This post attempts to put the recent coups in the so-called “coup belt” in perspective and provides some thoughts on potential ways forward for affected countries. Having a firm understanding of how we got here is important for making sure that 1) everyone has a realistic understanding of the problem at hand; and 2) pivotal actors do not keep repeating the same mistakes.
Perhaps with the exception of Guinea, all affected countries experienced coups partially as a by-product of the imbalanced aggrandizement of their armed forces in the face of serious security threats — whether from domestic insurgencies, organized crime, or the spread of militancy related to the global “war on terror” and/or insecurity contagion from failing neighboring states. Geographic diffusion has since locked in strong negative neighborhood effects, especially since affected countries typically are also involved in proxy conflicts with each other. It follows that the coup risk in affected states will most likely not subside unless their domestic elites serious invest in the painstaking tasks of state-building, repairing their social contracts, and tackling overall regional drivers of insecurity.
The usual formula of add deeply-flawed elections, sprinkle some foreign aid, stir, and then leave — beloved by the “the international community” — will not work. If anything, it will likely multiply the list of grievances fueling political instability within and across countries in the region. Unfortunately for everyone involved, there are no easy solutions to the problem of state weakness. State-building in socio-politically fractious low-income states is one of the biggest challenges of our time. Plus the current international system’s tolerance of weak states means that there are no structural incentives to invest in state-building. Finally, it doesn’t help that a lot of experts out there prefer to hide behind the dangerous delusion that weak states wracked by systemic instability and unbelievable levels of violence can simply elect their way to political order and economic prosperity.
A number of the coups were met by jubilant crowds. Such scenes occasioned intellectual pearl-clutching across Africa and beyond. For example, a naive reader of much of the commentary on Niger so far would be forgiven for thinking that the country was a bastion of democracy before last week’s coup. Forget Niger’s barely functional state, government suppression of dissent and free speech, arbitrary arrests, and documented cases of security forces murdering civilians in the name of fighting insurgents. Briefly stated, “democracy” in Niger and other countries in the region was not delivering on its promises. It should therefore not come as a surprise that a section of the country celebrated the coup. In the most recent Afrobarometer survey, 67% of respondents supported military intervention in politics (see comparative image below). It is possible that some of the respondents genuinely prefer autocratic military rule. But I bet the vast majority are simply frustrated by the chronic failures of whatever they keep being served as democracy by their elites and the international community. In the same Afrobarometer survey, about 61.4% of respondents expressed a preference for democracy over other forms of government.
The point here is not to justify extra-constitutional power grabs in imperfect democracies. It is to remind us all that browbeating the victims of mis-governance in service to abstract principles that aren’t backed by tangible material outcomes will not work. You can’t eat the idea of democracy and associated rituals of electoralism. Invariably, juntas that promise better material conditions will show up and win enough people’s hearts and minds. Supporters of much-needed democracy promotion efforts in the region should understand that the best way to secure democracy is to demonstrate that it works. As Howard French reminds us in an excellent piece in Foreign Policy, what the international community has so far aspired for in Niger and the wider Sahel is not real democracy but client states that can cheaply be coopted into wider global agendas — whether it is defeating jihadis, countering geopolitical competitors, hoarding vital resources, or stemming migrant flows.
To reiterate, democracy promotion for the benefit of regular citizens in these countries has not always been a top priority. Complacent local elites have principally focused on ascending to power and dominating networks funded by resource rents, illicit trade, and foreign aid. Their foreign security/development partners have mainly been interested in stemming the flows of migrants, accessing natural resources, fighting jihadist in the Sahel so they don’t have to fight them in Western cities, and maintaining overall geopolitical influence in the region. Democracy and economic development have mostly been subordinated to these larger objectives, and often get abandoned whenever there is a conflict over means towards the other goals.
The resulting perceived subordination to foreign interests fuels the intense sovereignty discourse that remains to be an under-appreciated subplot in the current crisis. Much ado has been made about Russian influence in the Sahel at the expense of France and other Western powers. However, only willful ignorance would lead one to conclude that the sporadic waving of Russian flags that have followed coups in Bamako, Ouagadougou, Conakry, and Niamey are well-considered mass expressions of love for Putin. Instead, these acts (and accompanying expressions of anti-French sentiment) should be viewed as rejections of more than a century of brutal French colonialism and neocolonial influence in the region. They are also sentiments that the coup leaders have been more than willing to harness for their own designs.
The recent speech in St. Petersburg by Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso perfectly encapsulates this fact. The speech went viral in WhatsApp groups across Africa precisely because it spoke to a reality that few so far have been willing to discuss publicly.
Those who dismiss Traoré’s message as the empty rants of a misguided tyrant cosplaying Sankara but in reality carrying water for Putin/Prigozhin do so at their own peril. He and his fellow coup leaders in Mali and Guinea may be deeply flawed messengers, but their message on the region’s century-long unquenched thirst for real self-determination has legs.
Importantly, it is a message that should be internalized by African political elites and democracy activists. While one should expect that foreign actors will always act to advance their own interests, what has become clear is that the wider region is increasingly hostile to leaders who perpetuate the historical unholy alliance between complacent ruling elites and foreign neocolonial interests. Obviously, publics in these countries are not rejecting all forms of collaboration with outside actors — many understand that African states need all the friends they can get. Rather, they want such collaboration to meaningfully address their concerns and respect their sovereignty. Accepting the realities of the hierarchy of states in the international system ought not lead one to ignore the fact that the absence of meaningful self-determination is inimical to democratic consolidation.
II: What is the way forward?
