A wave of coups in West Africa

The recent military takeovers in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso are the result of increasing terror attacks from extremist forces aligned to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and growing public resentment against the failure of the French and NATO forces deployed in the West African region.

Published : Mar 02, 2022 06:00 IST

Protesters demand the resignation of President Roch Kabore and the departure of French military forces in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on November 27, 2021.

Protesters demand the resignation of President Roch Kabore and the departure of French military forces in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on November 27, 2021.

In the last couple of years, Africahas witnessed a series of military coups reminiscent of those that regularly occurred in the region until the 1980s. Most of the recent military takeovers have taken place in West Africa, but the trend threatens to spread wider. In 2021, the military in Sudan ended its uneasy cohabitation with the civilian government by staging a coup, the second in three years. In Libya, the military strongman General Khalifa Haftar has been trying to take over the country for many years. He already controls half of Libya, including the city of Benghazi.

In West Africa, the cycle of coups began in Chad. The military did not allow a transition to civilian rule after the death of President Idriss Deby in April 2021. Deby had himself come to power in a 1990 military coup but tried to legitimise his power by holding regular, albeit flawed, elections every five years. After his sudden demise, the Chadian army appointed his son, Mahamat Idris Deby, as the new President, without holding an election or getting parliamentary approval. There were no serious protests from either France or the United States on the blatant trampling of democratic norms in Chad. Even the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) accepted the “fait accompli”. It was an encouraging signal to the other ambitious military men in the region. There was an abortive military coup in the West African state of Niger in March 2021.

The events in Chad and Sudan did not elicit much criticism from the West. Chad, which has one of the better trained armies in the region, was the biggest supporter of “Barkhane”, the code name for the French-led counter-insurgency war in the Sahel against the Islamist forces aligned to the Islamic State (I.S.) and Al Qaeda.

The French have a robust military presence in many of the Francophone West African states. The U.S., too, has a number of troops positioned in the region and has spent more than a billion dollars in security assistance to promote “stability” in the region. The Pentagon’s Africa Command has been steadily expanding its footprint in the continent. The Sudanese military was in Washington’s good books for its willingness to open ties with Israel and support the “Abraham accords”. Until recently, Sudan was among the staunchest supporters of the Palestinian cause.

In Tunisia, the President usurped the powers of the elected civilian government with the help of the sections of the security establishment. Egypt is now under the total control of the military. In Algeria, the military has always played a key behind-the-scenes role in politics. In other African countries, many former army generals who had seized power have successfully entered civilian politics. Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria are prominent examples. President Buhari will be completing his second and final term in office this year.

Since the decolonisation of Africa began in the late 1950s, there have been more than 200 attempted military coups, averaging four a year between 1960 and 2000. Civilian governments in the region will have to watch their backs after the recent resurgence of military coups. In 2021, there were at least six reported military coup attempts in the continent, of which two were successful. In September 2021, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warned that military coups were back in the African continent and criticised the lack of international criticism.

Mali has witnessed two military coups within a span of 18 months. The last coup took place in August 2020. Colonel Assimi Goita, who led the coup in 2019 and was the Vice President in an interim government led by a civilian President, seized power in the middle of last year. The army leadership claimed that it had not been consulted in the formation of a new government. In mid 2021, the civilian government in Guinea led by President Alpha Conde was overthrown by the military. The coup was carried out by an elite special forces unit led by a 41-year-old officer, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya.

Doumbouya, who had undergone special training in the U.S., claimed that the army was forced to intervene because of corruption, human rights abuses and economic mismanagement by the civilian government. Guinea has one of the largest deposits of iron ore and and has a booming mining sector run by foreign firms. Guinea had experienced instability after the death of its first President, Sekou Toure, in 1984. The army intervened frequently in the country’s politics, but the civilians had been in control for the last decade and there was relative stability.

In the last week of January, the civilian government in Burkina Faso led by President Roch Marc Kabore was ousted in a military coup. The coup was led by another U.S.-trained soldier, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba. He has since been installed as the interim President of the country. The country seemed to be settling into a period of comparative stability after the ouster of the long-ruling authoritarian ruler, Blaise Compaore, who had come to power after the assassination of the charismatic Colonel Thomas Sankara. Both Compaore and Sankara had led the military coup which overthrew the civilian government in 1983.

Rebels against neocolonialism

Colonel Sankara, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were the three radical leaders of the African continent who dared to stand up against the neocolonial agenda of the West. Sankara was assassinated in 1987. He was only 37. The main suspect behind the killing was Compaore, his second in command. After seizing power, Compaore became one of the strongest allies of France in the region. He embraced all that Sankara had fought for.

