West Africa

Why have coups d’états suddenly become ‘fashionable’ in West Africa?

Not to mention the double-putsch in Mali in August 2020, when army troops ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keta.

Following the military coup in Burkina Faso, regional researcher Paul Melly ponders why West Africa is experiencing a new wave of coups after democracy appeared to have taken root in the region.

On Monday in Burkina Faso, the military announced the coup of President Roch Kaboré, less than five months after troops in fatigues appeared on national television in Guinea to say that they had ousted President Alpha Condé from power.

Not to mention the double-putsch in Mali in August 2020, when army troops ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keta.

They told the regional body Ecowas that elections would be held by the end of the month, but in May 2021, they launched a second takeover to reclaim control of the transition and later announced plans to stay in power for nearly five years.

Nonetheless, constitutional multi-party civilian politics had become the norm in West Africa.

Almost every country was at least ostensibly democratic, even if some elected rulers manipulated the laws to continue in power after taking office.

Three members of the Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) regional bloc are now under the direction of uniformed soldiers.

Is the long-forgotten age of the military dictator resurfacing?

That’s probably an overly simplistic perspective.

Guinea has always been a unique example, with a lengthy history of poor administration and persecution.

Alpha Condé was elected as the first democratically elected president of the country in 2010, but he quickly became autocratic, amending the constitution to allow him to compete for a second term in 2020 and imprisoning a growing number of opponents.

His assassination by soldiers promising an open transition to true democracy in September was almost universally welcomed by Guineans, with barely a murmur of sadness even from his own political party.

Once again, an insurrection led to a coup.
In Burkina Faso, as in Mali, the Islamist security problem has plainly taken a toll on the country’s stability.

The constant reports of Islamist attacks are fueling public outrage in cities and dissatisfaction among soldiers who believe they are being sent out too lightly armed, underpaid, or even under-fed to fight militant groups that take no prisoners.

The putsch in Ouagadougou this week, like the coup in Mali in 2020 and even the previous military takeover in that nation in 2012, is an outpouring of frustration by lower and middle-ranking soldiers who risk their lives on the frontlines of a brutally demanding conflict.

People gather in support of a coup that ousted President Roch Kabore, dissolved government, suspended the constitution and closed borders in Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou January 25, 2022.

Since a jihadist attack on the Inata gendarmerie garrison in northern Burkina Faso on November 14, which killed 53 of the 120 troops, tensions have heightened.

President Kaboré reorganized his government and subsequently the military leadership in an effort to regain political momentum and begin to restore some calm to Burkina Faso’s ravaged northern and eastern provinces after demands for a more effective security policy became louder last year.

More than 1,000 schools have closed in the last two years, and 1.5 million people have fled their homes to escape the violence, leaving others with no choice but to beg for money or food on the streets of the capital. More than 2,000 people have died as a result of the disaster.

The Sahel situation is not new, of course. For more than a decade, jihadist organizations and intercommunal tensions have posed a danger to the security of everyday village life in ever-widening portions of the region, while weak governments struggle to keep basic administration and public services running.

In 2013, French and West African military intervened in Mali, liberating towns from militant Islamist control. It did not, however, put a stop to the growth of the map of rural violence.

And, in Burkina Faso, where the pattern of indiscriminate attacks on both civilians and security forces outposts has expanded swiftly southwards from more remote border areas to touch villages increasingly closer to Ouagadougou, the spiral of instability has felt as though it is speeding up.

The main eastern roadway leading to Fada Ngourma and further to the Niger border is no longer safe. Mines are also easily disguised in the dust of the region’s rural roads, posing a threat to daily trips to the market or school.

At least 174 people were killed in rebel atrocities in the villages of Solhan and Tadaryat in Yagha province last June.

How did Kaboré’s popularity plummet?
Mr Kaboré was elected in November 2015, following a popular uprising that toppled the previous authoritarian leadership. And five years later, in a largely fair and truly democratic election, he was easily re-elected to a second term.

After that, however, his popularity plummeted as people lost faith in his ability to deal with the escalating jihadist violence.

People with their belongings on a vehicle flee their villages, on the road from Barsalogho to Kaya on January 27, 2020

Soldiers in major outposts in the capital, Ouagadougou, mutinied on Sunday after weeks of rumblings of military discontent, unrest that by late the next day had escalated into a full-scale coup.

There are definite similarities of Mali’s army takeover in 2020. This came after a particularly terrible wave of jihadist strikes the previous year, despite significant success made by the government, regional neighbors, and France in the fight against the extremists since then.

However, in Burkina Faso, the timeline has been pushed back.

The Inata incident occurred while the administration was still redrafting its plan, and the atmosphere of terror has only grown since then.

Mr Kaboré is out of power and in military captivity less than three months later.

It’s easy to believe that the jihadists are attempting to incite instability among the Sahelian soldiers on purpose.

In actuality, news of one horrific attack after another, claiming the lives of villagers, local security volunteers, troops, and gendarmes, generates a climate of fear and, maybe, impotence, which might erode army loyalty in the first place.

There is now speculation that Niger, which has been targeted by the same groups that have targeted Mali and Burkina Faso, could face a military takeover as well.

In the current state of the Sahel, there are few guarantees. However, there are some distinctions from the situation in Burkina Faso.

President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger has undertaken a big campaign to convince villagers to return to their homes, which they had fled due to the violence, but which is now backed up by a stronger military presence and the restoration of local public services and development programs.

This is an attempt to keep jihadist violence from depopulating entire areas and ruining the social and economic fabric of the local community. Will it be successful?

Some critics argue that the approach to the Sahel crisis has “securitized” and that the genuine solution is development.

Many people in the region, however, believe that tackling economic and social concerns without first ensuring security is impossible.

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