Crisis in Western Africa: The Rise of Coups
by Nicholas Dawson, Forecast International.
The countries in West Africa have serious issues to contend with. Not only do the people have to live in fear of terror attacks, hostage crises, and finding themselves fighting between non-state actors, but the governments that rule them have been constantly shifting and changing. In multiple countries, coups have become common, with a special mention of Mali which has had two military coups in nine months. Military juntas have been gaining power at a time when regional stability is already fragile. In some cases, such as in Guinea, the corruption of President Alpha Conde was cited as a reason for Mamady Doumbouya’s overthrow and installation of a junta. This analysis explores the coups that have taken place in Chad, Guinea and Mali to better identify what led to the coups and what the juntas have done since taking power.
Beginning with the most recent coup, at the start of September, the president of Guinea, Alpha Conde, was overthrown by Special Forces commanded by Col. Mamady Doumbouya. During President Conde’s rule, several opposition leaders had been arrested or exiled due to their criticism of the president. Alpha Conde had rewritten the Constitution to allow himself to run for a third term, which had brought about protests by the people that were spurred on by the opposition parties. A study by Afrobarometer found that more than 8 in 10 Guineans favored a two-term limit. Some of the protests regarding the new constitutional change led to violence, killing anywhere from 10 to 33 people, depending on the source. President Conde won in a controversial election that saw the continued suppression of protests by the police. Many of Conde’s detractors charged him with stirring ethnic tensions between the Malinke and Fulani people, as well as alleging large-scale corruption.
Mamady Doumbouya, who overthrew Conde, is a 41-year-old former French legionnaire and commander of Guinea’s Elite Special Forces. He had served in various missions across Africa and the Middle East. He justified the coup by stating, “The duty of a soldier is to save the country.” Following the coup, Doumbouya established a military junta known as the National Rally and Development Committee (CNRD) to set up a roadmap for new elections and a new constitution. The opposition leaders who had been arrested or exiled were able to return, and began consultations with the junta in hopes of a democratic solution. An agreement would eventually be reached, whereby Doumbouya would be installed as the interim president and the country would follow a “transitional charter” that would bring back civilian rule, with elections to be held in six months.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) immediately investigated Guinea for the coup and decided to sanction those involved in the military junta, suspending Guinea from the group and demanding that Alpha Conde be dismissed. ECOWAS is worried about the turbulence in the region owing to how poor it is and how volatile the situation is there. The African Union (AU) would soon follow. The CNRD denounced the sanctions and argued that ECOWAS should listen to the Guinean people. On October 1, Doumbouya was sworn in by the Supreme Court of Guinea as interim president. He stated that neither he nor any member of the junta will stand in any future elections, but so far there is no timeline as to when the elections will take place.
Sometimes those in power meet fatal ends. In April, Chad ruler Idriss Deby, who led for 30 years, was killed while fighting rebels. Shortly after his death, the military quickly took over and gave power to his son, Mahamat Idriss Deby, a four-star general. Traditionally, the Constitution stipulates, if the president dies, the president of the National Assembly would provisionally assume the duties of the president. However, Mahamat and the junta suspended the Constitution and dissolved the government and Parliament, stating that such actions would be provisional to maintain stability. Unlike the Guinea coup, in which the junta allowed for something resembling normalcy, the Chad junta immediately banned demonstrations and used force as necessary to repress them.
Strangely enough, when the AU performed a fact-finding mission regarding sanctioning or suspending Chad, the AU Commission of Political Affairs, Peace and Security decided not to sanction or suspend the country. While ECOWAS and the AU sanctioned Guinea for overthrowing Alpha Conde, they didn’t seem to have a problem with Mahamat’s coup and dissolution of the government. This doesn’t mean Mahamat got off easily. The AU gave conditions to the junta, including a review of the creation of a transitional charter and rejecting any extension of the transition process. The main consensus was that owing to the rebel and terrorist influences in the region, there can be some leeway in the sanctioning and suspension process. As of writing, the junta, effective May, has 18 months to transition the government, and the junta has appointed a new prime minister, Albert Pahimi Padacke.
To understand Mali’s 2021 coup, we must look back to last year’s coup. The 2020 coup of Mali President Boubacar Keita happened in August when there were arguments over military promotions. These led President Keita to resign as the military mutinied against him. Before this watershed moment, there had been protests demanding Keita’s resignation as well as the dissolution of the National Assembly and Constitutional Court. Many Malians have been angered over the inefficiency of the government due to its inability to solve conflicts in the country and provide basic services, and refusal to respect democratic norms. Mali, along with Chad, has been the target of terrorist attacks and rebels, leading to instability which in turn has led to failed governance due to increasing security problems. There had been multiple months of protests against the government following an election held in March, where only 7.5 percent of the electorate came out to vote and the Constitutional Court directly interfered with election results in 32 races.
The 2020 coup was led by the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), but it suffered failure when no agreements on a government could be secured. A transitional charter was ultimately approved. Following the coup, there was little violence and the people seemingly supported it. The head of the CNSP, Col. Assimi Goita, would oversee the dissolution of the CNSP in January 2021. A new government would be appointed in which Bah N’Daw would be appointed interim president and Moctar Ouane, prime minister. It didn’t last long, though, as both would be arrested in May. Col. Assimi Goita, the current vice president, said that he was “removing the prerogatives of the president and prime minister” for incompetence and for forming a new government without consulting him. Goita claimed this was a violation of the transitional charter. The transitional charter that was agreed to gave Goita authority in defense and security matters, but no power to rid the interim president and prime minister. Goita would then give himself the title of president, with little pushback. The transitional charter also set up elections for February 2022, but recently it was announced the elections could be delayed, worrying ECOWAS and international observers. France has specifically been critical of Mali, especially as it begins to withdraw troops, as the junta has been rumored to be in talks with the Wagner group, a Russian paramilitary group that has been active in the region, notably Libya. As of writing, no sanctions have been declared by ECOWAS, but the group threatened them if the junta does not abide by the transitional charter.
These are just three examples of successful coups in Africa within the past two years. There have been multiple failed coups, including in Niger and Sudan. Moreover, across Africa, coups have been rising in number as well, with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe losing power in 2017 prior to his death. In West Africa specifically, regional instability from security issues is one of the main driving points for coups, the other being perceived corruption in the government. Freedom House found that West Africa’s democratic progress is slowly eroding, and these coups are proof of that assertion. Whether or not these juntas will uphold their agreements to revive civilian rule, there is still a chance that the next governments will find themselves down the barrel of a gun. With these recent actions, the precedent of military interventions and coups against a government becomes the new normal.