While the social and economic dislocations associated with the COVID-19 pandemic might have served as triggers for the wave of military takeovers or coups in West Africa, experts have had much to say of the fragile economies of the countries in the region, pre-COVID.
The fragile countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso –were on the precipice of instability long before the emergence of the virus due to deep-seated vulnerabilities such as chronic insecurity, political corruption and mass unemployment.
A non-resident fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) West Africa, Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, holds that indeed, in all the three countries, military interventions came not as a surprise but on the back of long-ignored systemic failures and growing societal discontent.
In Burkina Faso, repeated attacks by armed groups and a failure to govern (partly evidenced in the apparent ill-equipping of the country’s security forces against such groups) created a security vacuum.
Attacks in November and December 2021 left nearly 100 members of the security forces and community defence volunteers dead. The army blamed its failure to adequately respond to these attacks on the government. As a result, in late January 2022, what initially appeared to be a mutiny, turned into a coup that toppled the country’s civilian government.
In Mali, attempts by the ruling party to manipulate the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections in favour of candidates supported by the then president led to street demonstrations during which aggrieved masses called on the government to resign. After months of impasse, the military took advantage of the situation and staged a coup in August 2020.
In Guinea, the September 2021 military coup was the consequence of a months-long political crisis, triggered by President Alpha Conde’s bid to remove presidential term-limit restrictions through a constitutional referendum in March 2020 – a move that allowed him to seek a third term in office.
Both the referendum and the October 2020 presidential election, which resulted in Conde’s re-election, were marred by boycotts from opposition and civil society groups, and violent altercations between protesters and security forces that resulted in hundreds of deaths.
None of these coups, or the challenges that led to them, materialized suddenly. International development organizations and think-tanks have been pointing to the extreme security and governance challenges facing these countries for years.
Even before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, US-based think-tank The Fund for Peace had rated these countries as on “high warning” or on “alert” in its Fragile States Index, suggesting that their vulnerabilities could lead to instability if not outright armed conflict.
Similarly, the Economist Intelligence Unit, in its Democracy Index of 2019, had suggested that there was a steady decline in the quality of democratic governance in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.
In Mali, Burkino Faso and Guinea, however, the lack of such safeguards resulted in civilian populations enthusiastically embracing the recent military interventions.
Indeed, citizens in these countries responded to the news of military takeovers with protests not against the intervening military, but the removed political leaders.
In further legitimizing the takeovers, the peoples of Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali have accused their former colonial masters of being complicit in their plight and rejected external interventions and sanctions – mainly imposed by the regional political block ECOWAS – meant to hamstring the military and compel them to accept proposed conditions for democratic elections and return to “constitutional” rule.
This reaction was a reflection of the masses’ lack of faith in the state of democratic politics in their countries, and it may have significant consequences not only for Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, but the wider region.
Widespread civilian support for these coups reinforces the notion that the armed forces are the guardians of states. Convinced that existing constitutional processes are not adequate to support good governance in their countries, citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea appear to believe that the military may be a credible alternative to the band of corrupt and unrepentant political elites that have betrayed their confidence.
Whatever happens in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and other African nations that have experienced coups in recent times, if the continent’s democratic leaders and multilateral bodies continue to ignore the conditions that triggered this new wave of military interventions, what we have witnessed so far might very well be a foretaste of what is to come.