Africa’s ‘coup belt’ facing further upheaval
The recent spate of coups led by military officials in Africa exposes a number of trends. But these coups — and the conditions creating them — are not new.
In the latest coup d’etat, Burkina Faso’s military last month seized power by arresting the president after demanding greater resources in the fight against Islamist militants. The events in Ouagadougou were the fourth military coup in the past year in West Africa and the Sahel — a region once known as the continent’s “coup belt.” This term should be back in vogue now that Burkina Faso has joined Mali, Chad and Guinea.
In Mali, a group of colonels first seized power in August 2020 by ousting President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. This coup followed large anti-government protests over deteriorating security, contested legislative elections and allegations of corruption.
Under pressure from Mali’s West African neighbors, the military leaders agreed to cede power to a civilian-led interim government tasked with overseeing an 18-month transition to democratic elections in February 2022. But the coup leaders quickly clashed with the new interim president, retired Col. Bah Ndaw, and engineered a second coup in May 2021. Col. Assimi Goita, who had served as interim vice president, was elevated to the presidency.
Goita’s government made little progress toward organizing elections and announced late last year that it intended to delay them by up to five years. The Economic Community of West African States responded by implementing harsh sanctions, including closing its members’ borders with Mali. This action opened the door to Russia’s growing presence.
In Chad, the army took power in April 2021 after President Idriss Deby was killed while visiting Chadian troops fighting rebels in the north. A military council dissolved parliament in the name of ensuring stability, appointed Deby’s son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby, as interim president and tasked him with overseeing an 18-month transition to elections. The country is trying now to find a transition mechanism.
In Guinea, Special Forces Group commander Col. Mamady Doumbouya led a September 2021 coup against President Alpha Conde, saying he acted because of poverty and corruption in the coastal state. Conde had outraged opponents the previous year by changing the constitution to circumvent term limits that would have prevented him from standing for a third time. He won a third term in the October 2020 vote. Doumbouya overthrew him and became interim president, promising a transition to democratic elections at some point in the future.
These countries are in a key part of Africa that is rich in mineral wealth but riddled with Islamist terror groups that threaten the citizenry. The West African economic community imposed sanctions on junta members and their relatives, including freezing their bank accounts. Importantly, these power grabs by armed forces threaten a reversal of the democratization process Africa has undergone in the past two decades and hint at a return to the era of coups being used as a tool during troubled times.
Coups are not a remedy, but their frequency shows how troubled parts of Africa have become. Sub-Saharan Africa reportedly experienced 80 successful coups and 108 failed attempts between 1956 and 2001, an average of four a year.
In the early postcolonial decades, when coups were rampant, Africa’s coup leaders virtually always offered the same reasons for toppling governments: Corruption, mismanagement and poverty. Recent coup leaders in the coup belt have also cited poverty and endemic corruption for overthrowing older leaders and arresting their enablers. But COVID-19 and countries’ socioeconomic recoveries make the situation worse, slowing political processes or shaping them in such a way as to guarantee a role for the armed forces.
When it comes to poverty in this part of Africa, a tragic situation has been worsened by the pandemic’s battering of already-fragile economies. As many as one in three people are now unemployed across the continent. It is also estimated that the number of extremely poor people in sub-Saharan Africa has crossed the 500 million mark — about half the population.
These countries are in a key part of the continent that is rich in mineral wealth but riddled with Islamist terror groups.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
Finally, Africa’s youth bubble feeds into the support for coups, depending on the ability of each country’s armed forces and police to maintain law and order. When counter-demonstrators or Islamist groups take advantage of the environment, the security situation only lengthens the time coup leaders remain in power. These leaders inherit the wealth-generating sectors of the countries they now manage, but still fail to redistribute the benefits.
Overall, these coup states are going to need to deliver on expectations, while keeping basic service delivery and markets open and functioning. It is telling that many of the coup leaders were trained in Western military academies, thereby adding an interesting aspect to not only their actions, but also their ability to govern while moving toward a transition — an effort that can only come from other segments of society. The real question lies in the activity of the Islamist groups and rival outside powers and their impact on keeping the coup leaders in place. And, of course, there will be more coups to come.
- Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @tkarasik