By Fidel Amakye Owusu
After independence in the 1950s and 1960s, many African countries experienced coups d’état. This was enabled mainly by Cold War politics and often “rationalized” with the authoritarian nature of post-independence one-party states. Egypt had its 20th-century coup in 1952. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Togo—West Africa—was the first country to have a successful coup. The 1963 coup began the ubiquity of military rule in West Africa.
In three decades, almost all the countries in West Africa experienced coups. By 1992 only Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and the Gambia had not been governed by the military. However, the last two countries left this enviable league in the 1990s. In 1994 twenty-nine-year-old Yahya Jammeh took power in The Gambia. Political struggle Cote d’Ivoire ended its uninterrupted civilian rule in 1999 when General Robert Guei took power for a short period. So far, only Senegal and the archipelago state of Cape Verde have not tasted military rule.
After decades of uniformed men being in charge of affairs, they had rarely produced any tangible economic development. Admittedly, global economic challenges in the 1970s had affected Africa. The 1973 oil price hikes in the global market immensely affected the balance of payment of these economies. These, together with the obsession of leaders to spend on their own protection and, Cold War patronage did not help.
The end of the Berlin Wall and a seemingly unipolar world meant that military dictators were deprived of the support they got from either side of the ideological aisle. To fit into a liberal-led global system, most states in West Africa adopted democratic constitutions and allowed opposition parties to be active once again. Notably, most of these constitutions had provisions on term limits. The people had objected to the indefinite tenure of leaders.
Benin and Ghana were among the first states to take this step. In both countries, the military rulers succumbed to domestic agitations to have liberal institutions and electoral democracy. Other countries like Mali followed. Nigeria transitioned later in the 1990s after the death of Sani Abacha. For the most populous country in the region to do so was very significant.
By the first decade of the 21st century, it was no more ordinary for leaders to attend summits in their military fatigues. Almost all states in the region were democratic—at least theoretically. Leaders who had appeared on the scene by coups had at least accepted some form of institutionalism and held periodic elections—albeit tainted by reports of fraud. Ghana and Benin—the pioneers—stood out. Long-time military ruler turned democrat; Jerry Rawlings peacefully handed over to an opposition candidate who defeated his Vice President in the 2000 general election. There had been a smooth transition earlier in Benin.
The change of course
The regional move towards democracy has not been ideal and has faced challenges in the midst of notable successes. In order to prolong their stay in power, some civilian leaders have touched post-Cold War constitutions and used consequent technicalities to hang on to power. This and other things have led to some intermittent coups over time. This notwithstanding, there had not been any major shift back to the old days. Civilian leadership has therefore proven to be resilient until the Mali coup in 2020.
While the coup in Mali had been pushed by pervasive insecurity and seemingly ineffective civilian leadership, however, those that followed shortly in Guinea and Burkina Faso made it a watershed event. Currently, security planners and strategists are worried about the potential effects of these coups in the region.
Unfortunately, the geographical location and concomitant geopolitical implication of these coups make them strategically significant and geopolitically consequential.
Firstly, the location of these military-ruled countries means that almost all countries in continental ECOWAS West African region except Gambia and Nigeria share border with a country that has had a successful coup. Infact, Nigeria itself shares border with military-controlled Chad albeit in Central Africa. Guinea shares border with hitherto unstable Mano River states of Liberia and Sierra Leone and Cote D’Ivoire. Guinea-Bissau and Senegal are also neighbours to the junta-controlled coastal state. In 2022 Guinea-Bissau almost had its civilian leadership removed. The coup was however unsuccessful. Mali shares boundaries with Senegal, the Mano River states. Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin and Niger are also civilian controlled states sharing boundaries with Burkina Faso.
It is worth noting that the reasons for the recent coups in the region vary from country to country. While the Guinea coup had largely been fuelled by the amendment of the constitution by Alpha Conde to extend his rule, that in Mali and Burkina have insecurity as a major factor. In the latter cases the soldiers believed that they are better handlers of security issues. The aborted coup in Guinea-Bissau is; however, known to be related to transit zone that the country has become in the past decade and over.
Also, the takeovers mean that security coordination in the face of violent extremism is going to be herculean for civilian- controlled or democratic states in the region. This could translate to extremists having operating almost freely across borders. After the second coup in Mali, the junta responded to sanctions by opting out of the G5 Sahel security “pact”. By so doing hundred’s of miles of border areas Mali shared with neighbouring states became much more risky. The country’s exit also cuts Mauritania—an important G5 member—from the rest of the countries still in the pact. In late 2022, Mali seized a number of Ivorian soldiers and accused them of subversion. It took much pressure and persuasion to get them released. This is a clear sign of “incompatibility” between the current class of military rulers and the civilian governments their countries share boundaries with.
More critically, with the three junta-controlled countries sharing contiguous territory and one of them—Guinea—having access to the Atlantic coast, sanctions have not and would not be effective. Guinea is capable of using its ports to service the other two landlocked countries of Mali and Burkina Faso. Currently, the ECOWAS has soften its stance on the military rulers and encouraged transitional processes to civilian leadership.
Furthermore, for a region that has in the past shown a contagion to coups, civilian-led countries face the prospect of instability by sharing borders with successful coup makers. Military leaders in the 1970s and 1980s were known to have supported putsches in neighbouring states.
In this situation, civilian-led and democratic states need to work closer to ensure collective stability. In so doing they must not show open antagonism to the military leaders next door. Constant engagement with the junta may lead to some levels of transition in these countries—hopefully.
It is also important that civilian leaders keep their initial fidelity to the constitution they champion. Tweaking constitutions to stay on could only be counterproductive. In West Africa, a number of countries including Cote d’Ivoire, Togo have this challenge that threatens stability. It appears Senegal is moving towards the same direction. These give militaries the justification to “intervene” and disrupt years of democratic gains, no matter how incremental it could be.
Also, democratic systems should be more responsive to the developmental needs of the people. In many places where coups have occurred, the jubilation by the people is not because of the sheer want of the military in charge. Such responses emanates from years of socio-economic neglect by central governments.
What it means to businesses and organisations.
In the 1970s and 1980s some coup leaders on the assumption of power had nationalised many private enterprises as a move to control to be in control in fact. Currently, that has not been seen yet with the wave of coups taking place. However, with some of the junta seemingly aligning themselves with one global power or another, there is a the propensity of them being hostile to firms from countries they are not aligned with. Currently, it will be more difficult to run western-originated business in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Also, charity organisations and other NGOs are viewed with suspicion. In many ways military juntas feel some states would use agents of NGOs to spy on their domestic activities. This make them distrust these organisations and their workers. Aid agencies who are determined to provide services to the needy should therefore not engage in activities that raise suspicion