As featured in Edition 40, available here.
BY ROSE BUXTON (3rd year - PAIS - Bath, UK)
We’ve all seen the meme of the Zimbabwean general telling the world that this is not a coup. The sight of men in military fatigues on national television providing assurances of a transition back to civilian rule is not new. In the Sahel region, old democratic leaders are tumbling. Mali has seen two coups in less than a year, Burkina Faso’s military deposed a controversial president, Guinea’s Alpha Conde was removed from power after a disputed election, and in Chad, the military swiftly installed the son of its recently deceased leader as president. Further attempts in Guinea-Bissau and Niger have also been fought off.
Each of these coups has grown from specific country contexts, but clear trends emerge. They have happened in weary countries, who have been fighting a lengthy war against jihadists and militias, often without the necessary equipment or supplies. Attacks on civilians and deaths are frequent, and millions have been displaced. By and large, civilian governments have failed to control the insecurity. People are angry. In Burkina Faso, the catalyst for the coup was an attack on a camp in Inata, which killed 53 people. There was public outrage after it emerged the soldiers had died starving, as the base had run out of food.
Civilians are also losing faith in ageing democratic leaders. Burkina Faso’s Roch Kaboré had never attended a soldier’s burial or visited injured troops. There is also a trend of presidents attempting to unconstitutionally run for a third term. Guinea’s election was disputed, and opposition figures were arrested. Al Jazeera quoted a Guinean living in Senegal saying “we have no choice. We have a president who is too old, who no longer makes Guineans dream, and who does not want to leave power.” Many believe that democracy is important, but in the context of the Sahelian conflict, they would rather support whoever gives the best chance of survival.
The responsible regional body is the Economic Council of West African States (ECOWAS). They have come under fire for poor responses to the undermining of democracies. Responses to coups are fast and stringent, but unconstitutional change goes unnoticed.
There is no easy answer here. Some commentators argue that ECOWAS and the AU should respond with strength, freezing assets and imposing sanctions. Otherwise, they argue, regional bodies become complicit in creeping militarisation. However, this has significant flaws. Sanctions harm the poorest civilians, not the coup elites. This population is already disillusioned with regional institutions, and with French and other Western involvement. Harsh economic measures will harden this stance, and the resulting security vacuum may be filled by other states, particularly Russia - who’s state-linked mercenaries have been linked to atrocities in other parts of the continent. The US has stated that the Burkinabe coup may mean it can no longer cooperate with the state, while France is debating pulling more troops from Mali. Debates about the legitimacy of the presence of former colonial powers are ongoing but removing resources from already stretched militaries is risky.
Similarly, measures being applied unevenly discredit ECOWAS. Burkina Faso has escaped the same economic sanctions as Mali and Guinea. Without regional respect, authorities don’t have the leverage to challenge juntas. Malian demonstrators have been pictured holding signs reading ‘Down with ECOWAS.’
However, coups cannot be accepted as a legitimate form of government. The biggest threat from a coup is that once a military regime is there, they’re there. Democratic governments can be voted out or overthrown, but you clearly cannot launch a military coup against the military. There are already signs that the new regimes are solidifying their position. Mali’s Colonel Assimi Goïta persuaded ECOWAS to agree to a longer transition timeline and has postponed elections for four years. Chad’s military has banned demonstrations and used force against protestors. There are also concerns that this new collection of military leaders will be able to prop each other up. Guinea’s border with Mali has remained open, despite the ECOWAS embargo. Often, coups receive popular support out of hope for new elections, yet these are looking increasingly unlikely.
If this pattern continues, observers should look to other states in the region. In Cote d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara is eying up a third term, while in Niger, a recent corruption scandal involving missing millions from the country’s defence procurement has heightened discontent among an exhausted military. Only with clear regional oversight of autocracy, and well-supplied and strategised military responses to the Sahel crisis can the question of West African democracy be addressed.
Image: Unsplash (FAME World)