By Adebayo Obajemu
On Friday last week, as the European Union-African Union, EU-AU, summit held in Brussels, Belgium, came to an end, President Muhammadu Buhari, made an urgent and passionate call to EU leaders and countries to take a resolute stand against military incursions in politics and help African countries to stem the tide. He was apparently referring to the recent coups in West Africa. However, many analysts were not impressed, stressing that the solution lies here and not with the EU.
For the most part of the 21st century, West Africa has enjoyed relative political stability under civil rule. Just when it was thought that African political system had outgrown era of military coup, recent political developments in West Africa in the last two years have put a lie to this optimism.
As if in a quick succession of tragic reverse of democratic gains, three fragile countries in West Africa – Chad, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso – became a quicksand of political instability and out of this was forged military takeovers. Many analysts posit that the recent wave of military coups may have presaged a resurgence of military populism riding wave of failure of the political elites.
Professor Adeagbo Moritiwon, a political scientist noted that “the return of the jackboots in governance in West Africa the punishment for the failure of politicians across Africa to institute good governance, reduce poverty, instil confidence, minimise corruption and create jobs. What do we have in many of the states of Africa, especially West Coast, is the institutionalisation of corruption, apathy to the plights of the electorate and the flaunting of ill-gotten wealth, while education and social services are made to suffer.”
Professor Hassan Jameel, a political sociologist at Nasarawa State University told BusinessHallmark that ” The political class in Africa, especially West Africa have not learnt any lesson from the past. Aside the failure to rein in the jihadists in Sahel, politicians in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Guinea have failed to institute good governance. In these states, there was political instability, political wranglings and contested elections aside poverty and unemployment.”
Jameel said that while the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in pushing these countries over the edge, they were on the precipice of instability long before the emergence of the virus due to deep-seated vulnerabilities such as chronic insecurity, political corruption and mass unemployment. Indeed, in all three countries military interventions came not as a surprise to the citizens, but on the back of long-ignored systemic failures and growing societal discontent.
In Burkina Faso, the political and socioeconomic conditions were fertile enough for the incursion of the military into politics, given repeated attacks by armed groups and a failure to govern rightly (which manifested in the apparent ill-equipping of the country’s security forces against such armed groups linked to islamists). This volatile situation led to gaping security vacuum.
Frequent attacks, the most notable being in November and December 2021 which left nearly 100 members of the security forces and community defence volunteers dead.
The army heaped the blames of the failure to adequately respond to these attacks on the government’s inability to fund anti terror war. As a result, in late January 2022, what initially appeared to be a mutiny turned into a coup that toppled the country’s civilian government.
The political crisis in Mali and the ambition of the president to manipulate political process had long created restiveness and growing discontent, the final straw being attempts by the ruling party to manipulate the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections in favour of candidates supported by the then president morphed into street demonstrations during which aggrieved masses called on the government to resign.
After months of political impasse and just when the protesters calling for regime change would not let up, the military took advantage of the situation and staged a coup in August 2020. It initially facilitated a transitional arrangement, but overthrew that too only a few months later.
Recall that in Guinea, the September 2021 military coup was the aftermath consequence of months-long political deadlock precipitated by the late President Alpha Conde’s megalomania, his ill-informed attempt to alter, for selfish reasons, presidential term-limit restrictions through a constitutional referendum in March 2020 – a move that gave him the latitude to seek a third term in office.
Against the grain of popular opinion, he achieved that unpopular feat, subsequently, the referendum and the October 2020 presidential election, which resulted in Conde’s re-election, resulted in large scale boycotts from opposition and civil society groups, but more tragically, it led to violent confrontations between protesters and security forces which caused hundreds of deaths.
Moritiwon said “the hypocrisy of ECOWAS and its double standard has further infuriated the publics in those countries, leading to contempt for the regional body. In spite of the crisis and the impasse, Conde received support from leaders of neighbouring nations, who did not waste time in sending him congratulatory messages after his re-election.
