in terms of civilian and military causalities at the hands of armed terrorist organizations.

The security crisis in the Sahel is often traced back to the persistent violence and instability that started in Mali in 2012 and overtime spread to it neighbouring countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger. What started as a Tuareg rebellion in areas that border these countries, had developed into a tremendously complex situation of instability that affects the western Sahel region as a whole.

Today, the region is faced with the presence of two main terrorist networks, on one hand, the al-Qaida-affiliated organisations, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al- Mourabitoun, Ansar Dine, and the Katiba Macina, which have regrouped in March 2017 under the umbrella of the Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) led by the former Tuareg rebel Iyad Ghalil; while on the other hand, the region has also witnessed the emergence of the Islamic State affiliated group created in 2015 under the name of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

Since then, the Sahel has recorded the most dramatic increase in terrorist violence on the continent, with attacks having multiplied sevenfold between 2017 and 2020, which is in part exacerbated by the rivalry between the two terrorist networks. Thus, since the early 2000s, terrorist violence has both intensified and continued to spread across West Africa, currently stretching from the Sahel to the Lake Chad Basin, while increasingly threatening to expand throughout coastal States of the Gulf of Guinea.

The reality of the situation is that radical Islamist terrorist groups had found a new haven in Africa after suffering both ideological and operational defeats in the Middle East. Reasons attributed to the prosperity of radical Islamic organizations in Africa are varied and include: the existence of large, often disenfranchised Muslim communities, lack of governability, weak and corrupt security services, weak intelligence infrastructure in most countries, and mostly poor populations susceptible to Islamic propaganda regarding social mobility and radicalization. In addition to the abundance of black-market weapons (mostly from Libya), rampant organized crime, human trafficking networks, often operating on the periphery of the Sahel countries, in areas absent government and security forces presence. Moreover, the political culture in most African countries is tribal in its core and therefore the ethnic, religious, or tribal identities continue to exist, thus overriding the national civilian one, and the identification with the state. The lack of demographically heterogenic societies who share common national experiences, makes it a daunting task for African leaders to preserve territorial integrity.  Therefore, it seems that terrorist networks were able correctly read and understand this reality and managed to leverage the violent rifts, the lack of governability and state security, the dire economic situation in the periphery (due to prolonged droughts, lack of water supply, and low agricultural production) to penetrate and establish themselves within weak, distant, and disenfranchised communities. Also, since millions in the Sahel region face hunger, many of them are forced to leave their homes in search of food and employment. The terrorist organizations, that control the food sources in the regions, leverage that phenomenon to recruit these people in return for food and salary.

In Mali, violence caused by armed terrorist groups continues since 2012 in random attacks, which targets civilians, military forces and peacekeeping and European forces in the country. The most recent of these attacks were witnessed in December 2021, where unidentified terrorist groups targeted several convoys of peacekeeping forces belonging to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and killed civilians in the central and northern regions of the country. The biggest of the attacks targeted a bus in the centre of Mali, in the heart of the Mopti region, killing at least 31 people and wounding 17 others. In the same month, a convoy of peacekeepers was targeted by the detonation of an improvised explosive device; Which led to the death of 7 peacekeepers and the wounding of 3 others. Overall, according to some estimates, more than 250 peacekeepers have died since (MINUSMA) began its missions in 2013; which makes it the most dangerous UN peacekeeping mission in the world.

Nevertheless, once insulated from the terrorism that plagued its neighbour Mali, since 2015 Burkina Faso has witnessed an exponential growth in terrorist attacks. Confronted with the presence of different organisations affiliated with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, as well as the Burkinabe group Ansarul Islam.

In the past three years almost 2,000 Burkinabe have died in terrorist attacks, a clear indication that the measures taken by the government, including increased military expenditures, cabinet reshuffles, and the controversial use of civilian auxiliaries known as the (Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland), had failed to effectively stop the growing crisis.

