Young people’s blocked aspirations, the legacy of the war on terror and international complacency in the face of ‘constitutional coups’ are some of the root causes behind recent military takeovers in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.
When gunfire reverberated outside the presidential palace in the capital of Guinea-Bissau last week, the events unfolding in the small West African coastal nation appeared to confirm the existence of a dangerous ‘domino effect’ in the region. The coup attempt, which left at least six people dead, was thwarted.
Just two weeks earlier, Burkina Faso’s government was overthrown by its military, as President Roch Marc Christian Kabore became the fourth head of state to be removed from power in the region in the span of just over a year. Burkina Faso followed Guinea, where elected President Alpha Conde was deposed on September 5 last year. And Mali, which was the theatre of a coup and a “coup within a coup” in September 2020 and May 2021.
The military takeover in Burkina Faso came after protesters took to the streets of the capital to voice their anger at the government’s inability to stop armed attacks across the country, where violence by Al Qaeda and Daesh-affiliated groups has killed thousands and displaced 1.5 million people since 2013, according to UN estimates.
Why are coups ‘popular’ in West Africa?
It became a common pattern. Ahead of the 2020 coup in Mali, thousands of people took part in protests against the government of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita amid a post-election political crisis, citing rampant corruption and election fraud. The crisis was triggered by a decision of Mali’s constitutional court to overturn the election results for 31 seats, making Keita’s party the largest bloc by handing over an additional ten seats.
In Guinea, discontent towards the government of President Alpha Conde grew when he bypassed constitutional term limits to stay in power.
These are countries with overwhelmingly young populations who see little opportunities, jobs, and services available to them, often forcing those who have the means to undertake dangerous and costly journeys to look for them.
“It’s a celebration of hope that the military junta will bring positive changes to revive the economy and maintain security,” David Otto, Director of the Geneva Centre for Africa Security and Strategic Studies tells TRT World, commenting on recent rallies in support of the military takeover in Burkina Faso.
“Burkinabes also see the coup as an anti-French resistance, as is the case in neighbouring Mali,” he argues.
“This massive support appears to be a new wave of resistance against French imperialism led by military juntas in the Sahel.”
French forces have been active in Mali since 2013 as part of the pan-Sahelian operation Barkhane, aimed at fighting armed groups in the region with troops stationed in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Last June, France began a military pullout as tensions soared between Paris and Bamako’s military leaders. They further escalated in early February when Mali ordered France’s ambassador out of the country.
“Africa is harvesting the consequences of the war on terror,” Olawale Ismail, a senior lecturer at King's College, London’s African Leadership Centre tells TRT World.
“It dismantled the gains made with democratisation in the 1990s into the early 2000s,” says Ismail, adding that a new era of “authoritarian democrats” also generated new waves of citizens’ discontent and blocked aspirations, reflected not only in the coups d’etat, but in the protests taking place throughout the region as well.
“The wishes of citizens are never reflected in the outcome of elections, and this provides the impetus for citizens to change alternative means of changing the political dynamics.”
“A coup is a coup”
“Democrats who change the constitution to stay in power must be treated the same as military juntas who overthrow the constitution by the barrel of a gun. A coup is a coup,” Otto argues, echoing the feelings of a number of analysts who see the international community’s doctrine of sovereignty and non-interference with respect to “constitutional coups” as a double standard.
“When constitutional coups are ignored by the international community, they inadvertently create a fertile ground for military coups,” Otto adds.
According to David Otto, countries in West Africa and the Sahel are experiencing a “vicious cycle” of coups, which usually begins with the rhetoric of “what citizens want”.
“A constitutional coup is used to justify a military coup, while a coup to foil a coup is used to justify a potential military coup,” he argues. “This is the vicious cycle of coups ongoing in Africa at the moment.”
The West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), which counts 550 member organisations across 15 member-states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has expressed concern over the decline of democracy in the region, as well as over trends “towards constitutional amendment in relation to Presidential term limits and tenure elongation” as recently seen in Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Guinea, “with growing fears of attempts by other Member States adopting this trend”.
Following the coup in Burkina Faso, ECOWAS suspended the country’s membership, as it had earlier done with Mali and Guinea. On January 9, ECOWAS - supported by the United States, the European Union and former colonial power France - decided to slap economic and diplomatic sanctions on Mali after the military junta announced a plan to postpone elections to 2025. The decision was met with widespread protests in Mali, while demonstrators in Burkina Faso expressed solidarity with their neighbour, whose citizens are set to be harshly hit by the sanctions that include closing of borders, a trade embargo, and a cut in financial aid.
While good governance is key to preventing coups, there is an important role to be played by civil society as well.
“The narrative going around now about this coup is the need to fight violent extremism,” Ismail says. “Civil society can generate alternative narratives.”