The latest military coup in Burkina Faso comes at a time when a special military tribunal comprising both military and civilian officials had put on trial 14 men responsible for Sankara’s assassination. Among them was Compoare, who is being tried in absentia. He has been given asylum in neighbouring Ivory Coast. After the coup, the case has now been adjourned indefinitely.

President Kabore, who was re-elected in 2019 to serve a second term, had installed a statue of Sankara in the capital along with a mausoleum, a cinema theatre and media library in his memory. Now that he has been deposed, the future of the trial is in doubt.

However, the main factors that have triggered the coups in Burkina Faso and Mali are related to domestic and international issues. Both the countries have been witnessing a rise in terror attacks from extremist forces aligned to Al Qaeda and the I.S. in the last couple of years. It was the intervention of the French military that prevented extremist forces from taking over northern Mali. In Burkina Faso and Niger, the same extremist groups have been targeting civilians and the armed forces. Thousands of civilians have been killed since 2018 and millions more displaced by the violence. An attack in November 2021 left more than 50 Burkinabe soldiers dead. That tragic event was exploited by sections of the army to justify the staging of the coup two months later.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, a strong resentment has been building up against the failure of French and forces from North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries deployed in the region. A decade after the French forces intervened in Mali, the influence of the extremist groups has spread even wider and the security situation in the Sahel region has further deteriorated. The announcement by the French government last year that it was sharply reducing its troop presence in Mali despite the increase in terror attacks infuriated the Malian government. France was accused of abandoning Mali in “mid-flight”. The people in the region have not forgotten the policy of “Francafrique” practised by French governments after decolonisation. Under the policy, France propped up venal authoritarian rulers who protected its vested interests in the continent.

The new military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso have openly stated that if the French forces are unable to deal with the threat posed by extremist forces, then they should pack up and leave. After the military staged its latest coup in Burkina Faso, they were greeted by crowds, many of them waving Russian flags. Russian military contractors belonging to the Wagner Group, a private Russian company, have been deployed in the Central African Republic (CAR). They have been credited with restoring calm in country within a short period of time after their deployment. The CAR was torn by civil strife for most of the last decade. There are calls in Mali and Burkina Faso for the French military force to be replaced by Russian peacekeepers.

In early February, another attempted coup was narrowly thwarted in the West African state of Guinea Bissau. The presidential palace was under siege from a renegade faction of the military for more than five hours. However, President Umaro Sissaco Embalo has claimed that the attack was the work of “the criminal underworld” who were unhappy with his efforts to fight corruption and drug trafficking. He said that a former Navy admiral and his associates who were convicted for transporting cocaine to the U.S. in 2013 were behind the violent coup attempt. More than 12 people were killed.

President Embalo said that the same group was responsible for the murder of the former President Joao Bernardo in 2009. Sections of the Army were implicated in his murder. Guinea Bissau, a former Portuguese colony situated on the West African coast, has become a notorious transit hub for narco-trafficking between Latin America and Europe. All the country’s major institutions, including the army and political parties, have come under the influence of narco-traffickers.

Sanctions imposed

The ECOWAS as well as the African Union (A.U.) have suspended Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso after their elected governments were overthrown. The ECOWAS has imposed punitive sanctions on Mali for defying calls to reinstate the civilian government. Elections in the country were scheduled to be held in February, but now the military says it intends to remain in power for the next five years. The European Union (E.U.) has also decided to impose sanctions. Mali is already ranked among the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 184th out of 189 countries in the 2020 Human Development Index.

The sanctions seem to have further angered the Malian populace, already reeling under extreme economic hardship. The sanctions and criticism from the regional grouping and the West have only bolstered support for the putschists in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Guinea and Burkina Faso have said that they will not close the land borders with Mali as decreed by the ECOWAS. Both Mali and Burkina Faso are landlocked countries while Guinea has a coastline.

After the string of recent coups in the region, the ECOWAS is facing a credibility crisis. If the military-led governments are allowed to have their way, it will encourage other young army officers in member states to follow suit. In Guinea, the main reason why the coup was popular was because the civilian President Alpha Conde had exceeded his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. In Ivory Coast, President Alassane Ouattara commenced his third term in office last year although the constitution had originally stipulated only two terms. The Presidents of countries such as Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea have been in power for more than three decades. The ECOWAS has not been able to do anything about the democracy deficit in many of its member states.

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