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How to understand the recent coups in Africa

Calling African coups contagious is the wrong way to think about it.

Demonstrators in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, hold a photo of coup leader Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba on January 25, 2022.
Demonstrators gather in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, on January 25, 2022, days after a military coup.
Olympia de Maismont/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past 18 months, there have been seven coups and coup attempts in African nations. In Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan, military leaders succeeded in seizing power; in Niger and, most recently, in Guinea-Bissau, they failed.

On Thursday, following the failed coup in Guinea-Bissau earlier this week, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) convened to discuss the unrest, which ECOWAS chair Nana Akufo-Addo described as “contagious” and a threat to the entire region.

That’s not wrong, according to Joseph Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

“I think yes, the broader point is there has been a pattern after a period of relatively fewer coups,” Siegle told Vox in a phone call. “It’s reasonable to assume that there’s some copycatting going on, or the norm of militaries not being involved [in government] or seizing power has been broken.”

But while the recent spate of coups have several common characteristics and show what Siegle calls a “dispersion effect,” Joseph Sany, the vice president of the US Institute of Peace’s Africa Center, told Vox in a phone interview that he thinks referring to them as “contagious” is unhelpful.

“I hate the term ‘contagion’ because it’s a blanket term,” Sany said. “You can’t put Guinea in the same group as Mali and Burkina Faso.”

According to Sany, despite some commonalities — governments unable to provide basic services for their people, corruption, and weak state institutions — the circumstances and mechanics of the recent coups and attempts are different.

And not only does labeling recent coups as part of a “contagion” or domino effect erase these differences, he said, it also absolves the world community from helping these countries build sustainable democratic institutions going forward.

Calling the coups “contagious” flattens the complexity of the situation

Africa’s current wave of coups began in August 2020, after former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was arrested at gunpoint by government forces. The subsequent series of African coups share some commonalities, such as political and economic instability and weak democratic institutions, but Sany says the specific circumstances in each case are crucial to understanding what happened — and potentially, what comes next.

In Mali and Burkina Faso, Sany notes, the governments were dealing with violent extremism from ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel. Between 2020 and 2021, according to a recent report from Siegle and his team, attacks in the region by militant Islamist organizations increased 70 percent, from 1,180 to 2,005.

According to Siegle, that security threat has formed the pretext for coups in both countries. “In terms of the differences, [in] Mali and Burkina Faso, the juntas have claimed that insecurity and an inability to deal with threats from violent extremist groups has precipitated the coups,” Siegle said. “They’re both using the same justification, and in the case of Burkina Faso, the threat is more imminent.”

But while it’s a serious concern and terror affiliates drive instability in many African nations, not every country that has undergone a recent coup is dealing with violent insurgency from terror groups.

In Guinea-Bissau, for example, the recent attempted coup is one of many since the nation gained its independence from Portugal in 1974, the Wall Street Journal’s Nicholas Bariyo writes. The nation has struggled to establish democratic traditions and institutions; notably, President Umaro Sissoco Embaló — the man this week’s failed coup tried to oust — came to power in 2020 after a contested election, which was still being reviewed by the nation’s Supreme Court when Embaló took office.

And in Guinea, a separate country that borders the smaller Guinea-Bissau, last year’s successful coup came after President Alpha Condé changed the constitution and mounted a power grab that gave him a third term in office. Although he initially won a democratic election in 2010 — the first Guinean leader to do so — his power grab, combined with corruption and deep inequality, apparently provided the impetus the military needed to mount a takeover last September.

The mechanics of these takeovers are different as well; for example, Chad’s military led a “covert coup” last year, installing the son of the deceased President Idriss Deby, himself a military commander, as the leader in violation of the constitution. The younger Deby’s government is supposed to be “transitional” — his father was Chad’s authoritarian leader for three decades — but since it abolished the constitution and dissolved the previous government and Parliament, it’s not clear where such a transition could lead.

Sudan’s coup, too, came after decades of authoritarian rule; after civil society leadership organized mass protests and ousted former dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, a transitional government comprising military and civilian leadership took over. That power-sharing agreement briefly set Sudan on a democratic trajectory before the military took over last year, eventually leading to civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s resignation this past January.