An attack in June 2021 marked the largest death toll in a single terrorist attack in Burkina Faso’s history, with at least 132 civilians and 50 soldiers dead. The Burkinabe forces remained ill-equipped to address the insecurity, and the number of incidents more than doubled between 2020 and 2021 to over 1,100 attacks; greater than the number of violent events recorded in Mali and Niger together over the same period. The widespread instability caused by terrorist violence also triggered a humanitarian crisis, with nearly 1.5 million of its citizens now forcibly displaced within Burkina Faso according to UN sources.

The increasing threat to regional peace and stability, has led to the deployment of various interventions, including 15,000 UN peacekeepers deployed under  (MINUSMA), the successive French Operations of Serval and Barkhane, the G5 Sahel Joint Forces, and the more recently launched European-led Takuba forces.

France alone has spent around 880 million euros a year on its counter-terrorism operations across the region. However, the lack of results in Mali serves now as a lesson learned for Burkina Faso and other countries within the Sahel and West Africa who followed much of the same path.

As in Mali, the coup in Burkina Faso emerged as the culmination of the population’s and military apparatus’ growing discontent with the state’s capacity to find adequate responses to the acute problem of terrorism. A problem shared at the regional level, and given the nature of trans-border terrorism, it may become the trigger for political change in countries across the Sahel and West Africa as it did in Mali and Burkina Faso.


Common Characteristics and the Challenge to Democracy

Commonalties drawn from the recent wave of coups can be evident in examining the characteristics of the commanders of the political changes. Analysts argue that historically, successful coups have been led either by high ranking military officials or revolutionary factions. Instead, this wave of successful coups has been unprecedentedly led by mid-level military officers, in their 40s. Whether its Mali’s Colonel Goïta, at 40 years old, The Burkinabe Colonel Dambia at 41 years, the Guinean Colonel Doumbouya at 43 years or the Chadian General Deby at 38 years old. They also share a background of Western military education, a publicized confidence in them by the elected presidents they overthrew and especially for both Mali’s and Burkina Faso commanders’ a deep understanding of the security crisis compounded by the terrorist organizations operating within their countries.

In the case of Mali, the US Department of Defense revealed that Colonel Goïta had received training in the United States and was part of the joint military operations with the U.S. Africa Command training exercises in West Africa to combat terrorism known as “Flintlock”. Prior to that, Goïta had also received a military training in France and Germany and eventually headed Mali’s special forces unit, which is one of the first lines of defense against the terrorism.

As in Mali, Colonel Doumbouya of Guinea had been trained abroad in France, and also served in the French military, joining the Foreign Legion of France. He was also engaged in peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Central African Republic, Israel, Cyprus, the UK and Guinea. Thus, after serving in the French foreign legion for several years, Colonel Doumbouya was asked by the former president Condé to return to Guinea to lead the newly established elite Special Forces Group (GFS) in 2018.

In Burkina Faso, it is not yet clear what foreign affiliation colonel Dambia has, but he had completed his education in his country, then left for France where he graduated from the military school in Paris. He also holds a master’s degree in criminology from one of the Paris institutes, and obtained a certificate of a defense expert in management, leadership and strategy, before returning to Burkina Faso and joining the presidential guard. Not long after, Dambia wsas promoted to commander of the third military region that covers the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou, and responsible for fighting terrorism in the eastern region of the country.

Thus, it became evident that young military officers who were trained in Western institutions have come home to find a rampant security crisis mismanaged by their democratically elected presidents, who also overtime started to exhibit authoritarian tendencies.

In Mali, President Kéïta had won a second term of elections in 2018 and opposition was mounted over his administration’s apparent interference in legislative election results, corruption scandals, worsening security crisis, and economic hardships. Grievances culminated in country-wide protests in June and July 2020 that demanded the president’s resignation, which resulting in the August 2020 coup.

In Guinea, with a long history of dismal governance and repression, President Condé was elected as the first democratic head of state in 2010 but became increasingly autocratic, altering the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term in 2020 and jailing a growing number of opponents. Thus, expediting his downfall in the September 2021 coup, with the military junta promising an inclusive transition to genuine democracy.

