Since August 2020, five coups have occurred in three West African countries – Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea. The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau have weathered attempted overthrows. And in neighbouring Chad, an unconstitutional change of government was led by Lieutenant General Mahamat Idriss Déby after his father’s death in 2021.
The spate of coups questions the effectiveness of democratic transitions in West Africa. It also strains cooperation between regional governments when it’s most needed to contain the ever-expanding violent extremism threat.
While tipping points are context-specific, coups in West Africa have been analysed against the backdrop of structural deficits in the affected countries. These include mounting socio-economic pressure, poor human development indicators, the youth bulge and failed security sector reform.
Democratic backsliding resulting from governance crises, third-termism and constitutional manipulation play a role. Geopolitical shifts in alliances and insecurity linked to terrorism and crime have also been considered. This is the case particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, which experienced two military coups in a few months.
Understanding the interplay of these political, security and socio-economic phenomena is important. They show why military incursions into politics must be stopped, and inform transitional authorities’ decisions during negotiations. They also shape the actions of regional and multilateral partners trying to promote stability after the transition.
So far, these partners’ responses have proven ill-adapted. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union, United Nations and other external actors have struggled to pressure military authorities into keeping transitions short and civilian-led. In fact, coup leaders in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have been in power for 30, 17 and 13 months respectively. They project themselves as agents of change, and some have post-transition political ambitions.
It is no longer realistic to wish for short transitions. The options available to regional actors are limited, but include optimising the outcomes of the process by focusing on the substance of transitions rather than their endpoint.
The idea is not to advocate for military incursions into politics. Neither is it to support long military transitions. Historical data shows that military rulers have generally governed as poorly as ‘bad civilian’ rulers, or worse. In a democracy, the place of militaries isn’t in presidential palaces. Any soldier’s entrance into this sphere should be brief, as enshrined in regional and continental legal instruments.
Regardless of how they are viewed, coups are here to stay. Policymakers must remember that managing military transitions and their aftermath can either create conditions for stability or set the stage for the next coup. All recently overthrown leaders in West Africa either came to power through coups, such as Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba in Burkina Faso, or won post-transition elections that followed an unconstitutional change of government.
Before being toppled by Colonel Assimi Goïta in 2020 after months of protests, Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta had emerged as president after the 2013 polls. His election followed the 2012 military coup led by Amadou Sanogo.
In Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s ascension to power came through polls that followed the 2014 popular uprising that ousted long-term president Blaise Compaoré, and a failed September 2015 coup attempt. In Guinea, Alpha Condé won power through elections organised after Moussa Dadis Camara forcibly took control in 2008, following the passing of long-time leader Lansana Conté.
In these three countries, power was handed back to a civilian-elected government on average within 16 months. Yet post-coup elected leadership fuelled popular discontent, creating fertile ground for military actors to take over again.
The yo-yo from military to elected civilian and back to military transitions in West Africa shows that more focus is needed on internal dynamics and learning from previous transitions. And that close attention is required even beyond post-coup polls.
ECOWAS’s legitimate focus on short, civilian-led transitions has distracted from examining the content of transitions against the backdrop of poor governance. These shortcomings make it difficult to hold military authorities accountable for the promises they make in justifying their coups.
In December 2022, ECOWAS heads of state announced the establishment of a military force to restore constitutional order in member countries. The force is unlikely to be operational soon or solve the problems leading to coups. One of the few alternate options is to identify entry points for policy changes that could strengthen the transition’s outcome without giving putschists a blank cheque.
While calling for the restoration of constitutional order, regional stakeholders, mediators and citizens under military governments should consider all the opportunities that transitions offer. The key is identifying how to work with military transitions to start policy changes that could lay the foundation for medium- and long-term inclusive growth and stability without endorsing coups.
In Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, transformational measures were stalled under elected regimes. These included laws on depoliticising the civil service, territorial reforms to enhance political representation and delivery of public services, laws to foster women’s rights, and land reforms.
Pressuring coup leaders to institute reforms that can unlock growth and stability is risky. Transitional regimes, especially military ones, don’t necessarily have an interest in making deep reforms and could use them as excuses to remain in power even longer.
This uncomfortable option requires identifying genuine reformers in the transitional authority, and creating conditions for them to succeed based on agreed security and governance milestones. Such actors in the military government must make inclusivity a central objective of the process.
Military takeovers, especially when they recur, seriously hinder political stability and a government’s ability to function. ECOWAS and its partners should design post-coup mediation processes and manage transitions with the aim of preventing repeated coups and fostering long-term growth and stability.
The return to constitutional order must remain a key objective. But it can’t be the only endgame and the sole measure of success.
Written by Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, Regional Director and Aïssatou Kanté, Researcher, ISS Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin