West Africa and the Sahel: Coups, Militancy and the Façade of Democracy

On July 26, Niger experienced West Africa’s latest coup, deposing elected President Mohamed Bazoum. This coup marked the fifth in the Western Sahel and the sixth in West Africa, following coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, Guinea in 2022, and Burkina Faso in both January and October 2022. At the end of July, the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) threatened to use force to restore Bazoum to the presidency and the country to constitutional rule. Now, the military juntas in these countries have, in turn, consolidated power and formed a security alliance in the face of international sanctions.

What accounts for this recent wave of coups in West Africa? For many, the Niger coup was unexpected given the country’s democratic credentials, its crucial role as the West’s ally against jihadist militants, and being home to several Western military bases and personnel. However, coups in this region are not mere aberrations and should not be treated as isolated events.

The causes of coups straddle all levels of the political experience, implicating deep-rooted socio-political resentment associated with governance and colonial legacies, and are compounded by contemporary humanitarian challenges. Coups are the outcomes of a chain of events fuelled by the absence of a solid and sustainable democracy.

Coups and the sins of the state

Research shows that a coup’s success is partly determined by the coup makers’ ability to get others to believe that their attempt will be successful — and this is easier to do if coup plotters could demonstrate that their coup would receive widespread support. Across the Sahel, due to profound disenchantment with the state resulting from decades of neglect, recent coups have received significant public backing. For instance, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger rank in the bottom ten countries on the Human Development Index. Niger is among the top ten countries most impacted by climate change. Despite 78 per cent of the Central Sahel countries relying on agriculture for a living, Niger, for example, loses 100,000 to 120,000 hectares of arable land to erosion and desertification annually. The outcome is food insecurity and other humanitarian crises. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and population growth has only added to the burden.

Pressure on limited resources has led to ethnic conflicts as cultural identities become tools for resource competition and access to power, sometimes resulting in mass killings and ethnic cleansing. To the people, the socio-economic statistics cited above make little sense, given the region’s abundant natural resources. The anti-France resentment associated with coups stems from the belief that the region’s poor economic performance is attributable to its former colonial power—and years of bad governance performance and state incapacity give credence to this belief.

Against this background, advances in information technology have enlightened citizens about their political environments, empowering and enraging them, and pitting them against their leaders. The ensuing popular political resentment translates into societal support for actions that subvert the state, including coups.

Instability in the claws of insecurity

Apart from socio-economic grievances, instability is a prerequisite for coups. The military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mali have pointed to the government’s inability to fight jihadist militancy as justification for their actions. Notably, the connection between coups in the Sahel and growing insecurity is not new. In the March 2012 coup in Mali, junior military officers criticized the ousted government’s handling of a Tuareg insurgency in the north. The Tuareg rebellion, the coup, and their aftermaths would play critical roles in the ensuing insecurity in the region leading to the present. With the declaration of a caliphate by Ansar Dine the Sahel has become a leading playground for violent armed groups, from Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) to Jama‘at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). ISWAP — which morphed from Boko Haram and factions — and JNIM were the fastest-growing and the deadliest terrorist groups in 2022. ISWAP has made significant incursions into Niger.

The role of instability in the occurrence of coups manifests in two ways. The brunt of growing insecurity worsens the socio-economic conditions of populations, creating a conducive environment for disruptive politics. Despite several counterinsurgency and counterterrorism responses, militant groups have continued growing, and the human cost has been staggering. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, casualties from terrorist attacks increased fivefold between 2016 and 2019, from 770 to 4,000. In 2021, the Sahel underwent a severe deterioration in terrorism deaths. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger were in the top five countries with the most significant increases in terrorism deaths, according to the 2022 Global Terrorism Index.

In Burkina Faso, more than 16,000 people have died in terror attacks since 2016, including more than 5,000 since the start of 2023. Overall, the Sahel region accounted for 43 per cent of global terrorism deaths in 2022, higher than South Asia and the Middle East combined, while 2.7 million people are internally displaced. In this state of affairs, growing insecurity easily becomes a justification for coups. Indeed, many of the coups in the region were preceded by widespread protests that cited insecurity, providing the opportunity and plausibility for the coups that followed.

