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A nation must think before it acts.
West Africa has recently been rocked by military uprisings. In the past three years, rogue soldiers have overthrown the presidents of Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January and September 2022). The confluence of constitutional crises in the region raises several questions. Why these three countries? Why now, in such short succession? And finally, what does the future hold for their populations, each still under military rule?
Figure 1: Coups in West Africa
Although these events do represent a trend, with similar causes and timing, the broader picture does not necessarily suggest that the coup wave will spread elsewhere in West Africa. The causes of each coup are particular to each country’s past and present, and similar states have been able to transition into much more durable democracies.
Forcibly imposed military rule has a long and widespread history in Africa. Since the independence of most African states during the 1960s, the number of coups across the continent’s fifty-four countries has ranged every decade between eight and twenty-six, by one count. In each case, military strongmen are fully aware of the illegality of their actions and take pains to construct a façade of legitimacy as soon as possible.
A day after arresting President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020, Mali’s Committee for the Salvation of the People publicly accused Keita’s government of corruption and announced its decision to “take our responsibilities before the people and before history” by ousting him. In September 2021, Col. Mamady Doumbouya followed a similar script, explaining his overthrow of Guinean President Alpha Condé by declaring on national television that “the duty of a soldier is to save the country.” Next to fall was Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Just four months after the Guinean coup, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba claimed that the severity of ongoing Islamist insurgency in the country had “imposed” the arrival of his Patriotic Movement for Protection and Restoration, pledging to step down once the security situation was under control. The juntas in Mali and Guinea have also promised to make way for civilian governments, but proposed elections still remain years away. Divisions within the Malian and Burkinabé interim authorities have even resulted in two further coups, exacerbating instability.
A Perfect Storm of Coup Causes
Political conditions in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are closely related to each country’s turbulent past and present. Over the last five years, terrorists are estimated to have gained control of up to 40 percent of Burkina Faso’s territory, leading to 2,500 closed schools and over one million internally displaced persons. Mali’s share of the regional conflict is less severe at the moment, but is nonetheless longer and more complex, dating back to early 2012. The two countries are now said to be the primary source of violence in their region, locked into a dangerous self-perpetuating instability. Across the sparsely populated, poorly policed Sahel, weak local governance creates gaps for jihadist movements to fill, which further weakens local governance—and lends legitimacy to coup plotters.
Security crises are “fertile ground” for coups, according to Malian sociologist Aly Tounkara, as does the “lack of integrity of leaders.” The same accusations of corruption made by Mali’s junta against Keita had also been levelled by Mali’s voters. During his time in office, criticism of Keita culminated in massive protests demanding his resignation over his handling of the Islamist insurgency and a series of corruption scandals, most notably including disputed legislative elections. Disregarding ongoing negotiations by the Economic Community of West African States, Keita’s generals took matters into their own hands, dissolving parliament and forcing him to resign. Toppled presidents in Guinea and Burkina Faso both provoked fierce criticism for their own illiberal measures. In arresting opposition figures, outlawing protests, and restricting media freedom, Condé displayed increasingly authoritarian tendencies that made him a subject of international criticism. September 2021 may have been a breaking point, coming on the heels of a 2020 referendum Condé arranged to reset constitutional term limits. Using the insurgency as an excuse, Kaboré’s government, too, took steps to reduce its citizens’ freedoms of expression and assembly. It is therefore unsurprising that Burkinabé society has generally not mobilized against the coup, and has little confidence in their democratic institutions.
Trust in those institutions requires not only competent and principled figures at the top, but also time to develop, a rhythmic alternation of transfers of power to reassure citizens their voices matter. Looking further back than the overthrown presidents’ terms reveals another commonality between Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso: each has relatively limited experience with democracy and relatively lengthy experience with coups. Before the events of 2020, Mali had already seen three coups, Guinea two, and Burkina Faso six. In the latter two countries, the initial elections of Kaboré and Condé were celebrated as the first democratic transfers of power in Guinea and Burkina Faso in decades, inspiring hopes for long-term change; the latest coups now seem to be just reversions to the mean.
Stuck in the Coup Cycle
With every new coup, the phenomenon becomes further ingrained in a country’s political culture, to the point that new coups are executed increasingly effectively. After observing or participating in the 2012 Malian coup, for example, the officers behind the 2020 coup are better-skilled in holding onto power at home while evading pressure from abroad. Repeated experience with coups gives prospective plotters practice and normalizes the process, both on a national and regional level. Guinean Prof. Amadou Sadjo Barry summarizes it well: “In a democratic society, it’s institutions who resolve disputes. In Mali as in Guinea, the judicial and institutional frameworks of the states are not effective. If they were, Alpha Condé would not have been able to aim for a third term.” Ultimately, then, besides the military, “there is no other arbiter.” With that in mind, the role played by the military almost appears positive, removing unpopular leaders and setting the stage for new ones to take their place. The coup phenomenon also appears permanent, bound to resurge once a new crisis arises. Historical evidence shows, however, that neither of these propositions are true. Coup d’états generally have devastating effects on social and political culture, a trend that has continued in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Yet at the same time, it is clearly possible for West African nations to move beyond the coup cycle towards a more sustainable, citizen-focused tradition.
