West Africa grapples with new wave of military coups

West Africa is grappling with a wave of military coups over the past 18 months that has some wondering which country could be next.

West Africa is grappling with a wave of military coups over the past 18 months that has some wondering which country could be next. (Sunday Alamba, Associated Press)

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OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — It's a pattern becoming all too common again in West Africa: Mutinous soldiers detain a president, then seize control of the state broadcaster to announce they've taken over the country. International condemnation quickly follows, but the junta remains in power.

West Africa's new wave of coups kicked off in Mali in 2020, followed by another in Guinea the following year, and then Burkina Faso late last month. Just a week later, gunmen also tried to overthrow the president of Guinea-Bissau in a machine-gun attack that lasted hours but failed.

Military power grabs are nothing new in the region: There have been nearly 100 in West Africa since 1946 but they'd dropped off over the past decade. Now the regional body known as the Economic Community of West African States is grappling with how to bring about a return to democracy in three of its 15 member states, where juntas have seized power in the last 18 months.

"It looks increasingly hard to argue against the idea of coup contagion – that coups in one place inspire them in another – following the chain of events in the past year," said Eric Humphery-Smith, Africa Analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.

The new spike in power grabs comes as the Sahel, the vast region south of the Sahara Desert, faces growing violence from Islamic extremists, which in turn has caused people to turn against elected governments in both Mali and Burkina Faso. Neighboring Niger, hard-hit by Islamic insurgents, has also been vulnerable: Security forces stopped a coup attempt there last year.

"Coups in West Africa have been making a comeback for various reasons which bleed into one another," said Rukmini Sanyal, research analyst for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Regional political volatility is becoming entrenched, causing a slow erosion of democratic gains, she said.

And there's often widespread support for the government overthrows within the countries because people hope it will bring about new elections, she added.

After last week's coup in Burkina Faso, people across the country lauded the military takeover, saying it was overdue. In Mali, thousands of protesters took to the streets in support of the ruling military after the West African regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, imposed sanctions over delayed elections.

A man holds a portrait of Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba who has taken the reins of Burkina Faso, in Ouagadougou, Jan. 25.
A man holds a portrait of Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba who has taken the reins of Burkina Faso, in Ouagadougou, Jan. 25. (Photo: Sophie Garcia, Associated Press)

Guinea's junta also has benefited from the fact that ousted President Alpha Conde had become deeply unpopular because he sought to circumvent term limits and won a third term.

Governance and rule of law institutions are weak in many countries in the region, says Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

"And when societies are tested by insecurity and profound brutality against civilians, it may make some people more willing to accept less democratic military rule," Dufka said.

Some blame the rise in coups on the fact that the juntas know they'll face little more than strongly worded statements. In Mali, Col. Assimi Goita got West African mediators to accept an 18-month transition instead of the year-long one they've asked for.

Since then, he's carried out a second coup by getting rid of the original civilian leaders in his transitional government and made himself president instead. He's since pushed back new elections four more years. While the Economic Community of West African States has imposed tough economic sanctions, Goita shows few signs of leaving power anytime soon.

Ghana's President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the current Economic Community of West African States chairman, called Thursday on his fellow leaders to address the problem of coups "collectively and decisively before it devastates the whole region."

Critics, though, say the regional body needs to do more than issue statements.

"(The Economic Community of West African States) is a reflection of the countries so it means that as far as governance is concerned they have to improve it in each country and in all the regional or global organizations," said Ablasse Ouedraogo, a former foreign affairs minister in Burkina Faso and president of the political party Faso Differently.

Civil society groups say leaders are struggling to meet basic security and governance expectations of their populations creating a breeding ground for coups and that regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union are quickly losing credibility.

"These institutions act more on the consequences than on the causes of the sociopolitical crises that lead to coups," said Chrysogone Zougmore, president of the Burkina Faso Movement for Human Rights.

Meanwhile, aid groups responding to the dire humanitarian needs across the region say pulling people out of crisis will take time no matter who's in power. Hassane Hamadou, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Burkina Faso, says new, dismal records are being broken every month.

"Violence has claimed the lives of around 3,000 civilians, forced thousands of schools to shut down and driven 1.6 million people into displacement, a jaw-dropping 18-fold increase over the past three years," Hamadou said. "In this context, there can be no quick fix nor easy answer."


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Sam Mednick and Krista Larson


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