By contrast, in Burkina Faso, as in Mali, it was the terrorism security crisis that has clearly exerted a destabilizing toll. The persistent reports of terrorist attacks fueling popular anger on urban streets and resentment among soldiers who feel they are being sent out, too lightly armed, underpaid or even under-fed, to sustain the struggle against militant groups that take no prisoners.

Some analysts argue that in these countries that have an extensive historical record of military-led coup, the incumbent presidents devised a strategy to undermine the military; to keep it ill-equipped and underfunded and closer to the government control. Scholars assert that governments “coup-proof” their regimes by creating structural obstacles that increase coordination costs, including building counter-forces, rotating military officers, increasing specialization, and impairing coordination. However, such strategies have obviously backfired, especially in Burkina Faso. Thus, security forces from the Sahel countries falling causalities to terrorist groups who are well entrenched into the countryside, leaving rank-and-file soldiers fearful and quick to pull the trigger against civilians.

All of these dynamics had left the colonels, the key players in recent coups, caught between ineffective presidents, complacent generals, and their own disgruntled troops. They saw that democratic elections did not bring any substantive changes to the deteriorating conditions, major opposition leaders offer vague alternatives, and capitals in the Sahel periodically erupting into massive protests demanding an alternative to a broken status quo. Hence, the coup in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso demonstrate the failure of democracies in eliminating the terrorist threat in the Sahel region, and thus were unable to protect lives and property, and plunged the region into cycles of instability, collapsing economies and humanitarian outcry.


External Actors and the Path to Democracy

Scholars have determined that external reactions of regional or international powers to military coup play important roles in whether coup leaders move toward authoritarianism or democratic governance. When supported by external democratic actors, coup leaders have an incentive to push for elections to retain external support and consolidate domestic legitimacy. When condemned, coup leaders are often forced to adopt authoritarianism to assure their survival.

Scholars have also formulated two assumptions in post-coup scenarios. First, an assumption that the military leaders following a coup, prioritize survival. This may mean survival in the literal sense, as coup leaders might face countercoups, assassination, or invasions by external actors. This may also mean survival in less literal terms, where leaders seek to assure the integrity of the military institution by avoiding infighting and large-scale rebellions. Nevertheless, it is assumed that survival will trump all other motivations that initially influenced coup leaders’ dispositions to overthrow the regime, including personal prestige and, most importantly, democratic reforms. The second assumption, is that there are two types of military leaders, those who wish to transition to democracies and those who wish to solidify power into full-fledged military regimes.

An example of the former can be identified from the 1991 Coup in Mali, where within days of overthrowing President Moussa Traor´e, Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Tour´e appointed a senior official from the United Nations Development Program as interim prime minister and announced a national conference to craft a new constitution. These efforts revealed no interest in long-term military rule. Based on this evidence, one might expect the post-coup democratisation path to be simple, if the junta desires democracy, then they will find a democratic community ready and willing to welcome them to the fold.

Unfortunately, in reality, external actors behave unpredictably toward post-coup governments; and Laws adopted by external countries and international organizations are meant to punish coups that overthrow democratically elected regimes. This is regardless if the democratically elected leaders have rigged their assentation to governance or if they have failed their people and turned authoritarian in the process.

In application to the recent wave of coups in West Africa, we find mixed reactions from external powers. The African Union as well as (ECOWAS) began with suspending the membership of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, without suspending Chad. Yet, the African Union in its 35th ordinary session in Addis Ababa which took place on February 2022, had “condemned unequivocally… the wave of unconstitutional changes of government” adding that military governments would not be tolerated. Still, arguably, Western powers had deemed Chad to be an essential partner for stability within the region, and hence the change at the top was widely perceived as a guarantee of regime continuity. The move to insulate Chad from punitive sanctions is viewed by analysts as double standard enacted by the African Union and (ECOWAS), which are dubbed as a weak and biased dictators’ clubs. A move that sends mixed signals to perpetrators of political change, one which could have dire consequences for the rest of African continent.

