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West Africa’s ‘Comeback Coups’: The Role of Civil-Military Relations

Sulley Ibrahim, PhD

West Africa has seen accelerating democratic decline, including unconstitutional third-term extensions, electoral fraud, disputed polls and coups d’état. Analysts argue that the region has returned to the infamous tag of ‘Africa’s coup belt’ that it held in the 1960s and 1970s. Based on Afrobarometer data and speeches and sociodemographic backgrounds of coup plotters and backed by theory of civil control of military, this essay merges democracy and military explanations for the return of coups in West Africa. It argues that mutinies and coups, even though separate political phenomena, are linked in the region such that the officer corps most likely to rebel have also been the officers most likely to plot coups. West African military mutinies and takeovers are linked not only by virtue of being civil-military relation problems but also because of problematic civil controls of military. The essay highlights civil initiatives which often foment material grievances within armed forces and push officers to stage mutinies as a form of military dissent but escalate them into military takeovers. It concludes by arguing that efforts to counter armed forces’ predisposition to push their way into politics should also address elite tendencies to polarize national barracks.


Four successful and two failed coups took place in West Africa between August 2020 and February 2022. This means three out of the region’s fifteen countries are now militarily governed. This wave of coups began in Mali in August 2020 when Colonel Assimi Goita led elite military members to topple the government and led another coup in May 2021 to topple the transitional government put in place following the August 2020 coup. Mali was followed by Guinea, with a coup in September 2021 led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. The fourth successful coup occurred in Burkina Faso in January 2022, led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba. The two failed coups included failed attempts to topple Niger’s government in March 2021 and Guinea-Bissau’s government in February 2022. Guinea Bissau’s failed coup reportedly involved disgruntled drug lords who sought to destabilize the country for their illicit economic activities. Guinea Bissau’s coup also resulted in deaths, unlike the bloodless coups of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. 


This trend of democratic backsliding in West Africa has rekindled the infamous tag of the region as Africa’s “coup belt”. Ghanaian President AkufoAddo, the immediate past chair of the region’s bloc the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), painted a picture of a contagious coup effect, in that coup plotters have been copying one another. This suggests that military takeovers are likely to be more regular in the region. It is against this background that this essay integrates Afrobarometer data with speeches and sociodemographic details of coup plotters to explore democratic backsliding in West Africa. It focuses on relations between mutinies and coups while using a theory of objective civil control of military to coordinate the analysis.


While explanations for the recent military takeovers have varied, issues of poor governance, economic hardship and political corruption on the part of elected leaders have been discussed widely. It is argued that failures of elected leaders have resulted in popular support for coup makers, which also repositions the military as saviors of the people. The popular support for coups contradicts prevailing mass support for democracy in region. For example, while 62% and 75% of Burkinabe and Malians respectively reject military rule, 57% of Guineans are satisfied with democracy as a form of government. While these levels of support were recorded prior to the region’s newer coups, similar trends have been reported in relatively stable democracies, such as Ghana where 76% prefer democracy and 53.3% strongly reject military rule.

Civil-military explanations for this democratic backsliding have remained relatively underexplored. This essay attributes recent military takeovers to how civil elites usually control and direct the military in the region. It shows how these controls have included problematic initiatives that foment material grievances and breed a sense of injustice in national barracks. These polarizing civil-military initiatives push military officers to use mutiny as a form of pushback, which escalates into outright military takeover of government. This demonstrates the importance of both countering tendencies of armies to push their way into politics and tendencies of civil leaders to polarize national barracks.


Conceptualizing and analyzing civil control of military

I define democratic decline narrowly as disruptions to democratic consolidation, resulting in the deterioration of democratic institutions. This may include abolition of term limits, truncation of ongoing elections, military mutinies and coups. Mutinies are a form of insubordination military officers use to air specific grievances. Mutinies manifest in forms such as shutting down and/or blocking of roads by aggrieved officers as a way to vent out their displeasure with a specific policy and/ or leadership decision. They are typically stagged by rank-and-file soldiers, while junior officers are the most likely among the officer corps to stage mutinies. Military insubordinations can have disastrous consequences, which may include triggering a coup, defined as an extralegal seizure of power. Coups are illegal replacement of (usually) elected leaders with a political leadership which has not been elected, installed and held to account by citizens. Although mutinies and coups are both problems of civil-military relations, this paper focuses on controls and directions of elected elites over military.


The essay draws on the objective civil control of military theory, and not the concordance theory, to analyze West Africa’s returned coups. The concordance theory states that the co-existence of political leadership, military leadership and civil society oversight in the management of military affairs is the optimal way to curtail coups. This proposition hardly reflects the current situation of West Africa countries where elected leaders already exercise extreme control over armed forces. The essay thus draws insights from the objective civilmilitary control theory, also known as separation theory, to explain the democracy-military linkage in the resurgence of coups in West Africa. This theory posits that the separation of military from politics is the optimal way to prevent military intervention in political processes. 


Explaining civil-military linkage of West Africa’s ‘comeback coups’ 

Mutinies and coups are often analyzed as different forms of political violence. Cases of both events in West Africa show they are often linked, such that mutinies can explain coup onset. Both arise at the intersection of civil-military relations. Dwyer argued that West African militaries often leverage mutinies to push back unwanted civilian initiatives that they view as disruptive to military discipline. Civil disruptions in armed forces breed a sense of injustice and sometimes mobilize officers, especially the junior officer corps, to stage rebellion. When poorly addressed, these grievances can foster disobedience in national barracks. This disobedience can be followed by uprisings within armed forces and escalate into outright takeover of government. Yet, instead of viewing military mutinies as tactical acts used by military officers, as efforts to open dialogue with civil leadership, West African elected leaders often counter military dissent by co-opting senior-ranked officers with patronage rewards. These rewards may buy toplevel officer corps’ loyalty and potentially lower the chances of a coup, but they can also disrupt the capacity of senior officers to control military discipline. 


