“As far as we’re concerned, it’s not a coup, it’s the liberation of a country, which was being governed by people who were incompetent.”
– Juliene Traore, a pro-coup d’état protester in Burkina Faso to AFP news.
Like Juliene Traore, there are thousands more in the Sahel region who support the recent military coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger. During these coup d’états, thousands of civilians took to the streets to demonstrate their support for the coup leaders and celebrate the removal of what they describe as corrupt leaders. This has become a trend in the West African and Sahel region. In the last three years, there have been 9 attempted coup d’états in the region. These coups did not come as a surprise due to the long-ignored systemic failures and growing societal discontent. This report examines why civilians in the Sahel region are supporting coup d’états and suggests possible ways the region could move forward.
What is a coup d’état?
A coup d’état is an “illegal and overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive,” Powell and Thyne describe in a 2011 article published in the Journal of Peace Research. In other words, a coup d’état is a method of seizing power suddenly and illegally by the military or other groups (state and non-state actors). It involves the use of force, and it can result in violence and deaths. This has been a popular method by African military leaders to grab power.
Coup d’états in Africa
Africa is the region with the most coups in the world with 220 attempted and failed coups between 1950 and 2023, accounting for 44 percent of the world’s attempted coups. Sudan tops the list with 17 coups since 1950, Burundi is second with 11, while Ghana and Sierra Leone are in third with 10 attempted coups each. The majority of Africa’s coups happened in the West African and Sahel region with 58 percent. But why are these regions so prone to coup d’états?
Why the West African and Sahel regions are prone to Coup D’états
The semiarid region stretching eastward from Senegal in West Africa to Sudan in East Africa has been stricken with a long history of instability, poverty, and extremists. For example, Mali has been fighting Islamist militants in the country for more than 10 years, likewise, Burkina Faso has for 8 years against groups allied to both al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), and Niger has been fighting insurgents from neighbouring countries including Boko Haram since 2015. Moreover, Boko Haram is also operating in the Lake Chad Basin at the intersection of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. These insurgencies resulted in the deaths of many civilians, economic destabilisation, and a security crisis in the region.
In addition, the governments in this region are known to be corrupt. Government officials are often accused of embezzling public funds and nepotism. Burkina Faso’s former Minister of Transport, Vincent Dabilgou, was found guilty, sentenced to eleven years in prison, and fined 3.3 billion FCFA (4.7 million euros) for “embezzlement of public funds”, involving 1.12 billion FCFA (around 1.7 million euros), “illicit enrichment”, and “money laundering” according to Africanews. While in Niger, more than $100m of public money was reported to be lost in a series of potentially corrupt international arms deals.
In Mali, former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was known for nepotism for appointing family members in key government positions such as his son, Karim Keita as the president of the National Assembly Defence Committee, and Issaka Sibibe, his father-in-law, who was the president of the National Assembly and former minister of investment. His government also lost an estimated CFA70 billion through fraud and mismanagement in 2017. These factors – government corruption, rising poverty, and insurgencies (which are common in the Sahel and West African region) makes a country more likely to see a coup. Moreover, they have been cited by coup leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger as their reason to intervene militarily to avoid the gradual collapse of the country.
Why Civilians are supporting coup d’états
It is for these same reasons – the protentional collapse of the country, government corruption, rising poverty and insecurity that the civilians have been backing the coup leaders.
“I have no job after studying in this country because of the regime France supports, all that has to go!” said pro-coup protesters to Le Monde during Niger’s pro-coup rally along thousands of others who chanted “Down with France”, “Long live Russia, long live Putin”.
“We called for President Kabore’s departure several times, but he didn’t listen to us. The army heard us and understood,” Lassane Ouedrago, a pro-coup supporter in Niger.
Similar scenes were reported in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso during their coups in 2020, 2021, and 2022 respectively. Citizens took to the streets to celebrate the coup against their elected leaders. These celebrations are an indication of the public’s dissidents towards their elected leaders, civilians are supporting coups because they offer liberation from corrupt and incompetent leaders and hope for a better future. This created ever-growing friction between the pro-coup supporters and the international institutions especially with ECOWAS.
The condemnations and sanctions against the coups from ECOWAS are justified under Article 2 of the Supplementary Act A/SP.2/08/11 on Sanctions Against Member States that fail to honor their obligations to ECOWAS. The article states that ECOWAS can impose sanctions to a member state that fails to uphold the principles of the rule of law, democracy, and constitutional order. However, these sanctions have sent a negative message to the public, a message that creates a division between the ECOWAS and pro-coup supporters.
“ECOWAS doesn’t care about us, and the international community only wants to condemn,” said a pro-coup supporter in Niger, Armel Ouedraogo to Reuters.
This is because ECOWAS and the pro-coup supporters do not share the same sentiment about their elected governments. ECOWAS sees the deposed governments as democratically elected governments that were illegally removed from power in military coups, while the pro-coup supporters saw them as corrupt and incompetent. They demanded it step down. The sanctions and condemnations only worsened the relationship between the civilians and ECOWAS.
Instead of condemning and isolating these countries through sanctions, the international community should unite and tackle the core issues that caused instability in these countries (government corruption, poverty, and insurgencies).
ECOWAS alongside civilians should work on measures to curb government corruption and strengthen public institutions. This can be done through a new constitution, new laws, or policies. A less corrupt government can improve the living conditions in these countries.
Similarly, the same approach should be followed against terrorists in the region. However, more foreign assistance is needed. ECOWAS should seek military and intelligence support from other African countries as well as non-African countries to effectively deal with the terrorist. These measures will tackle the root cause of the coups and prevent instability from spreading.
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