In Guinea, Colonel Doumbouya who led the coup and was sworn in as interim president, has promised to fight corruption and reform the electoral system in order to hold “free, credible and transparent” elections. He also adopted a transition charter with Mohamed Beavogu appointed as a civilian prime minister, heading an interim government. While (ECOWAS) applauded these efforts, it had still demanded that Guinea hold elections within 6 month of the coup and continues to impose economic sanctions that include travel bans and asset freezes on the Military Junta’s leaders. Arguably, Guinea did not face further sanctions or international condemnation due to the country’s wealth in mineral resources, most notably bauxite, gold, and iron ore which are in constant global demand.

As for Burkina Faso, (ECOWAS) had held off imposing any sanctions against the military Junta. Instead, called on the military rulers to come up with a date that will return the country to democratic rule, asserting that the Burkinabe Junta have shown interest in working with (ECOWAS) towards the restoration of constitutional order. Colonel Dambia had been sworn in as interim president and pledged to re-establish constitutional order within a reasonable time, without setting a definitive timeline. Yet, according to Reuters, on Febuary 2022, Washington had halted nearly $160 million in US aid to Burkina Faso. The State Department had made the decision after “careful review”, which was found to be in line with US law requiring the suspension of US foreign aid – except for funds intended to promote democracy – to any country whose elected head of government is overthrown in a military coup. The reaction of foreign powers to the coup in Burkina Faso seems to be a watered-down approach, an attempt to reverse the economic and political damage that sanctions and international condemnation has done to its neighbouring Mali.

In the aftermath of the second coup, Mali had witnessed an overwhelmingly negative response with condemnation from the international community, in particular (the United States, France, the European Union and the African Union), and from neighbouring countries, represented by (ECOWAS), all exerting increased pressure on the military junta to return to the democratic process.

However, overtime, it became evident that Mali had received a harsher stance overall.  In a sharp escalation after months of simmering diplomatic tensions, additional sanctions were imposed on Mali by (ECOWAS) and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), on January 9, 2022. These sanctions included a series of harsh economic and diplomatic measures against Mali in response to the delayed transitional period and the military council’s intention to remain in power for years. (ECOWAS) then decided to suspend trade except for basic commodities, cut financial aid and freeze Mali’s assets in the Central Bank of West African States, and recall its ambassadors to Mali, in addition to closing land borders with Mali. The latest round of sanctions was declared as a maintained effort of pushing for the return to civilian rule since the first political change in August 2020. Asserting, that the military junta in Mali should abide by its first promises, to hold elections no later than 27 February 2022 as initially scheduled, instead of the date proposed by the Military Council, which is to hold elections in December 2026.

On its part, France had supported (ECOWAS) punitive sanctions and attempted to pass similar sanctions through the United Nations Security Council and the European Union. However, on January 11, Russia and China prevented the adoption of the text submitted by France to the United Nations Security Council, which would have supported the new sanctions imposed by (ECOWAS) on Mali.

In response, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called on the European Union to impose similar sanctions on Mali. This resulted in the endorsement of the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who declared that “Brussels will follow the example of the Economic Community of West African States in taking action against Mali over the postponed elections.”

As a result, the military Junta in Mali claimed that the two groups (ECOWAS) and (EMOA) “are being exploited by external forces with ulterior motives”, in reference to France. Which the government in Mali believes is encouraging the imposition of sanctions as a response to Mali’s increased reliance on Russian services in the field of security and the assumed hiring of the private military company, the Wagner group. It became apparent that European Union and the US were more concerned with the presence of Russian-linked Wagner Group mercenaries than with the region’s core political problems. Nevertheless, recent months had witnessed the lowest point in French-Mali relations.

