People chant slogans during a protest against the October 2021 military coup, in Khartoum, Sudan
In August, a group of Gabonese military officers deposed President Ali Bongo, whose family had ruled the country for nearly six decades. The response to this event was emblematic of a broader trend.
When Bongo called for international support against the coup, it quickly turned into a meme ridiculing his desire to cling to power. This incident is just one example of a series of coups and popular responses that have occurred across West Africa, Central Africa, and the Sahel since 2020.
The wave of coups began in Mali three years ago when the army mutinied and subsequently carried out a coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita. This was followed by another coup against an interim administration in May 2021. Guinea conducted a military coup in September 2021, followed by Sudan in October 2021.
Chad experienced a coup in April 2021 after President Idriss Deby was killed on the battlefield. Burkina Faso witnessed two military coups in 2022. Niger's presidential guard overthrew the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26, 2023, followed by the Gabonese coup a few weeks later. Additionally, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe have all experienced failed coup attempts since the beginning of the previous year.
In many cases, these coups appear to have had significant popular support among civilians, leading to questions about whether people are growing disillusioned with civilian-led governments, even in ostensibly democratic systems.
Several factors have contributed to this trend, including deepening inequality, corrupt administrations, fragile ethnic and cultural relations, and the militarization of civilian politics. The failure of democracy to address these issues has fueled popular support for military takeovers.
Additionally, economic challenges, corruption, rising costs of living, and political elites living well while citizens struggle have further eroded faith in civilian governments.
The role of external actors, such as former colonial powers (e.g., France) and mercenaries from countries like Russia, has also played a significant role in regional instability and the vulnerability of these nations to coups.
Western powers, including France and the United States, have at times backed undemocratic regimes, which has led to public opposition and anti-French sentiment in some instances. Other nations, such as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, China, India, and Russia, have increased their influence in Africa, contributing to a new scramble for the continent.
The activities of paramilitary groups like the Wagner Group, often linked to Russia, have been a source of concern. While Western criticism of Russia's support for undemocratic rulers is notable, both the US and France have supported Chad's unelected military regime.
In summary, weak democratic processes, economic challenges, regional instability, external actors, and growing popular discontent are contributing to the resurgence of coups in the region. However, the situation in each country is unique, and not all are destined to experience coups.
The impact of these coups, as well as the actions of regional organizations like ECOWAS, remain areas of concern. Ultimately, addressing the deficiencies in democratic governance and delivering essential public services are critical for stabilizing these nations and preventing the ongoing cycle of military takeovers.