Characterizing the coups as contagious also discounts the influence of outside powers, Sany and Siegle told Vox — primarily Russia and China, and to a lesser extent, Turkey and Gulf states like Qatar. Broadly speaking, these nations don’t necessarily foment coups, but they do take advantage of instability to support regimes that allow them to exercise influence, legitimize their own antidemocratic systems, and extract resources from nations rich in diamonds, bauxite, and other valuable materials.

“It fits the mold of situations where you have an unelected, unaccountable military leader who doesn’t have a lot of political support, so, make him indebted to the Russians,” Siegle said of the recent coup in Guinea. “They’ll get access to their iron ore, and [a military leader will] give them political cover. So I see them as very vulnerable to that kind of influence.”

“If you want to know where Russia will go next, look for instability,” Sany said, pointing to the situations in Mali and Burkina Faso in particular. According to Siegle, the junta in Mali, facing a security crisis due to Islamist extremism, is heavily reliant on mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group — a costly arrangement which could further erode the junta’s ability to provide basic services for people, creating fertile ground for further instability. The economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as anti-French, anti-colonial sentiment, Sany said, made for “an explosive cocktail.”

“These military leaders were very savvy to take control,” he said.

That points to another commonality in the recent takeovers, Siegle told Vox. “The coup leaders themselves aren’t necessarily saying what they’re going to do differently, and I think that the similarity that we’re seeing across all the coups is these military actors, which all happen to be mid-level, colonel-level military leaders, they all seem more intent on seizing power and holding power for power’s sake,” he said. “They’re not offering some sort of reformist agenda, a security plan, somehow a return to democracy or improving government, or reducing corruption — anything along those lines.”

The long-term outcome of coups could depend on outside intervention

Despite their initial success, Sany and Siegle both said, many of these coup leaders will fail in the long term because they’re not equipped to govern, and because they’re working in countries that don’t have the institutions to deliver on any promises they might make. Given that possibility, the road ahead for these nations is unclear at best.

In Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, Naunihal Singh, a professor at the US Naval War College, points out that citizen and civil society groups can rarely influence military coups as they are happening, and the undoing of a government takeover or a transition to democracy depends either upon fractiousness within the military or the intervention of outside forces, and often a combination of the two.

And there’s good reason for the world to take notice: According to Singh, the “frequency and ubiquity” of coups means they pose a real problem for other democracies.

“Indeed,” Singh writes, “coups are responsible for roughly 75% of democratic failures, making them the single largest danger to democracy.”

That presents outside powers with a choice: work with civil society leaders and military governments to help these nations develop and strengthen institutions and a timeline for democratic transition, or exploit the chaos to gain a foothold for resource extraction and further exploitation, as Russia has done in several recent cases.

However, sanctioning these nations and isolating them, as the European Union and the US have done to Malian coup leaders, does nothing but harm the citizens of those countries and only pushes coup leadership away from democratic foundations, Sany said. “We are asking these nations to be like Denmark, when they don’t have the resources,” he told Vox.

According to Sany, Western countries and institutions — which have their own vested interests in the region; their own brutal, exploitative, and extractive history of colonialism in Africa; and their own strangleholds on poor nations in the form of debt — impress upon unstable nations with undemocratic leadership the importance of the rule of law and punish them when they don’t live up to those ideals, but don’t speak to the actual needs of the people living in those nations.

Nor, he said, do they present particularly viable pathways for a transition to democracy: “By putting on blanket sanctions, you alienate and punish citizens” without addressing the root cause of the instability, Sany told Vox, precipitating further instability and potentially even further coups.

Instead, according to Sany, Western powers need to work better with these countries to look honestly at the root causes of conflict, poverty, and instability; help them build up and invest in stronger institutions; and work with civil society and military leaders to lay out a path to democratic transition. Working with regional groups like ECOWAS and neighboring African countries to encourage cooperation and reduce isolation can be an effective way to reduce the risk of undemocratic takeovers, since peer nations can be highly influential, he said.

Without support for democratic systems, civil society, and institutions for justice and transparency, Sany warns, history will repeat itself.

“Coup breeds coup,” he said. “There will be protracted instability unless the world community gets involved.”