The statements of the French Foreign Minister Le Drian, who described the military junta in Mali as “illegal and out of control” and the statements of the French Minister of the Armed Forces Barley before that “the French forces will not stay in Mali if the price is high” had the effect of escalating tensions between the two countries. As a result, on January 30, 2022 the Malian authorities demanded the French ambassador to leave the country within 72 hours. Also, the response to these statements came through the Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Diop, where he affirmed that his country would not accept such statements, which he described as “unacceptable” and “disdainful”. In February 2022, the military Junta in Mali demanded that France should expedite its troops withdrawal from the country, in reference to ongoing withdrawal of French troops, marking the end of the Barkhane operation.

This withdrawal comes within the context of reorganizing the French counter-terrorism forces in the Sahel region. In an earlier statement,  the commander of Barkhane operation, General Laurent Michon, stated that the number of military forces in the Sahel countries will be reduced to three thousand compared to five thousand, and that the operation is in the process of completing the first phase of the gradual withdrawal from the far north of Mali (Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit), in cooperation with Mali authorities and the United Nations Mission (MINUSMA). The statement also stated that the recent moves are not a complete withdrawal, but rather a re-positioning in near the border triangle between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, especially after terrorist groups had moved their theatre of operations to that region.

However, following recent breakdown in diplomatic relations, President Emmanuel Macron had asserted that “We cannot remain militarily involved” alongside Malian authorities with whom “we don’t share the strategy and goals” President Macron refuted claims that the withdrawal was an acceptance of failure and insisted that France remains committed to combating terrorism in the region, adding that Niger had agreed to host some of the withdrawing forces. In a statement released on February 15, 2022, countries involved in the French-led Tabuka task force agreed to set out plans to remain in the region, notably in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea countries, by June 2022.

More recently, in an interview with “France24”, Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maiga claimed that since 2012, French authorities have tried to divide Mali by fuelling autonomy claims in the north. Maiga also added that it is clear that France has never deemed the ruling junta government as legitimate, and claims it was “preparing a plan” to overthrow it. He also insisted that Mali had “never requested” France to withdraw its counter-terrorism Barkhane operations from Mali, but that it was a decision that France had taken on its own.

Today, the breakdown of relations between Mali and France servers as an example of extreme action and reaction in a post-coup scenario. The hard-line approach, as adopted by foreign powers, including France, has pushed to politically isolate Mali and strengthened the transitional authorities’ relationships with alternative partners such as Russia, while turning Mali further away from a democratic transition. It also turned the citizens of Mali against France and (ECOWAS), since ordinary people are often the first to suffer from the sanctions’ impact, which happed amidst an ongoing security crisis perpetuated by terrorist organizations.

In conclusion, Calling the coups “contagious” flattens the complexity of the situation. The series of African coups share some commonalities in terms of being perpetrated by young military leaders audacious enough to challenge the status quo sustained by political and economic instability and weak democratic institutions. However, specific circumstances in each case are crucial in understanding what happened and potentially, what comes next.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, governments failed to curb violent extremism from the Islamic state and al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel, a security crisis which has formed the pretext for coups in both countries.

It is also evident that to compensate for their lack of domestic legitimacy, coup leaders crave international validation; giving a greater significance to the reactions of foreign powers. This also presents foreign powers with a choice, either to work with civil society leaders and military governments to help these nations develop, strengthen their institutions and enact a timeline for democratic transition; or exploit the chaos to gain a foothold for resource extraction and further exploitation, as Russia, China and some Western countries continue to do. However, sanctioning these nations and isolating them, as (ECOWAS), the US, France, and European Union have done to Mali, does nothing but harm the citizens of those countries and only pushes coup leadership away from democratic foundations.

While the absence of a firm international response to the military coup d’état, suggests to military leaders that taking power by force may be done without major adverse consequences, imposing sanctions has the potential to further aggravate the dire conditions that civilian populations are already facing and further reinforce grievances among local populations. Thus, it became evident that the international community and regional players will not repeat the mistake of a harsh approach in Burkina Faso or in Guinea as they did in Mali. However, the most significant action that the international democratic community can take to reverse the trend of coups in Africa is to incentivize democracy. African governments that commit to and uphold democratic practices should merit significantly greater diplomatic support, development and security assistance, and promotion of private investment. To bring countries in Africa back on the right track.



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