Military coups in West Africa: After ‘honeymoon’, consequences set in

Military in Mali

Feature image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The United States is halting close to $160 million in aid to Burkina Faso, after establishing that President Roch Kabore’s ouster in January 2022 was the result of a military coup.

Burkina Faso is one of the several countries in West Africa where military coups have taken place in the pursuit of the overthrow of corrupt leaders and the achievement of inclusive governance.

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In making its move against Burkina Faso, the US noted a “careful review” had taken place.

A government spokesperson told Reuters: “The State Department assesses that a military coup took place in Burkina Faso. Therefore, approximately $158.6 million in foreign assistance that benefits the Government of Burkina Faso is restricted.”

This action came just days after France resolved to pull its troops out of Mali, citing a disagreement over election dates. This consequence came several months into its coup – the military overthrew President Bah N’daw in May 2021.

Mali is now grappling with a possible debt crisis, alongside a lone fight against insurgents, with the French soldiers withdrawing.

Among the terror groups staging attacks in Mali are Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), both of which have been linked to al-Qaeda.

More recently, the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Uemoa) has imposed sanctions against Mali, asking all financial institutions under it to suspend the country.

Vincent Rouget, who heads Control Risks’ political and business risk analysis team for the West African region, said the US had to act as required by its laws.

“Different countries have different reactions to unconstitutional changes of government. The US is probably the one that has the most strict response, because in the law, they have to suspend some funds in the systems to non-democratically elected governments,” he said.

The full interview with Vincent Rouget

Vincent also noted the multifaceted nature of the challenges that coup-affected countries are facing, saying militaries often milk the popularity that comes with their takeovers – what he describes as a “honeymoon period for a few months”.

“But then when much anticipated changes do not materialise, discontent and impatience are triggered”, he said, adding several issues arise, both locally and internationally.

“The first is international isolation. We have seen some of those regimes face regional sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States, for example. The second, and speaking about investment, is a higher political risk premium that comes from uncertainty about when elections will happen and generally the pace at which those transitions will proceed, and then finally, those coups also bring erratic policy making,” he said.

In order to ensure stability, he said, the transitional regimes have to keep themselves in check – “not rock the boat too much”, honour existing commitments, maintain dialogue with the private sector and commit to keeping the borders open and trade flowing.

Aggrey Mutambo, news editor of The EastAfrican newspaper and a regional political commentator, said, however, that the military governments are disadvantaged by the fact that they do not always make tactical decisions and often want to “bulldoze” their way through leadership.

Aggrey noted that since they are not democratically elected governments, they do not require a lot of public support for their decisions.

“It just happens that at the moment, the public is enjoying what they are doing because they are fed up with what civilian leaders have been doing,” he said, adding this is why, eventually, the people want to a return to civilian governments elected by the people.

The full interview with Aggrey Mutambo

As such, Aggrey says, a key move for the military junta would be to ensure credible elections.

“In Africa, elections have not always been free and fair, and probably, that is why these people came into leadership in the first place. So the challenge for the junta for now on is to ensure that even when they return to civilian government, the people who come there [into leadership] have been directly voted for by the people in a free and fair election.”

As such, Aggrey said, a key move for the military junta would be to ensure credible elections.

“In Africa, elections have not always been free and fair, and probably, that is why these people came into leadership in the first place. So the challenge for the junta from now on is to ensure that even when they return to civilian government, the people who come there [into leadership] have been directly voted for by the people in a free and fair election,” he said.

In addition to ensuring free and fair elections, Nigerian professor Sam Smah, whose specialisms include development, governance and security issues, said whichever system comes into power must focus on achieving inclusive/ representative governance.

Sam noted, however, that for some countries, the answer may not lie entirely with either a civilian government or with military rule.

“There is a real deficit of quality leadership in a democratic setting. Nigeria, for instance, had 16 years of unbroken military rule but everybody said they wanted democracy. Now we have had 23 years of democratic governance and what do we have? A divided country … a poor country that is increasingly sinking into the abyss of discoherence,” he said, citing the misconduct of elections.

He said people who do not quality end up winning elective posts, tribal blocks/regional powers emerge and judiciaries end up deciding who shall be President, often after the military has been used to suppress the people and their voice, defeating the essence of democracy.

A file photo of Nigerian soldiers, which has been accused of electoral offences, but says it remains apolitical. /Wikimedia Commons

Regarding insecurity, Sam explained that one of the reasons militaries resolve to staging coups is that this remains a key challenge in many parts of Africa yet their sub-sector is often left out of governance.

“Democracy is edging them out and making them look subservient to civilian authority and some of them may not like that,” he said, noting militaries are important for countries on the precipice of disintegration.
“If we have a military junta that is able to deliver development, equity, justice, safety, that is what the people will go because that is what they are looking for. If, however, while they are in charge, they do not produce fundamental changes in the structure and relationship between political parties, then their presence will not help.”

Regarding international relations, Sam called for caution on the part of countries such as Mali, saying that France’s withdrawal of troops makes room for other nations, such as China and Russia, which may have ulterior motives for establishing their presence in these nations.

He raised the matter of transparency when it comes to foreign actors’ roles in African countries so that wars do not emerge as part of rebellion, and so that security and stability are achieved.

Noting that it is difficult to score foreign actors and hold them to account, Sam said that, at the very least, multilateral relationships should be reviewed, their value reassessed and new platforms of engagement established.

He said that at the end of the day, African nations, after fighting colonialism for decades, are keen on protecting their sovereignty.

“I would call on nations of the world to start seeing Africa from a different perspective. They must let Africans decide what they want,” he said.

He added, however, that a leadership system that is rejected is the one that has failed the people, hence the need for Africa’s leaders to understand democracy and national cohesion if they are to save their countries from the age-old problem of poor governance.

“It is not a question of whether we have a military here and civilians there. The question remains, fundamentally, that of sustainability of living, where people are able to go about their normal lives without harassment, intimidation, insecurity and other crimes.”

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