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Coup D'état Fever

Local motives and geopolitical rivalries animating regime changes in West and Central Africa

19 September 2023

Military putsches have become a recurrent spectacle in the Sahel and the wider West and Central Africa region, in the continent with the highest number of coups globally. On 30 August, Gabon became the second country in this politically unstable region to undergo a military coup d'état in less than a month, coming hot on the heels of the extra-legal removal of Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum on 28 July. Following the disputed presidential election results in Gabon, military leaders took control and declared General Brice Oligui Nguema as the new leader of the transitional government.

The military takeover of Libreville starkly reflects a persistent trend across this region. To put this into context, this is the eighth military takeover in West and Central Africa since 2020. Military leaders have ousted elected leaders in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and Chad. Regardless, while regime changes are in no way new in Africa, the frequency of these events in this region, often called the "coup belt," is both surprising and concerning. 

Interestingly, like in many recent coups in the region, the seizure of power in Gabon was non-violent and, by and large, appeared to have popular backing (or at least lacked overt popular opposition), a stark deviation from the post-independence era in Africa. The military officials immediately placed President Bongo under house arrest, closed all borders, and effectively shut down the government. Amidst an avalanche of regional and international criticism of the coup, General Nguema, a former head of the presidential guard, later claimed that Bongo was enjoying "all his rights as a normal Gabonese citizen."

Faltering Coup-Proofing Strategies

Historically, African leaders have employed various strategies to "coup-proof" their regimes. Both military and civilian governments often adopt similar strategies. However, military regimes tend more towards military strategies, while civilian governments seek to insulate themselves more through popular support. Nevertheless, economic dire-straits, insecurity, corruption, and bad governance in general have continued to alienate many African leaders from their constituents, making them all the more susceptible to coups.

One primary mechanism that heads of state employ is the creation of different and competing military forces. Most countries have a national army, yet armies can develop their own institutional cultures, priorities, and interests. Over time, they often develop as a political group with their own objectives and ambitions – including national leadership.

African leaders often establish elite armed units like Presidential Guards, Gendarmes, National Security, Special Forces, and Commando Units to prevent the military from seizing power for their own interests. These units are typically smaller than the national army but are well-trained and equipped. Critically, they are usually (but not always) from the same ethnic community as the President. Yet even these specialised units increasingly use their vantage positions proximate to power to lead successful coups d'état. In fact, these units have taken the lead in many recent regime changes, including those in Gabon and Niger. Reactionary military reshuffles in Cameroon and Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the Gabon coup underline efforts to pre-empt potential copycat/inspired coups. 

A Cocktail of Motivations with Stark Similarities 

In the recent regime changes in the region, coup leaders have capitalised on widespread public discontent related to issues like bad governance, violent extremism, insecurity, corruption, electoral fraud, and dictatorship claims to seize power. Indeed, the recent coups in Gabon, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Sudan have garnered varying degrees of civilian backing and limited violence, likely emboldening coup leaders and potentially inspiring the trend of anti-democratic power seizures. 

This apparent civilian backing can be attributed to dissatisfaction with previous governments, a yearning for change, and the expectation that coup leaders can tackle the nations' issues. This civilian support raises concerns, indicating widespread discontent with the political status quo in many Central and West African countries. For example, the recent pro-coup demonstrations in Niger are vividly emblematic of this disillusionment.  

Nonetheless, although there may be a connection between these underlying civilian grievances and the prevalence of coups in this region, correlation is not always causation, and other factors may also contribute to these political upheavals. Broadly, inspirations by successful coups, limited/inadequate regional safeguards, civilian socio-economic and political grievances, and geopolitical rivalries are some of the insidious factors that have no doubt combined in various instances to animate coups in the politically brittle states of the region.

Geopolitical Influences and Limited Regional Safeguards

The role of geopolitical influences and competition – particularly power rivalries between Moscow and the West – in fueling these regional coups and instability have been less explored. While situations in different countries in the region are complex and multifaceted, geopolitical dynamics such as proxy conflicts, resource competition, tacit support for autocratic regimes, information warfare, and diplomatic manoeuvring among some global powers have all worsened the political fragility of some of these states. 

In particular, the 2021 coup in Mali, and more recently, the one in Niger, underscored the deep-seated geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and the West for strategic interests in the region. After French troops left following coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, Niger, and Gabon became positions from which Paris and its allies could counter Russia and other competitors in the region. However, shortly after the regime change in Niger, thousands of pro-coup demonstrators marched through Niamey's capital's streets, denouncing France (their former colonial power), waving Russian flags, and setting fire to a door at the French Embassy. Additionally, according to Logically, a US-based technology company focusing on online mis/disinformation, social media channels associated with Kremlin initiated a disinformation campaign, disparaging Paris and openly supporting the Niger coup, in an apparent effort to entrench Moscow's influence in the country. 

Amidst the increasing number of coups in the region, the reactionary response from the regional organisations and states – including threats to intervene militarily – has done little to end the trend. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN, and Western governments have individually imposed sanctions on coup leaders recently, but these actions have had limited success in restoring civilian rule. Perhaps buoyed by ostensible civilian support, coup leaders in some of the countries in this region have recently united to challenge regional and international anti-coup sentiments as well as threats of sanctions and military intervention. Although ECOWAS has in the past intervened to restore stability in Gambia, Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone, the apparent unity of coup leaders in the region, the perceived civilian support to the coups, or lack of opposition thereof, as well as historical legitimacy and credibility concerns on the part of the regional body, almost certainly add complexity to this situation. For its part, the African Union has, in most cases, taken firm stances against coups, although it lacks the power to impose sanctions.

The future

Geopolitical competition will almost certainly intensify. Although the direct culpability of Moscow in planning and orchestrating the coups is contested, the fact that the Kremlin has intensified her campaign of influence and anti-west sentiments in the region is not. Moscow will seek to exploit the instability from the coups to position herself as a key player in the region. The deliberate campaign of disinformation against the West – which is somewhat percolating among civilian populations in the West and Central Africa – underscores the concerted effort to expand Russian geostrategic influence in this region.

The power grabs raise pertinent concerns that the region could be backsliding from its progress towards democracy, although coup leaders have defended some of them as intended to cure authoritarianism. Given the complex cocktail of issues contributing to the region's coups, which are unaddressed, the risk of regime changes will remain a possibility in the medium to long term. The success rate of these coups may continue to inspire regime changes in the region, especially in countries with entrenched civilian embitterment. 

While some of the key excuses for the coups are insecurity, bad governance, economic difficulties, and electoral fraud, there is almost certainly little empirical evidence that coup leaders have offered viable alternatives to civilians after assuming power. Recent trends suggest that some post-coup governments have employed limited tolerance of political opposition, restricted certain civilian liberties as well as undermined constitutions and independent institutions. Against a backdrop of political inertia, severe security challenges, a flurry of sanctions, and a potential decline in foreign direct investment, the economies may continue to face headwinds, ultimately defeating the perceived purpose of the coups. 

Military takeovers will almost certainly present profound ramifications to the overall state of security in Central and West Africa, especially when it comes to dealing with terrorism and militia violence. For instance, the potential withdrawal of US and French troops from Niger will likely undermine ongoing counterterrorism efforts in the Lake Chad basin. This will, in turn, likely exacerbate the existing instability in West and Central Africa, potentially aiding the growth of terrorist and insurgent groups.