Even if we took them for their word that they are champions of a new and better governance paradigm, so far there is little indication that Ibrahim Traore (35), Mamady Doumbouya (43), Assimi Goïta (43) and other strongmen in the Sahel will be judged favorably by history. Like many young military officers before them, they will most certainly disappoint for lack of a strong bench of grounded technocrats and thinkers to work with; their obvious under-estimation of what they are up against (both in terms of domestic economic, political, and security challenges as well as foreign opposition); an almost naive belief in the power of nationalist/ideological mobilization despite their temporal and material contexts; and the lack of self-discipline and organizational capacity to see their agenda through.
Beyond these leadership shortcomings, there is geopolitics. If they succeed in consolidating their hold on power, one of the biggest mistakes the Sahel’s new military rulers are likely to make is to substitute one form of vassalage for another. If the Cold War taught us anything it is that one should never play host to others’ conflicts, regardless of whether they are insurgents or major powers. Relatedly, it would be naive to imagine that powers that stand to lose out in any reshuffling of geopolitical cards in the region will abandon their privileges quietly. If in doubt, brush up on your history of the Republic of Guinea. France will most certainly ensure that aid cuts are not the only huddle these regimes face moving forward.
The Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) presents both a grave threat and arguably best chance for the beginning of stability in the wider Sahel.
In the aftermath of the Niger coup, ECOWAS leaders threatened to send troops to Niamey to reinstall the deposed civilian president. The newfound urgency was partially driven by Nigeria’s security concerns (ECOWAS did not go this far following coups in Guinea, Burkina Faso, or Mali). Complete chaos in Niger would rob Abuja and other coastal West African states of an important buffer against all manner of potential security challenges. In addition, the civilian-led states in ECOWAS likely fear coup contagion.
I doubt ECOWAS will follow through with the threat of invasion. The bloc lacks the capacity to execute such a mission. It is also unclear if an invasion would necessarily unscramble Niger’s constitutional collapse. ECOWAS should take a moment and ponder whether moving mountains to push Niger into what will undoubtedly be a worse situation than before the coup (which was objectively very bad) is worth the effort. For those who have been living under a rock since 2001, invading a country is not a passion project that one picks up and abandons on a whim. Should ECOWAS invade Niger in the name of democracy, it should prepare to occupy the country for years and pump in the resources necessary to guarantee security and improve livelihoods. Anything short of this will worsen the situation.
Despite my doubts above there is a real risk of a miscalculation by ECOWAS over the likely success of invasion. Such an invasion would certainly require support from France, the European Union, and the United States. The danger is that ECOWAS will misread the elevated pro-invasion chatter among Western academics and civil society organizations as a reliable leading indicator of their governments’ willingness to bankroll such an exercise for the long haul. One hopes that folks at ECOWAS see the equivocation over calling out the Niger coup by Western security and foreign policy leaders as the more dependable signal. The US is in no rush to evacuate its 1,100 troops stationed in Niger. Western governments are, in fact, very much willing to play ball in service to their interests wherever juntas are amenable. Chad’s military government is very much in the fold, and United States officials do not mind providing military aid to Burkina Faso. According to the Washington Post:
Senior officials at the State Department and Pentagon are supporting the provision of nonlethal security assistance to Burkina Faso’s military, arguing that the threat posed by a spiraling Islamist insurgency requires action, especially since Russia’s Wagner Group would be eager to step in. A senior administration official said Wagner is “salivating” for the chance to establish a formal partnership with the Burkinabè government.
Rather than gamble on an invasion, a more promising path to lasting stability might be for ECOWAS to accept that there are no good options on the table; and adopt the standard African Union operating procedure of establishing suspension to save face and a fixed timeline towards a return to civilian rule (both of which are actually important instantiations of norm entrepreneurship). In the interim, ECOWAS should visibly lead economic, political, and military responses to the Sahelian insurgencies (and tactful of laundering any non-African involvement and assistance). Most observers would agree that it was a mistake to let France take the lead in previous counter-insurgency efforts. Furthermore, ECOWAS should reject the frame of global symbolic forever wars driven by insurmountable incompatibilities, and instead cast these conflicts as the localized disputes (with global overtones) over divisible socio-political power and resources that they are. Of course this approach doesn’t preclude dealing militarily with spoilers.
Ultimately, success will hinge on whether there are powerful and stable enough elite factions in the affected countries interested in long-term state-building. Absent this, there is only so much outsiders can do — hence the reason to avoid delusions of being able to pick winners on the basis of their suitability to act as agents of ECOWAS or other foreign interests.
I’ll conclude with a brief discussion of what I consider to be an important silver lining in the current moment: the elevation of the discourse on sovereignty and self-determination. As a region, Africa requires an urgent reorientation of ruling elites’ approach to government. The enormous challenges at hand — from endemic poverty to climate change to insecurity to joblessness — call for ambitious leaders who aspire to be more than heads of incompetent client states at the periphery of world affairs.
Notice that “ambitious” here isn’t the same thing as “perfect.” I’m certainly open to the possibility that under the right conditions even men like Traore can be vehicles for positive change. Infusing regular public discourse with ideas of self-determination might just do the trick of selecting for leaders who are good enough to lead charge against the region’s challenges (think of this as creating structural conditions that cultivate better than average leaders).
The discourse on self-determination also has the potential to provide the foundation for repairing frayed social contracts; to localize and therefore increase the possibility of ending the many conflicts in the Sahel; while also inoculating Sahelian states against becoming pawns in wider global geopolitical games.
If nothing else comes out of this era of chaos, I hope that a deep commitment to self-determination by elites and general publics alike becomes a central feature of the political cultures of Sahelian states and beyond.
This article originally appeared on An Africanist Perspective on 3 August 2023 and it is republished here with the permission of the writer. No changes were made to the original article.