In August, when a group of Gabonese military officers deposed President Ali Bongo, whose family had ruled the country for nearly six decades, many ordinary citizens came out on the streets to celebrate.
When Bongo put out a call for the international community to “make noise” against the coup, it quickly turned into a meme mocking him, with dancers and content creators ridiculing his desire to stay in power.
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Neither the military putsch in Gabon nor the street response to it are unique. Since 2020, there have been nine coups in West Africa, Central Africa and the Sahel region.
Mali opened the floodgates three years ago when the army staged a mutiny and subsequently undertook a coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita – who then followed up with another coup against an interim administration in May 2021.
Four months later, in September, Guinea followed with a military coup against President Alpha Conde. Sudan’s civilian-military transitional government was overthrown in October 2021. Earlier that year, in April, Chad’s army seized power after President Idriss Deby was killed on the battlefield while visiting troops fighting rebels in the north.
Burkina Faso joined this pattern of collapsing governments, with two military coups in 2022. Then, on July 26, 2023, the presidential guard in uranium-rich Niger overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, before the Gabon coup a few weeks later. Since the beginning of last year, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe have all witnessed failed coup attempts.
In many – though not all – of these instances, these uprisings and coups appear to have had significant popular support from civilians.
So, are people fed up with civilian-led governments even though they are often at least notionally democratic? Is Africa on the cusp of more coups? And how much of a factor are international players, whether former colonial powers like France or mercenaries from Russia, or regional groupings like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)?
The short answer: Weak democratic processes have often failed nations in Francophone West Africa and the Sahel in particular, resulting in deepening inequality, corrupt administrations and fragile ethnic and cultural accords, according to experts. Those conditions, in turn, attract paternalistic superpowers that are keen to extend their influence. This combination of economic, political and social challenges makes the region especially vulnerable to coups.
Where’s the democratic dividend?
It’s not just images and videos of people celebrating coups – hard data suggests a wide gap between the lived experience of democracy in large parts of the continent and the hopes people have pinned on the system of governance.
A vast majority of people from 34 African countries polled by the independent political survey outfit Afrobarometer in September 2022 said they believed regular, honest and open elections were the best guarantor of their interests. But only 44 percent said elections help voters remove leaders who don’t do what the people want. In 19 countries polled regularly since 2008-09, sentiments against elections as enablers of change have risen 6 percent.
Overall, support for elections has dropped in 26 of 30 African countries surveyed between 2011 and 2021. That includes Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – countries that have seen coups in the last three years. But even in a country like South Africa, which has had consistent, largely free and fair elections since the end of apartheid, the support for elections has dropped 20 percentage points over the past decade.
According to Jonathan Asante-Otchere, a political analyst and lecturer at Ghana’s University of Cape Coast, citizens in many countries “are not seeing the dividends of democracy”. That is a key reason, he said, “why the coup makers seem to enjoy that kind of support”, though Asante-Otchere also cautioned that it is unclear whether that support will last.
Corruption, human rights abuses, ethnocentrism and the militarisation of civilian politics – with armoured cars and boots on the ground used to quell civilian protests – have long blighted democratic experiments on the continent. In Senegal and Ghana this year, soldiers have taken deadly measures in response to public unrest. Distrust of the political elite across the continent is growing, too. And increasingly, that is showing up in the form of mounting apathy or active support for military rule.
In a majority of the 28 countries surveyed between 2021 and 2022 by Afrobarometer, researchers found that most people would welcome a military government.
“What we are seeing is the product of dysfunctional institutions and the fact that democracy hasn’t delivered the expectations of the local population,” Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar, executive director at the Accra-based West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism, told Al Jazeera.
At the heart of the discontent that has exploded into support for military rule are hard economic factors, suggested Daniel Amateye Anim, an economist.
In Mali and in Guinea, coup leaders cited corruption allegations that had long tainted the overthrown leaders of those nations to justify their actions. The cost of living has been soaring in many nations: Inflation was at a five-year high when Guinea’s Conde was removed from office in 2021.