The second and more direct role of existing instability in the occurrence of coups is the impact of growing insecurity on frontline security personnel. In Burkina Faso, military personnel have been victims in 80 per cent of JNIM’s attacks. Mutinying soldiers in these countries have blamed the governments they removed for not doing enough to protect them on the battlefield.

The ghost of Libya

We must also go back to 2011’s Libyan civil war to understand the recent coups in the Sahel. Scholars agree that that war—and the removal of Muammar Qadhafi — led to a proliferation of arms across the Sahel-Sahara. According to a Nigerian army general I spoke to in 2018, this was directly responsible for the successes of groups as far south of Libya as Nigeria. The war created a vacuum in an already volatile region and led to the return of the Tuareg, who had a home in Qadhafi’s Libya. Further establishing the chain of events from this war is that Gaddafi’s ouster reignited the Tuareg rebellion, which contributed to the 2012 coup, opening the floodgates to growing regional instability and other coups.

A cycle of coups in West Africa

A secondary cause of coups is that coups legitimize further coups. Previous attempted or successful military takeovers of government — including constitutional coups — are a significant factor in recent coups. The 2012 coups derailed 20 years of Mali’s experience with electoral democracy and set the stage for the 2020 and 2021 coups. In Burkina Faso, the 2014 uprising was to prevent a constitutional change by President Blaise Compaoré to allow him a third term — after being in power the previous 27 years following his successful coup in 1987. The vacuum that his eventual removal created led to a series of events: the election of Roch Marc Kaboré in 2015, only to be ousted in a January 2022 coup by Paul-Henri Damiba, who in turn was removed by Ibrahim Traoré nine months later.

Similarly, even though Niger had been celebrated as a bastion of democracy, the July coup came on the heels of an attempted coup in March 2021, which followed a coup in 2010 by Salou Djibo to prevent Mamadou Tanja from extending his term in government. Similarly, the 2022 coup in Guinea followed Alpha Conde’s violent third term following a controversial referendum. Successive coups took their motivation from previous coups.

ECOWAS lacks moral authority and resources to be an enforcer

Adding to an environment prone to coups is that regional inter-governmental organizations such as ECOWAS and the African Union appear helpless in addressing the wave of coups. ECOWAS’ bad precedent in handling past coups has drained its moral authority to take a hard stance against others. Defiance of ECOWAS by Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger follows Mali’s defiance in the face of ECOWAS and African Union sanctions. Organizational rituals of merely giving ultimatums and placing sanctions have convinced coup plotters that regional bodies lack the power to enforce their protocols of good governance and democracy.

While coup plotters know that ECOWAS has neither the moral authority nor the resources to force a return to civilian rule, they can simultaneously hope for powerful global actors to help its course. The growing influence of Russia in the Sahel and the waning influence of traditional Western partners add impetus to coup plotters’ motivation. Russia, or the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group, has provided a backup plan where coup leaders came under international condemnation and attack. Accordingly, Russia is becoming an alternative security partner as Western countries withdraw in Mali and Niger.

Coups reveal the façade of democracy in the Sahel

Coups in West Africa emerge from a complex web of factors. However, it is crucial to admit that coups don’t bring down or terminate democracies. Instead, their occurrence shows that sustainable democracy barely existed in the first place. Here, it is notable that the above factors responsible for coups in the Sahel are present in varying degrees in other African countries but are not creating coups due to locally specific socio-political structures. There, the facade of democracy masks underlying tensions. Agreeing that what holds the above factors for coups together is the absence of sustainable democracy, one conclusion looms large: the primary focus in saving democracy ought not to be on sanctioning military juntas, especially given the impact of sanctions on populations. It should be on rethinking the conception and practice of democracy itself.

Muhammad Dan Suleiman holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations (IR) from the University of Western Australia and lectures in IR at Curtin University, Perth, Australia. He is an African politics analyst and West African security researcher whose scholarship on state-citizen relations, transnational terrorism, and jihadist conflicts has been published by many respected international journals and think tanks. His current research interests include militancy in West Africa and how dominant interpretations and practices of politics and conflict detract from human and national security in Africa.

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