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People cheering of putchist soldiers on the streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

People cheer in support of putschist soldiers near the national television station in Ouagadougou, Monday Jan. 24, 2022.

Coups in Africa – Why They Happen, and What Can (Not) Be Done about Them

blog Joint Futures 05, 28.09.2023

Military coups in Africa are on the rise again. The trend is being driven by acute political crises, traditionally politicized militaries and self-reinforcing regional dynamics. German and European policy should address the root causes, and the West should avoid short-sighted geopolitics and revise its Africa policy. Importantly, instruments should be tailored according to local needs.


A New Epidemic of Coups

The recent events in Niger and Gabon show that military coups are again a common trend in African politics. Although the armed forces never ceased playing a role in politics, military coups had become less frequent since the early 1990s. The number of successful coups had continuously declined after 1990 and came to an all-time low of six military coups in the period from 2010 to 2019. Less than four years into this decade, at least eight putsches have succeeded. Burkina Faso and Mali both saw two military takeovers, Guinea one in 2021, and Niger and Gabon one each in July and August 2023, respectively. The developments in Sudan in 2021 constitute an additional case. In Chad, the unconstitutional takeover by Mohamed Déby Jr after the death of his father in 2021 might even bring the count to nine. However, the succession from father to son did confirm the military as the actual power centre of the country. We do not know whether the trend will continue. If no decisive action is taken however, it will be more likely to do so.

Coups Don’t Come out of the Blue

While coup causes are always country-specific, three conditions have been key drivers: acute crises, politicized armed forces and an increasingly self-reinforcing dynamic.

First, all countries were facing crises before the coups and had entrenched socio-economic challenges. Discontent grows when politicians do not deliver public goods, and they lack legitimacy because of corruption. The recent political crises have taken different shapes: Power struggles, such as those between civilian presidents clinging to power despite term limits, have been important sources of crises in Guinea and Gabon. In Mali and Burkina Faso, jihadist insurgencies have spread in West Africa in recent years and intensified instability and dissatisfaction.

Second, a military coup is much more likely in places where the armed forces have previously intervened in politics, which is true for around 40 per cent of all sub-Saharan countries, with West Africa as its epicentre. The specific interests of those within the ranks of the military are often the triggers for coups. The coup in Mali in 2012 was motivated by dissatisfaction with the government’s support in fighting against the rebels, who inflicted heavy casualties. In the recent case of Niger, coup leader Omar Tchiani faced the threat of being ousted as the leader of the presidential guard. Rumours persist that the defence ministry embezzled large amounts of the military budget.

Third, coups breed coups. Successful military takeovers in other countries may inspire further coups and create a self-reinforcing dynamic. A further motivating factor for takeover attempts is that would-be plotters of coups might hope for Russian support, as with the junta in Mali.

Consequences: Rarely Better Governance and Delicate Geopolitical Implications

Given the dissatisfaction with civilian leaders, the military juntas initially enjoy considerable popularity. However, as a rule, military involvement does not improve governance. A military government is not only an indicator of instability but may also lead to further trouble: If the root causes of a coup persist, countries may face additional attempts, as recent events in Burkina Faso and Mali have exemplified. Moreover, military officers – who initially claim to be the “salvation” of the country – often develop a taste for ruling once they are in power. This is frequently accompanied by self-enrichment and serious human rights violations. Yet, there are exceptions. In Mali in 1991 and in Niger in 2010, armed forces ousted authoritarian leaders and went on to become “democratising soldiers”. Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings – after implementing economic experiments that initial failed – led the country to relative prosperity and democracy. Gabon, where an oil-fuelled authoritarian regime was overthrown, has the chance of becoming such a success story.

The recent wave of coups is connected to geopolitical changes, especially Russia’s return to the region and the decline of Western – specifically French – influence. Russia takes advantage of these coups and the offer is straightforward: It provides security support for the regime, often through the infamous Wagner mercenaries, and generates revenues from resource extraction in return. Support for Russia at the international level follows suit. None of the coup countries condemned Russia’s imperialistic aggression against Ukraine. The support from Russia and other countries for military juntas and other authoritarian regimes may accelerate a “new scramble for Africa”. African governments can attract foreign support either from non-Western countries or entice Western countries to turn a blind eye to authoritarian or corrupt governance to keep them in their “camp”.

Addressing Root Causes and Lowering Expectations

It is necessary to adopt a firm stance against military coups and strengthen international and regional anti-coup norms in order to stop the contagion. Professionalizing the armed forces can help. First, the military needs to remain under stable civilian control and refrain from politics. Second, professional armed forces are capable of tackling and – preferably – deterring security challenges, such as the jihadist insurgencies that have indirectly led to the coups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Direct military support remains necessary if one does not want security to further deteriorate. However, any long-term strategy requires addressing the socio-economic and political root causes of the coups and other manifestations of instability. The long-term answer is socio-economic and political transformation.

We have no magic bullets to fix the related structural problems quickly. Practitioners and the public expect too much too fast and give up quickly if improvements do not materialise rapidly. However, things can be done. African political leaders must work for the common good and be held accountable to their populations. External actors such as Germany, the European Union (EU) and the United States should evaluate and rethink their policies. Although general concepts such as “security and development” do make sense, instruments such as traditional development cooperation as well as training programmes for African militaries have produced mostly disappointing results.

The European training missions for African militaries share some of the pitfalls of civilian development aid. Programmes are usually designed by Western experts rather than developed according to the needs of local partners. Western instructors apparently refused to train Malian forces in offensive tactics out of fear they would exact vengeance on insurgents and their constituencies. As a result, ownership is lacking and participants view the programmes as sources of income, not as opportunities to improve their professional skills. Relatedly, corruption in the military often undermines efforts to improve their performance.

A revision of the programmes first requires in-depth analysis. We must acknowledge tensions between goals: The coups call for working on the integrity of partners. Security problems – one of the root causes of the coups – require strengthening military capabilities. Western partners need to decide to what extent the latter is conditional on the former. The key is to incentivise ownership by better tailoring programmes to the ideas and needs of African partners. This will also make programmes less prone to abuse. But again, expectations must be realistic. The causes of coups and deficiencies of armed forces cannot be changed overnight and from the outside. African challenges require African solutions.

A Geopolitical Dilemma for Western Actors?

The West faces a mild dilemma, at the very least. Letting things take their course might push the region towards greater turmoil. Russian assistance and military rule are unlikely to remedy either the jihadist surge or other causes of coups. The retreat of Western forces is likely to accelerate the spillover of the jihadist wave and coups to the continent’s western coast. At the same time, Western engagement – military or otherwise – will play into an anti-Western narrative of “neocolonialism” and also be fuelled by Russian disinformation and deeply entrenched anti-French resentment. EU countries must develop a joint position that considers the mistakes of the past. Supporting responsible governance is the solution in the long run, not short-sighted geopolitical goals such as maintaining zones of influence, regardless of the character of the regimes. In the present situation, the best option is still to support African regional organisations such as the African Union and ECOWAS in their anti-coup policies. Instead of falling into the trap of engaging in a scramble for Africa with China, Russia and others, Germany, the EU and the West need to revise their Africa policy in terms of long-term goals, coherence and – in particular – instruments.

Matthias Basedau is the director of the GIGA Institute for African Affairs. His research interests are causes of peace and conflict as well as democratization and civil–military relations. 

Responsibility for content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.