“I think it’s largely because of the economic situations within the sub-region, especially in those countries,” Anim, of the Accra-based Policy Initiative of Economic Development Africa, told Al Jazeera. “The reasons are a high cost of living and people not getting jobs but seeing their political elite living very well.”
However, experts believe there are other reasons behind public support for coups, too.
‘A change in hats’
Not all coups are the same.
In the case of Bongo in Gabon, or the longtime president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, who was overthrown in 2014, popular sentiments in favour of the end of their rules helped legitimise military interventions.
In some instances, say experts, coups lead only to changes in rulers among the pre-existing elite that dominated the nation.
Sudan’s 2021 coup saw the country’s army, which had been part of a military-civilian coalition government since the 2019 revolution against former President Omar al-Bashir, grab direct power.
In Gabon, too, the main opposition leader has described Bongo’s overthrow as a “palace coup”; Brice Nguema, the military leader who led the uprising, is Bongo’s cousin, and has allowed the removed president to travel without restrictions. It is an assessment with which Dave Peterson, senior director of the Africa Programme at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), said he agrees. Peterson told Al Jazeera the Gabon coup was “a change in hats”, nothing more.
Yet, in other countries, regional instability has played a major role in creating the conditions that have allowed military takeovers to succeed – especially since 2011 and the violent overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
“Clearly, if you want to go back in terms of events, the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya began to exacerbate the insecurity in Mali and across the Sahel,” said Peterson. The chaos and power vacuum in Libya led to a proliferation of weapons and armed fighters across the Sahel region, including into northern Mali.
Chad has also been significantly affected by the conflicts in Libya and Sudan. The government-backed Sudanese militia known as the Janjaweed, which in 2013 morphed into the Rapid Support Forces armed group that is currently battling Sudan’s military for power, has been active across the country’s borders.
The fighting in Sudan has also forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek shelter in eastern Chad. Idriss Deby, Chad’s longtime leader, was killed in fighting in 2021 with rebels who had crossed over from Libya: Deby’s death precipitated the military takeover.
But whether it is domestic challenges or the ripple effects of wars in another country, federal governments across the region have responded with political violence that has further escalated tensions, claimed civilian lives and livelihoods, and made the pursuit of lasting peace harder, say analysts. It’s symbolic of an administrative state that views itself as a hammer and any problem at all, a nail.
This conception of the state as a tool to force obedience and adherence is, however, limited by the fact that governments are often incapable of preventing rebels from acquiring the ammunition and logistics for full-scale wars.
And when that happens, they frequently end up seeking support from global powers like France, and in recent times, Russia.
A failed ‘marriage’
In 2017, France formed the Sahel Alliance along with Germany and the European Union, with the stated aim of finding more effective ways to coordinate aid and build stronger institutions in the so-called G5 Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – countries, all former French colonies. The United States, too, has thrown its support behind the Sahel Alliance, as Washington moves resources from counterterrorism in the region to prioritising the provision of better infrastructure and institutions.
The Sahel Alliance was supposed to represent a new phase of Western intervention in the region, focusing on what French President Emmanuel Macron described as “fraternity and mutual aid” rather than on violent support for strongmen regimes looking to uproot state-threatening forces.
But it is not easy for West Africa and the Sahel to forget France’s long history in their regions, say analysts. France has historically prioritised order within the borders of its African partners, supporting leaders who rely on dubious elections and wield the military to prevent challenges to their power. France has also turned a blind eye to the impoverishment of African people by their governments, which have successfully laundered billions of dollars of public funds through European and French institutions. Only in recent years, under pressure from African anticorruption campaigners, has France begun to probe some of the allegations of corruption, such as against Denis Sassou Nguesso, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), in 2015.
“Everything has shown that the marriage between West African countries and France is not working and that there is a desire and need to look for different sort of partners to meet their demands,” Muqthar of the West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism said. “There is a strong anti-French sentiment due to exploitation on the part of France.”
