Despite gradual democratic progress in recent years, West Africa appears to have embarked on a dispiriting new era of military coups.
In September, Guinean President Alpha Condé was deposed by the self-styled National Committee for Reorientation and Development, a military junta which dissolved the government and constitution and removed senior public officials from office. Condé remains under arrest at the time of writing, despite a regional outcry.
The coup was West Africa’s third in the last year, after a recent military takeover in Mali and allegations of a “dynastic coup” in Chad following the army’s appointment of President Idriss Déby’s son after the former’s death in combat. Together, the takeovers represent a disturbing backsliding of democratic norms across the region.
Guinean coup leader Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, a former officer in the French Foreign Legion, promised a transitional government of national unity and said that the country, one of the world’s largest suppliers of bauxite, a key ingredient of aluminium, would see a “new era for governance and economic development”.
Despite Doumbouya’s insistence, military coups rarely lead to either improvements in governance or leaps in economic development, usually doing little more than to replace an unaccountable, entrenched civilian elite with a military one. Military rule in Guinea has previously been the trigger for extensive violence, including a 2009 massacre of over 150 protesters by security forces in a Conakry stadium.
Regional organisations appear to have latched on to the danger. The African Union has suspended Guinea, as has West African regional bloc Ecowas, which has frozen the financial assets of the coup leaders. At an emergency summit of regional leaders in Accra in September, the bloc also imposed travel bans on the coup leaders and their relatives, insisting on the release of Condé and a return to constitutional rule in the next six months.
Warming to its stricter line, Ecowas also demanded that Mali’s transitional government stick to an agreement to organise elections for February 2022 and present a roadmap for the vote by October. Ecowas placed sanctions on Mali in August 2020 after Malian soldiers detained President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after a mutiny that followed weeks of protests against his government.
What is triggering military takeovers?
And yet while military rule is clearly an undesirable outcome, the status quo in many countries is also far from democratic or conducive to good governance. In several nations, including Guinea under Condé, and Côte d’Ivoire under Alassane Ouattara, leaders have increasingly tried to dismantle term limits in order to extend their stay in office. Furthermore, in resource rich-countries like Condé’s Guinea, little has been done little to improve economic opportunities for ordinary citizens, leading to disenchantment with governing elites.
There are signs that the region is increasingly noting a link between bad governance, extended term limits and coups. Liberian president President George Weah challenged Ecowas to take a stronger line on constitutional term limits to avoid further military takeovers.
“While we are condemning these military coups, we must also muster the courage to look into what is triggering these unconstitutional takeovers. Could it be that we are not honouring our political commitments to respect the term limits of our various constitutions?” he asked.
The question is a pertinent one that regional elites would do well to address.