African countries

Five African countries. Six coups. Why now?

Shots ring out. Rumors of a military coup spread. The president is nowhere to be found. The nation turns on the television and collectively switches to the state channel, where it sees new leaders, wearing berets and fatigues, announcing that the constitution is suspended, the national assembly dissolved, borders closed.

Over the past 18 months, in similar scenes, military leaders have overthrown the governments of Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan and now Burkina Faso. West African leaders convened an emergency summit on the situation in Burkina Faso on Friday, at which the new military chief, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba, told the nation in his first public address on Thursday evening that would bring the country back to constitutional order. “when the conditions are met”.

The resurgence of coups has alarmed the region’s remaining civilian leaders. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said on Friday, “This poses a threat to peace, security and stability in West Africa.”

These five nations that have recently experienced military coups form a jagged line that stretches across the wide bulge of Africa, from Guinea on the west coast to Sudan in the east.

The first came in Mali, in August 2020. The army took advantage of public anger over a stolen parliamentary election and the government’s failure to protect its people from violent extremists, and arrested President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and forced him to resign from state television. Mali has actually experienced two coups in nine months.

An unusual coup unfolded in Chad in April 2021. A president who had ruled for three decades was killed on the battlefield and his son was quickly installed in his place – a violation of the constitution.

In March 2021, there was a failed putsch attempt in Niger, then in September 2021, it was the turn of Guinea: a senior officer trained by the United States overthrew a president who had tried to hang on in power. Then in October, it was Sudan: the country’s top generals seized power, tearing up a power-sharing deal that was supposed to lead to the country’s first free election in decades.

This represents more than 114 million people now ruled by soldiers who illegally seized power. There have been four successful coups in Africa in 2021 – there had not been so many in a single calendar year since 1999. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it an “epidemic of coups d’etat”.

Why so many coups in such a short time?

The blows are contagious. When Mali’s government fell, analysts warned that Burkina Faso could follow. Now that this is the case, they warn that if the putschists are not punished, there will be more coups in the region.

People are fed up with their governments for many reasons: major security threats, relentless humanitarian disasters and millions of young people without prospects.

Governments are operating in a catastrophic fashion, said Abdul Zanya Salifu, a researcher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, who focuses on the Sahel, the strip of Africa that lies just below the Sahara. So, he says, the military thinks, “You know, why not take over?

The three Sahelian countries with recent coups – Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad – are grappling with ever-spreading Islamic insurgencies, capitalizing on local tensions and grievances against political elites.

The coup in Mali occurred in part because of the government’s failure to stem the spread of groups loosely allied with al-Qaeda and Islamic State. In Burkina Faso, an attack in November that left nearly 50 military police dead is seen as a key event that led to the coup two months later.

Millions of people in the Sahel region have been displaced and thousands have died – and often people say that politicians seem not to notice or care, driving fancy cars and sending their children to expensive foreign schools. It’s an explosive cocktail.

How are these military takeovers received by the people?

While their president was imprisoned in a military base, hundreds of Malians partied with soldiers in the streets. Not everyone supported the coup. But the junta’s popularity has grown, although it regained power in May 2021 – the second putsch in a troubling nine months – this time from civilian leaders who had been appointed to lead the transition to elections.

The regional economic bloc, ECOWAS, imposed punitive sanctions that were partly aimed at turning Malians against the junta, pressuring military leaders to commit to a quick election timetable.

But “what’s happening is exactly the opposite,” said Ornella Moderan, head of the Sahel program at the Institute for Security Studies, based in Pretoria, South Africa. The sanctions provoked anger, but against ECOWAS, not the junta. Military leaders, seen as standing up to interested foreigners, now enjoy overwhelming support, according to analysts and local reports.

In neighboring Guinea, some initially hailed the putschist as a liberator, but many also locked themselves in their homes, fearing for the future.

In Burkina Faso, a country that has seen many coups, there were a handful of pro-coup rallies the day after the army seized power, but many people simply went to work as habit.

Some said they were inspired by how the junta in neighboring Mali stood up to France, the increasingly unpopular former colonial power.

“Whoever takes power now, they have to follow Mali’s example – reject France and start making our own decisions,” said Anatole Compaore, a customer at a mobile phone market in Ouagadougou, in the early hours of the coup. ‘State.

Pro-military sentiment does not extend to Sudan. There, a popular uprising succeeded in toppling a military dictator in 2019, but public outrage has been sustained since October, when the military regained full control of the government and detained the civilian prime minister who had served in what was supposed to be a power-sharing government.

If they can overthrow governments, are the military of these countries very strong?

Not necessarily. The armed forces of Mali and Burkina Faso have little or no control over large swathes of their territories and rely heavily on self-defense militias with little training and questionable human rights records. Chad’s army is considered one of the strongest on the continent, but it has failed to stop deadly attacks by Boko Haram and its splinter group, the Islamic State in West Africa, a insurgency that is now ten years old. Nor was the army able to prevent Chad’s President, Idris Deby, a retired general, from being killed on the battlefield as rebels attempted to overthrow his government.

Paradoxically, the weakness of Burkina Faso’s armed forces was a major factor in the coup. In November, 49 military police officers and four civilians were killed in the northern outpost of Inata. The army and the public were outraged that their officers were not sufficiently equipped or trained to withstand such an attack.

“It set the stage for this takeover,” Salifu said.

It is believed that strongmen can better deal with security risks, especially in Sahelian countries where violence is soaring, said Anna Schmauder, a researcher specializing in the Sahel in the group’s conflict research unit. think tank Clingendael.

But a military takeover does not necessarily lead to a more effective response against insurgencies – the continued attacks in Mali are proof of that, she said. Ultimately, Schmauder said, “The military powers are kind of here to stay and do everything to cement their own power.”

How have regional and international powers reacted?

African and international organizations have reacted with disapproving statements and sanctions, and in Mali, the threat of an invasion by a regional standby force – but few take the latter very seriously.

The African Union has suspended Mali, Guinea and Sudan, but not Chad – a double standard that analysts say could have disastrous consequences for Africa. For some, it was proof that the African Union was no more than a club of weak and biased dictators.

After the coup in Burkina Faso, the regional economic bloc, ECOWAS, issued a statement saying such a move “cannot be tolerated” and ordering soldiers to return to their barracks. But what ECOWAS could do was unclear, given its questionable record of mediation in Mali.

The more distant powers did not do much better. The United States, the European Union and France endorsed the sanctions against Mali, but at the UN Security Council, Russia and China blocked a statement backing them.

International powers are insisting that military rulers hold quick elections. But this request irritates some people who believe that the army acts in the interest of the country.

Mali also experienced a coup in 2012, and many Malians feel that after that their country did everything the West demanded of it in terms of democracy, such as holding quick elections. . But that didn’t solve anything: insecurity got worse; corruption and the standard of living, not better.

“There’s this idea that bad elections are worse than no elections at all,” Moderan said. “We should actually tackle the political system that is not working.”

And it’s a problem wherever the West “fetishizes” adherence to a strict electoral calendar, Salifu said, while ignoring or downplaying other elements of democracy – such as a free press, lack of political repression or human rights.

All attention is on “the organization of periodic elections, which in most cases are rigged”, he said.

As in Mali, many in Burkina Faso said they had lost faith in democracy, including Assami Ouedraogo, 35, a police officer who resigned in November. “If we wait for the next elections in 2025 to change leaders, our country will no longer exist,” he said.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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