7 April, 2022
By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant
On the February 3, 2022, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), met in Accra, Ghana, to discuss a military coup that had just occurred in Burkina Faso – the fourth in the region within just 18 months. Two days later, a delegation of military chiefs flew to Ougadougou for talks with the junta and were followed two days later by a diplomatic mission, accompanied by the UN special representative for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS). While the resulting talks were described as “very frank”, they highlight the concern the pattern of coups has given West Africa.
ECOWAS labelled the coups “contagious”, as they show militaries in the region it is possible to take, and hold on to, power. The fear of a domino-effect is the likely main motivation behind diplomatic missions and economic sanctions – a signal towards other states that coups will not be permitted to become a common occurrence in West Africa. And yet, they have occurred frequently in the time span presented, warranting a closer look as to the causes to determine common factors and subsequent regional response.
Mali is no stranger to military coups, having witnessed its fifth coup in 2021, with its fourth preceding international intervention to stabilize the country and region, and following nationwide anti-government protests. The most recent occurred on May 24 2021, just nine months after the previous coup, when the military detained President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, forcing out the interim civilian government, and placing military leader Colonel Assimi Goita in charge. There are common causes behind these coups, primary of which being previous rebel uprisings that has this time manifested into a nearly decade-old jihadist threat that has caused thousands of deaths and reportedly displaced over one and a half million people. In addition to the protests, accusations of corruption, nepotism, and failing to properly handle the degrading security situation opened the door to military takeover. Soldiers themselves testified to “bad governance” prompting their actions.
ECOWAS responded to delays in holding promised elections after the 2020 coup by closing its borders with Mali, implementing economic sanctions, and freezing the country’s assets at the Central Bank of West African States. The African Union (AU) suspended membership. Protests in January 2021 against these sanctions resulted in thousands of people taking to the streets. With chants such as “down with ECOWAS”, protestors simultaneously showed support of the military leadership. Meanwhile, the junta warned that sanctions could trigger a wider economic crisis and prevented Mali from honoring bond payments, also calling sanctions “extreme” and “inhumane”. The 2021 coup further disrupted the timetable and the military government has suggested a transition period of between six months to five years, with Goita claiming insecurity is preventing the government from organizing safe elections. The second coup resulted in suspension of Mali from ECOWAS in addition to measures against military individuals for perceived delays in preparing promised elections. On February 21, 2022, the National Transition Council approved a plan permitting the junta to rule for up to five years while prohibiting the interim president from running for future democratic elections.
In the morning of September 5, special forces entered the presidential palace in the capital Conakry, and detained the country’s first democratically elected president, Alpha Conde. Coup leader Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, then presented himself on live television as Guinea’s new leader. Doumbouya cited “poverty and endemic corruption” as reasons for overthrowing Conde, explaining it was the army’s responsibility to “give the people their freedom” if repressed by government elites. A government of national unity would be set up to transition the country back to civilian rule.
ECOWAS responded by sanctioning coup leaders, demanding the release of former President Conde, and demanding a returning to constitutional rule within six months. Guinea’s membership was also suspended on September 8, and financial assets frozen. A “positive” visit to Conakry on September 10 also took place. The AU followed suite and likewise suspended the country. And yet, seemingly in a case of double-standards, the African Union condemned the coup but allegedly failed to do so when former President Conde altered the constitution to keep himself in power a third term, something which caused the citizenry to react positively to the coup removing the former President.
Burkina Faso’s coup, the latest in this series, occurred on January 24, 2022. Military leader Paul-Henri Damiba overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, accusing him of being unable to properly handle the jihadist insurgency that had cost the lives of thousands of people and displaced over one million, as allegedly no effective strategy existed. The military government, officially named the “Patriotic Movement for Preservation and Restoration” (PMPR), claimed the constitution had been restored just a week after taking power, with Damiba as interim leader. Damiba was sworn in as President on February 16, with his term effective retroactively from the date of the coup, promising to address the mounting insecurity that prompted the military takeover. He pledged to reorganize the armed forces to strengthen field operations and the intelligence service, while increasing flexibility of logistics. Corruption would also be tackled and public administration de-politicized. He organized meetings with politicians, civic organizations and representatives of the international community, including ECOWAS, to gain support and explain his views. A national conference on March 1 then authorized the PMPR to rule for three years, giving time to stabilize the country and hold elections.
ECOWAS suspended Burkina Faso after Kabore’s arrest, and the AU suspended the country a week after the coup. On January 31, an ECOWAS delegation visited Ougadougou, joined by the UN’s special representative for UNOWAS, as per the initial lines of this article. Additional sanctions were not implemented however, as the junta showed willingness to work towards restoring constitutional order.
ECOWAS responded to the regional coups with a series of ongoing diplomatic efforts, to ensure a return to democratic civilian rule, and economic sanctions, in an apparent effort to push interim governments into carrying through with transition plans. Sanctions on Mali and Guinea came as a result of delays in commitments to restoring civilian rule while Burkina Faso appeared to escape this punishment. The immediate responses by ECOWAS can be attributed to the “contagious” characteristic this series of coups has earned, with the organization’s chairman saying the coups in Mali led to the other military take-overs. As a result, ECOWAS member states undoubtedly fear similar coups could occur in their countries. While for some will not be case, for those with similar circumstances leading to the examined coups, the concern is well warranted. In the case of Niger, which is facing the same terrorist threat that prompted the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, a failed coup occurred on March 30, 2021. Across the rest of Africa, other recent coups have occurred: in Sudan in October 2021, in Chad in April 2021, in Zimbabwe in 2017, in Egypt in 2013, and in dozens of other countries in decades prior.
What these successful coups have in common, is the popular support they have received, following disillusionment with the now former failed civilian governments. Widespread frustration with corruption and incompetence to handle security threats had eroded the peoples’ trust in the state. ECOWAS then sanctioning the widely-supported juntas resulted in criticism against the regional body, as the sanctions are seen as attacking the people and not the military leaders, consequently leading towards nationalism and increased support for the coups. The silence of international bodies in the face of “constitutional coups” by leaders altering constitutions to permit additional terms such as in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, are also seen as hypocritical – an indication that democracy failed the people, opening the door for the military to step in and rectify illegitimate political power-grabs.
Corruption, mismanagement, poverty, and war provide fertile conditions for desperate youths with little prospect and lost patience with leaders to welcome such radical change as a military coup. And the pattern is clear; as long as coups succeed, coups will continue to take place. ECOWAS sanctions are unlikely to deter any country’s military from attempting a coup, instead, it is up to national leaders themselves to avoid and actively combat the conditions that prompted the coups seen in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and elsewhere. Though as time proceeds, military coups will find themselves facing the same challenges as the deposed administrations, making coups a risky venture – The people in whose name they carried out the coups will have expectations, demand action and expect results – something coup leaders must address to avoid civil unrest.
Image: Burkinabe soldiers patrol after the 2022 coup (Source: VOA/public domain)