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Fighting a contagion: The return of coups d’état and military strongmen to West Africa’s political landscape


Dr Odilile Ayodele is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), as well as Research Associate with the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. She holds a D.Litt. et Phil in Political Studies from the University of Johannesburg, and an MA in International Relations from the University of the Witwatersrand.

What is happening in West Africa and the Sahel should sound a clear warning to the AU and individual African countries alike: until we strengthen our institutions and hold poor leadership to account, we will constantly create vacuums for strongmen and other actors to fill.

As reports of coups surface across the Sahel and West Africa, the term “coup contagion” has also resurfaced in the lexicon of political unrest on the continent. Many Western outlets have quickly adopted the term to describe recent events. Even the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) chairperson and president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, described the resurgence of coups in the region as a “cancer”.

Yet the true cancer, that the African Union (AU) and Ecowas avoid speaking about, is the failure to deliver the gains of democracy across the continent and strengthen governance institutions, which in turn has created a legitimacy deficit.

Ecowas has suspended Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea from the bloc, as well as instituted sanctions as a result of the coups in the past 18 months. However, Ecowas and the AU have done little to deal with statespersons who try to overstay their legislated terms or even the endemic corruption that has rendered many state institutions moribund.

The concern appears to be about the military strongmen who depose governments, but not the failure of governments that have helped these strongmen garner support. Writing about the Burkina Faso coup, Maggie Dwyer highlights that the country’s high rate of coups is rooted in extremely poor morale among the ranks. The Burkinabe forces have had to grapple with the parallel challenges of growing Islamist militancy and a deepening humanitarian crisis engulfing the county.

Although military strongmen have taken advantage of these governance failures to depose democratic governments, can we truly say that any of these governments are truly democratic, or are they just clothed with the trappings of democracy? For instance, Guinea-Bissau survived an attempted coup attempt on 1 February 2022, after apparent stability in a recent history punctuated by military-led government overthrows. It can hardly be described as a democracy that works for all its citizens. Corruption and instability have impaired the proper governance of the state. In 2020, Freedom House warned about the erosion of democratic governance across the sub-region.

As visceral as the imagery of disease is, the contagion thesis does not speak to events that have precipitated the latest round of coups. Moreover, outside of the images of what appears to be popular support for the coups across the region, do we really know what is happening in the sub-region? It is too early to claim that a contagion is sweeping across the region. More accurately, as phrased by the deputy editor of World Politics Review, Chris Ogunmodede:

“It remains to be seen what ramifications the attack might have on the politics of yet another West African country with a history of military coups and political instability. But evidently, this week’s events underscore the weakness of domestic and regional institutions that are rapidly collapsing under the strain of immense popular expectations and insufficient legitimacy.”

The Arab Spring just more than a decade ago showed us that uprisings and military takeovers aren’t always clear cut. What we witnessed was a result of several interlocking gears including frustrations with corruption and the high cost of living, set in motion by increasing autocracy and social media. The revolution was indeed televised.

However, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring it became clear that many analysts did not understand what was really happening in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite changes of government, economic and political instability still exists in many parts of the region and the risk of another Arab Spring still looms.

The key lesson we can glean from the Arab Spring and recent events in West Africa and the Sahel, is that we should shy away from grand theorising and pay attention to the weak social contract between citizens and the state. Academic concern over democratic reversals does not address the frustrations that many ordinary citizens do not fully enjoy the fruits of democracy.

What is happening in West Africa and the Sahel should sound a clear warning to the AU and individual African countries alike: until we strengthen our institutions and hold poor leadership to account, we will constantly create vacuums for strongmen and other actors to fill.

The first step in changing the current course of events is reviving the poorly capacitated African Peer Review Mechanism and pushing states on its recommendations. If there is to be any hope of changing the trajectory of the continent and its sub-regions, we need to hold our leaders to account and save our regional governance institutions.

History has shown us that undemocratic changes of government do not improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Instead, we are left with weakened states, increasing insecurity and further impoverished citizens. We are not dealing with a contagion but rather a raging fire that threatens to engulf the entire continent.

An African proverb shared with me by a colleague serves as a warning to us all: “We suffocate from the smoke of the fire we start.” DM


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