In many ways, the military juntas of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea have performed no better than the governments they overthrew. Doumbouya has continued Condé’s erosion of civil liberties in Guinea by outlawing anti-government protests and attempting to dissolve the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution, which had been the main opposition coalition against Condé. National Front for the Defense of the Constitution leaders have been arrested or driven into exile, and the junta has drawn criticism from the UN high commissioner for human rights.
Meanwhile, despite the efforts of the Damiba government, the security situation in Burkina Faso has not significantly improved since the January coup. Jihadists are continuing to gain territory in the country’s outlying regions, damaging the Burkinabé economy along the way with blockades. Progress is noted in developing the army’s capabilities, but this was not enough for Gen. Ibrahim Traoré, an army captain at the head of Burkina Faso’s second coup this year. Traoré brought down Damiba and installed himself at the junta’s head in September, once again justifying himself by citing the worsening conditions at the front.
Mali’s junta, meanwhile, has seriously challenged its pretensions to respect for democracy. After the 2020 coup, the Economic Community of West African States demanded that the soldiers responsible install a civilian president and hold elections by February 2022. The first demand was initially respected with the choice of Bah N’Daw, a former defense minister, and coup leader Assimi Goïta settled for the vice presidency. But Goïta would depose N’Daw and name himself interim president in May 2021, less than a year later. Goïta has also flouted the Economic Community of West African States’ request for 2022 elections by announcing he preferred 2026, then shifting back to February 2024. Transitional authorities in Guinea also chose to stall, announcing elections for 2025 rather than the Economic Community of West African States’ date of March 2022. Over in Burkina Faso, Economic Community of West African States was more generous, agreeing with both Damiba and Traoré on July 2024. All in all, given that elections were held one year after the 2012 Malian coup and just under two years after the 2008 Guinea coup, there is a deep irony to any transition period longer than two years.
Decades’ worth of case studies, in addition to current events, also cast into doubt coup leaders’ claims to act in their nation’s best interest. Citizens face the risk of coup leaders refusing to leave and turning to authoritarianism, as was the case in Burkina Faso in 1987 with Blaise Compaoré or in Guinea in 1984 with Lansana Conté. More recently, each of the three countries concerned have experienced “good” coups which did lead to civilian governments relatively quickly. Yet these, too, elevated the profile of the military at the expense of civic organizations. Democratization processes following Mali’s 1991 coup, for instance, were set in motion by soldiers, and so too many ordinary citizens were only weakly connected to national politics. A transfer in power led by political parties, trade unions, and other civilian groups would likely have created stronger bonds, but instead, writes Prof. Nic Cheeseman, Malian democracy “rested on extremely hollow foundations.” Distance between politicians and the citizenry would later enable authoritarianism, facilitate future coups, and institutionalize military takeover even further in Mali.
Breaking the coup cycle in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso is therefore desirable; the history of another West African country demonstrates that it is possible. Nigeria’s military governments during the 1980s and 1990s employed democratization-delaying strategies familiar to the region’s current crop of juntas, such as repression of opposition and repeated postponements of elections. Moreover, Nigeria’s ample oil reserves afforded its strongmen greater relief from international pressure for democratization, an advantage that leaders in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso lack. Yet civil society activism did eventually help produce a successful transition to civilian rule, and since 1999, more modest successes in democratization have followed, making Nigeria something of a regional model. Reforms instituted by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, such as the retirement of all soldiers who had formerly held political positions, have kept the military away from electoral politics. Nigerian officials are also developing a culture of power-sharing between parties, regions, and levels of government. One result has been regionally based security initiatives, which reduce dependence on national forces and allow the state to respond to violence more flexibly. Nigeria’s political landscape is still far from perfect; Freedom House’s 2022 report notes the country’s pervasive corruption and narrow media environment. But the instability generated by five coups and decades of military rule now appears a thing of the past.
Nigeria’s democratic institutions are also notable for withstanding their own onslaught from Islamist militants. Attacks from Boko Haram have been ongoing since around 2011, with the terrorist organization killing thousands and displacing up to two million. Despite the federal government’s inability to stamp out the decade-long insurgency, Nigerian democracy has held firm, in stark contrast to Mali and Burkina Faso. The same can also be said for Nigeria’s northern neighbor, Niger. The similarly-named Sahelian state has its own lengthy record of coups—so lengthy, in fact, that Niger’s first-ever transition from one democratically elected government to another took until the 2021 presidential election to occur. That election took place against the backdrop of Niger’s own rise in widely dispersed political violence, spilling over from Mali and Burkina Faso in the west and Nigeria in the east. However, while 2021 marked a record year of conflict, violence has decreased over 2022 in comparison. Even as terrorist attacks continue unabated in the country’s western neighbors, Niger represents a ray of hope that military success and democratic progress can go hand in hand. And Nigeria’s history of post-coup stability offers reason for optimism in the long term.
In responding to the recent wave of coup d’états across West Africa, international observers should consider the contrasts between the diverse political histories of the region’s component states. A host of factors explain why coups are occurring now in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso—and may continue into the future. But West Africa also includes countries that have been able to avoid or break the coup cycle. Those states’ stories demonstrate that the damage inflicted by coups, however potent, is not permanent.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.