Features of West Africa’s recent coups clearly illustrate aspects of the foregoing dynamic. Garcia reported, for example, that Burkina Faso’s coup developed from not just a general frustration with the deposed government but rather from accumulated material discontent within the national barracks. The military accused the government of poorly caring for their wounded members and surviving families of comrades who lost their lives in the fight against terrorism:

Mutinous soldiers told the AP [Associated Press] that the government was out of touch with troops. Among their demands are more forces in the battle against extremists and better care for the wounded and the families of the dead. About 100 military members have planned the takeover since August [2021], according to one of the mutinous soldiers.


Burkina Faso, like Mali, had seen swaths of territory taken over by extremist groups. Militant attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso increased from 1,180 to 2,005 between 2020 and 2021 which then undermined public confidence in the ability of elected leaders to protect them. In other words, it detached citizens, especially those in terroristoccupied territories from identifying effectively with the civil governments of both Mali and Burkina Faso.


The way polarizing civil controls undermines civilmilitary relations begins with breeding disunity within armed forces. It creates poor military cohesion which then splits armies into factions with conflicting loyalties to both military and civil leadership. The case of Guinea illustrates this broad observation. It began with divisions that undermined discipline of the security forces, as a diplomat based in Conakry (Guinea’s capital) reported that the coup “may have started after the dismissal of a senior commander in the special forces’ which then provoked “some of its highly trained members to rebel.”This also means the division arose from the authoritarian tactics of the ousted president. In his effort to win an illegitimate third term election, Conde empowered the special forces and rendered them loyal to himself. This ensued disharmony between the general forces and the special forces in the national barracks. Conde particularly used the special force unit to support his crack down of political opponents and civic dissent. There were international attempts to sanction Doumbouya, who was not only Conde’s close protection officer but also a prominent figure in the special forces, for human rights violations. This threat could have also created personal dilemma for Doumbouya, prompting him to depose Conde and install himself as president to avoid possible international arrest and prosecution. Burkina Faso’s ousted President, Kabore similarly used security officers to crack down on political and civil protests which also contributed to ensue divisions within the national barracks. Kabore then promoted Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba as a strategy to “shore up support within the army” for the government. Damiba was yet often perceived as loyal protégé of the long-term leader, Blaise Campaore whose ouster by a popular resistance in 2013 ushered the country into the current instabilities. Damiba’s promotion seems to have escalated the ensuing resistance as he led the elite forces to depose the government and installed himself as the president few weeks later. 


West Africa’s coups are therefore indeed inspired by “restlessness within … [national] armed forces.” This hostile working environment also links with restive civil controls and directions of military officers. For example, the maiden speeches of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso’s juntas revealed a common trend of military disapproval of certain political decisions. In Mali, the military blamed ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta for their sufferings. They faulted Keïta for imposing austerity on everyone and yet purchased himself a $40-million jet. This decision indeed sparked nationwide controversies, and even provoked the International Monetary Fund, which had granted the government a credit facility of $23 million, to demand explanation. This suggests sections of West Africa (serving) military officers loathe the use of state resources for private comfort. This associates positively with a 2019 survey in which 46% of 742 security sector professionals across 37 African countries rated corruption as their greatest challenge. 


The recent coups were plotted by junior-ranked officers. Doumbouya of Guinea, Assimi Goita of Mali and Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba of Burkina Faso were respectively forty-one, thirtynine, and forty-one years of age and also bored lower-rank military insignias of lieutenants and colonels at the time they staged their coups. The dynamic relation of junior officers and mutinies also reiterates the linkage between mutinies and coups, as the officer corps most likely to stage mutinies have also been the officer corps most likely to plot coups in West Africa. This trend moreover suggests junior-ranked officers are often suspicious of relations between civil leaders and senior-ranked officers. This suspicion partly confirms the way coup leaders immediately retired senior officers, as illustrated as such: “Citing the failure of the ousted civilian governments in Mali and Burkina Faso to defeat Islamist insurgents, the new military rulers want to reorganize their countries’ security systems, retiring many of the old cohort of senior officers.” Thus, coup leaders hold both senior officers and political elites equally accountable for the governance malaise they exploited to plot their coups.

Conclusion & way forward 

Mutinies and coups are often treated as separate political events. The chapter however showed both events are often linked, especially in West Africa. This linkage arises not simply because mutinies and corps are common civil-military relation problems but rather because officer corps most likely to stage mutinies have also been officer corps most likely to seize political power illegally. The two problems also arise largely from civil initiatives that polarise national barracks. The chapter showed polarising civil controls and directions of armed forces typically push military officers to stage rebellion and escalate these insubordinations into complete takeover of government. Also, the officer corps most likely to dislike polarising civil initiatives and official corruption have often been junior officers, which may be why mutinies and coups identify more positively with rank-and-file officers in the region. Hence, efforts to counter armed forces’ predispositions to push their way into politics should also address tendencies of civil leaders to polarise national barracks.


Civil leaders tend to misconstrue popular approval of ‘democracy as an idea’ in West Africa with popular support for their leadership practices. The chapter shows recent coups arose from civil provocations underscored by poor appreciation of separation of military from politics. Hence, future studies should examine whether elected leaders have become complacent in their controls and directions of armed forces. These suggestions however imply democracy and military explanations for West Africa’s ‘comeback coups’ are linked and hence could be more properly understood and redressed within the constitutional separation of armed forces from political leadership.

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