Eight months into his controversial re-election, a coup removed him from power. It could be stated that none of these coups, or the challenges that led to them, came as a surprise. The conditions for military takeover had been there as seen in pervasive discontents by the citizens against governance.
International development organisations and think-tanks have been pointing to the extreme security and governance challenges facing these countries for years. Even before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S-based think-tank The Fund for Peace had rated these countries as on “high warning” or on “alert” in its Fragile States Index, suggesting that their vulnerabilities could lead to instability if not outright armed conflict.
Similarly, the Economist Intelligence Unit, in its Democracy Index of 2019, had suggested that there was a steady decline in the quality of democratic governance in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali. Beyond the long-term threats to constitutional democracy and security they were born out of, the recent coups in these three countries had another surprising common aspect: civilian support.
Indeed, citizens in these countries responded to the news of military takeovers with protests not against the intervening military, but the removed political leaders.
In further legitimising the putsches, citizens in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali have accused their former colonial masters of being complicit in their plight and rejected external interventions and sanctions – mainly imposed by the regional political block ECOWAS – meant to hamstring the military and compel them to accept proposed conditions for democratic elections and return to “constitutional” rule.
Jameel said this “reaction was a reflection of the masses’ lack of faith in the state of democratic politics in their countries, and it may have significant consequences not only for Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, but the wider region.
“Firstly, widespread civilian support for these coups reinforces the notion that the armed forces are the guardians of states. Convinced that existing constitutional processes are not adequate to support good governance in their countries, citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea appear to believe that the military may be a credible alternative to the band of corrupt and unrepentant political elites that have betrayed their confidence.
Jameel further stressed that so far, all attempts by regional bodies like ECOWAS and the AU to turn back this trend have failed, largely because such attempts focused on punishing the militaries rather than understanding and attempting to help fix the underlying causes that led to civilian populations supporting their actions. As a result, the recent wave of military coups in Africa has raised questions about the role regional and continental multilateral organisations can play in averting democratic backsliding.
“Today, citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea clearly feel that they have “found their voice”, and punished corrupt political elites who have long ruled their countries, by ascribing legitimacy to military takeovers. The legitimate fears that citizens across the continent can follow their lead can put underperforming democratic rulers on their toes and push them to swiftly and efficiently address political and socioeconomic challenges facing their countries.”
Recall that by 2012, there had been over 200 coups and attempted coups in Africa from their various times of independence. There was a coup attempt every 55 days in the 1960s and 1970s, and over 90% of African states had a coup experience.
It should be noted that the region’s political history shows that democracy in the region tends to be superficial. Despite some gains, democracy remains largely cosmetic, and the conditions that cause coups persist.
A cursory look at the history of coups in West Africa suggests some recurring themes as causes. These show how likely more coups are and what needs to change to prevent them.
In each decade between 1958 and 2008, according to one researcher, West Africa had the highest number of coups on the continent, accounting for 44.4%. Since 2010, there have been over 40 coups and attempted coups in Africa; some 20 occurred in West Africa and the Sahel (including Chad). Since 2019 there have been 7 (five successful and two failed).
Between 1958 and 2008, most coups in Africa occurred in former French colonies, as did six of the 7 since 2019. Similarly, 12 of the 20 coups in the sub-region since 2010 happened there. The latest successful putsch in Burkina Faso came on the heels of two attempted ones, in 2015 and 2016.
Moritiwon said “in the 21st century too, the quest for strategic influence and advantage by foreign powers in Africa has involved them in coups in the continent. They tolerate local politics and authoritarianism as long as their strategic advantage is served
He said to contain coups certain conditions must be precedent.
“The conditions under which coups occur are dynamic. To avert future coups and respond to current ones, there must be a radical change of direction. Countries, with the help of regional and global partners, must address governance deficits in the form of non-fulfilment of the entitlements of citizenship, socio-economic frustration, and growing insecurity,” Moritiwon submitted.