In recent coups in Niger and Guinea, overt displays of anti-French sentiments have been broadcast to the world. Protests by everyday people against perceived French neo-colonial tendencies have been hailed by military leaders who have also cited coups as a phase of African decolonisation.
Meanwhile, a range of other nations have increased their economic and strategic footprint on the continent, from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, to China, India and Russia, for what some have described as a new scramble for Africa.
The forays of the quasi-Kremlin paramilitary group Wagner, in particular, frequently make headlines. The group has been hired by governments in the Central African Republic, among others, and have also been linked to on-the-ground military operations in Mali and Niger, sparking allegations from Macron that Russia is “destabilising” Africa.
Yet, some experts have wondered whether Wagner’s role in the region is at times exaggerated by different players in order to attract Western attention and reaction. In December 2020, for instance, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo claimed Burkina Faso’s military government was hiring Wagner personnel – a development that apparently frightened Accra, and which called for American assistance. But the Ghanaian leader provided no evidence for his claim and the consequence was a strained relationship between his country and Burkina Faso’s rulers.
With Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin killed in a mysterious plane crash, the mercenary group is expected to come more directly under the control of the Kremlin over the next few months, which should offer indications of Russia’s plans in the region.
But while the West has criticised Russia for its role in backing undemocratic rulers in Africa, the US and France, too, have backed Chad’s unelected military regime – under Deby’s son Mahamat.
So, what’s the future for the region?
‘Bonanza for extremist groups’
According to Simon Rynn, a senior research fellow on African security at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, “There are so many factors pushing in [the] direction” of more coups in the region.
“So many countries have had contested elections or have third-term presidents clinging to power, or have high insecurity or a stagnant economy,” Rynn told Al Jazeera. “We don’t know where might be affected by coup plotting next, but places like Cameroon, Togo, Senegal, Benin are all struggling in various ways.”
To be sure, while the combination of factors that made coups possible elsewhere might exist in other nations, not every country is destined to witness a putsch.
Many experts, for instance, have described Togo as being on the brink of as coup for several years, but its institutions have so far weathered those threats. Although Togo was the site of the first government overthrow in post-independence Africa, the country has not seen a successful coup since 1967. The reason has been attributed to a very faithful and enduring relationship between the military and the ruling Gnassingbe dynasty.
Still, Muqthar says the situation as it stands in the region is “very dire” because armed groups are exploiting the state of insecurity to expand their influence across the Sahel region to coastal West Africa.
“Coups provide spaces for extremist groups to exploit,” he said. “It’s a field day and bonanza for extremist groups within the region to exploit because, while governments are busy looking at ways to bring about stability and contain the vulnerability, extremist groups are taking advantage of that and increasing their presence through attacks.”
Groupings like ECOWAS have also faced criticism for failing to deter coups and for its seeming inability to help struggling governments deliver on democratic mandates. Rynn pointed out that the West African bloc has in the past dragged its feet in punishing some member after coups, hurting its legitimacy in pushing back against the ongoing wave of military takeovers. For instance, the bloc watched on as Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara took the oath of office for a controversial third term in 2020, a move experts and the opposition say violated the constitution, which limits presidents to two terms.
In fact, after ECOWAS warned of a possible military intervention in Niger following the coup against Bazoum, the military rulers in Niamey found support from their peers in charge of Mali and Burkina Faso, the three nations effectively forming an alliance.
Meanwhile, the disappointment with elected governments mounts. In July, Afrobarometer’s CEO Joseph Asunka told a group of veteran African leaders that across 36 nations polled in 2021-22, only 38 percent of people said that democracy was delivering for them.
It is a reality that Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who was at the meeting, acknowledged.
“Unless and until African governments address the deficiencies in democratic governance and deliver essential public services to their people,” Hassan said, “democracy will remain an aspiration never to be meaningfully realised”.