Five years ago, many analysts predicted that the era of military coups in West Africa had come to an end. But three in the last two years have raised troubling questions about the fate of democracy in the region.
More than a half-century after independence spread through West Africa, democracy had seemed to be finally taking root. In several countries, free elections were held, with the defeated candidates acknowledging their defeat and more and more citizens participating in the democratic process.
Although everything was far from perfect, elections had become a part of the routine. The time of political coups, at its peak between the 1960s and the early 1990s, seemed to be over. And the idea of the military storming into palaces fully armed and announcing on national television the establishment of a committee with a long acronym seemed to be a thing of the past.
In September 2015, General Gilbert Diendéré botched his coup against the transitional authorities in Burkina Faso and gave back the power, apologizing, just one week after taking it by force. After the "stupidest coup in the world," many observers made the same analysis: Military putsches were destined to fade away in West Africa.
And yet, five years later, a series of political coups in French-speaking capitals showed this observation to be false.
Mali sets the model
The first incident took place on Aug. 18, 2020, in Mali. On that day, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s (IBK)’s regime, which had been increasingly criticized despite his re-election two years prior, was overthrown in a few hours by the army, alongside a cheering population. In their palaces, several presidents in the region began to sweat and feared that this successful and popular coup would be emulated by their own staff. And they were right to worry.
On Sept. 5, 2021, in Guinea, it was Alpha Condé’s turn. Plagued by allegations of fraud after he won a third term, he was arrested by the military. Once again, everyone applauded.
This time, the question became clearer: who would be next on the list? The answer: Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who had just been re-elected but often criticized for his inability to curb insecurity in Burkina Faso, resigned under pressure from the army on Jan. 24, 2022. Again, many welcomed his dismissal by the military.
The common denominator
All of these coups have a few common denominators: They were all lead by colonels or lieutenant-colonels in their early forties with similar profiles: the Malian Assimi Goïta, the Guinean Mamadi Doumbouya and the Burkinabe Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. All were trained abroad and in charge of special elite forces.
Goïta and Dambia, who have long led troops in the field against jihadist groups, also share former military service, respectively passing through the Kati military academy and Kadiogo military academy, before pursuing officer training.
In Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, the leaders have become completely illegitimate.
All of them have the same form of patriotism and sovereignty which leads some to compare them with illustrious elders who have determined the continent’s history: captains Thomas Sankara and Jerry John Rawlings.
“In these three countries, the leaders have become completely illegitimate. By deposing them, the colonels had in a way restored the legitimacy of the state,” says a West African diplomat. IBK in Mali and Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in Burkina Faso were perceived, despite their re-elections, as being incapable of countering the offensive of the jihadist groups that were plaguing their countries. And in Guinea, Alpha Condé was no longer respected since the constitutional fiddling that allowed him to run for a third term in October 2020.
“If IBK, Kaboré and Condé were criticized by their compatriots, it is also because they were unable to keep their promises,” continues the diplomat. "The first two on the return of security and state authority, the third on the establishment of democracy, which he shamefully scorned after having been its herald for years.”
Loss of respect for the political class
The public felt deceived by these unkept promises and at the same time fed growing defiance in regards to the leaders, already considered corrupt and cut-off from the harsh realities of daily life in their ivory towers.
“In West Africa, there is a total loss of respect for the political class and, ultimately, for democracy," says a French source who follows the region. "Public opinion, often the younger generation, no longer believe in them. In this context, the army embodies the only form of alternative that is more or less solid and structured. And so we find ourselves with colonels in power, without them really being prepared for it.”
Once installed in the seats of the leaders they dismissed, Goïta, Doumbouya and Damiba adopted the same old refrains that cohorts of coup plotters had repeated before them: consultations with the nation, the establishment of new institutions, the rebuilding of the state…The difference is that, where a few years ago transitions lasted twelve months or a little more, the young colonels are now demanding much longer mandates. As for Doumbouya, more than six months after seizing power in Guinea, he still has not given any indication of how long he will remain in power.
"When you hear them ask that, it's hard not to think that they have an appetite for power. The transition agenda is not reassuring in any of these countries," said the West African diplomat.
Faced with this new generation of unabashed coup plotters, the Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the union of heads of state, often accused of defending their privileges, now seems powerless. As a matter of principle, it condemned the three coups and immediately suspended Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso from its membership. After that, mediation missions intervened and "timetables" were demanded, calling for the organization of elections within a "reasonable time frame” to little or no effect.
Photo of Guinean military officer Mamady Doumbouya during the celebration of Guinea Independence
Aboubacarkhoraa/ Wikimedia Commons
A textbook case
But while Doumbouya and Damiba have benefited from some clemency until now, that is not the case for Goïta. Ever since his coup on May 24, 2021, which allowed him to seize full power, the Malian population has demanded a transition of five years. This position is unacceptable for presidents that are members of the ECOWAS. On Jan. 9, they adopted hard economical and financial sanctions against Mali.
“ECOWAS is making Mali a textbook case. If it is badly managed, it will be even more complicated with Guinea and Burkina Faso. We are dealing with young officers, all of them colonels who have a vision for their country. We must help them spread this vision so it appeals to the desires of the people,” said Robert Dussey, Togo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who pleads for compromises on a “case by case” basis.
In Guinea, many people are starting to question Doumbouya’s slowness in establishing the National Transition Council, which took nearly six months, as well as his opaque governance. In Mali and in Burkina Faso, the arrival of the military in power has not, unsurprisingly, stopped deadly attacks by jihadist groups, even though one of their main promises was to restore some sense of security in their countries. The Malian junta has also provoked a wave of disapproval, both in African and outside of the continent, by choosing to use mercenaries from the Russian mercenary group Wagner.
No magic wand
“The numerous problems that they face cannot be solved with a magic wand," says a West African official. "But as time passes, a certain skepticism is starting to emerge. After having raised hope for change, the colonels risk being a source of disappointment. The problem is that these people do not like to be challenged and are culturally more repressive than civilians.”
In fact, the Malian junta is often singled out for its authoritarian abuse. Political opponents have been intimidated, others arrested. Journalists have been reduced to silence. On March 17, the Malian authorities suspended the broadcasting of France 24 and French radio station RFI, accusing these channels of diffusing “false allegations” of abuses committed by the Malian army.
The Malian junta is often singled out for its authoritarian abuse.
In Guinea, the arrests of people close to Alpha Condé and the seizing of Sidya Touré's and Cellou Dalein Diallo’s homes under the pretext of the recovery of their estates by the state also caused a stir.
In Burkina Faso, Lieutenenent-Colonel Damiba, has not yet distinguished himself in this area. But there is no doubt that if he were to tighten his grip on power, he would be confronted by civil society and the Burkinabe press that figures as one of the most active of the sub-region.