World Politics

West Africa's political system could see 'complete shakeup' as coups spike

Key Points
  • Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo survived last week's five-hour gun attack and the government has launched a major investigation into the foiled effort, which Embalo has denied was carried out by members of the country's armed forces.
  • ECOWAS chairman Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo has warned that the August 2020 coup in Mali had produced a "contagious" effect.
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (Jan. 25, 2022): Demonstrators gathering in Ouagadougou to show support on January 25, 2022 to the military hold a picture of Colonel Aissimi Goita (L), the Malian military officer who has served as interim President of Mali since May 24, 2021, and of Liutenent Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba the leader of the mutiny and of the Patriotic Movement for the Protection and the Restauration (MPSR).
Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images

An attempted coup was thwarted in the west African coastal nation of Guinea-Bissau last week, the latest in a string of attempted, and in many cases successful, overthrows of governments in the region.

In late January, military personnel in Burkina Faso deposed President Roch Marc Kaboré, citing the government's inability to deal with a deteriorating security situation in a country beset by jihadist insurgency.

Guinea's transitional parliament was formed last week, five months after a successful coup ousted President Alpha Conde, citing allegations of corruption, human rights abuses and economic mismanagement. Mali has experienced two coups in the past 18 months, in August 2020 and August 2021.

Further east, coups also took place in Chad and Sudan last year, while an attempt to seize the presidential palace in Niger failed.

A study by the University of Kentucky's Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne found that there have been more than 200 attempted coups in Africa since the 1950s, averaging around four per year between 1960 and 2000, before dropping in the first two decades up to 2019.

In 2021, six coups or attempted coups were recorded, prompting UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to caution that "military coups are back" whilst lambasting the lack of a unified international response to military interventions.

BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau, Feb. 1 2022: A soldier patrols the government palace area in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau, on February 1, 2022. Sustained gunfire was heard near the seat of government in the coup-prone West African state of Guinea-Bissau.
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Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo survived last week's five-hour gun attack and the government has launched a major investigation into the foiled effort, which Umaro has denied was carried out by members of the country's armed forces.

The former general speculated that the attack was carried out by people "from the underworld" and linked to his efforts to fight corruption and drug trafficking.

Guinea-Bissau has become a major transit hub for drug trafficking, particularly cocaine, between Latin America and Europe.

International bodies 'laughed off'

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met in Accra, Ghana last week to discuss widening unrest. The organization's chairman, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, warned that the August 2020 coup in Mali had produced a "contagious" effect.

The 15-nation bloc has suspended Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso and imposed harsh economic sanctions on Mali and Guinea in an attempt to strong-arm transitional governments into keeping promised timetables for their respective returns to civilian rule.

However, despite efforts to impose punitive measures and deter future overthrows, regional leaders, western allies and international bodies are struggling to contain a groundswell of support for military rule in West Africa.

"Coup organizers seem all too willing to pursue isolationism. We're seeing the authority of regional and international bodies being challenged and sanctions being laughed off," Eric Humphery-Smith, senior Africa analyst at political risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told CNBC.

ACCRA, Ghana - ECOWAS flag with member flags at the second extraordinary summit on the political situation in Burkina Faso, in Accra, Ghana, on February 3, 2022.
Photo by NIPAH DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

"And the more coups that occur, the more solidarity among military leaders, likely delaying transition back to democracy."

While Verisk Maplecroft does not expect African leaders to "fall like dominoes," Humphrey-Smith suggested that some of the region's aging and more autocratic leaders look more vulnerable, including those in Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon, Republic of Congo or Equatorial Guinea, all of whom have been in office for at least three consecutive terms.

"Africans still view many of their leaders as corrupt and national wealth as being unfairly distributed," Humphrey-Smith added.

"The timing of these events — two years into a Covid-19 pandemic that has been devastating for the informal economy and already cash-strapped Africans — is likely no coincidence."

A 'complete shakeup'

ECOWAS has drawn criticism for its imposition of tough sanctions that will disproportionately affect the poorest people in targeted countries rather than the political elite.

Robert Besseling, CEO of specialist political risk firm Pangea-Risk, also noted in a report Tuesday that growing anti-French sentiment in post-colonial countries will "uproot Europe's counterinsurgency interests in the Sahel and create an opportunity for Russia and Turkey to step into the void."

"A complete shakeup of West Africa's political system, international relations, and counterinsurgency strategy is on the cards, and perhaps even an economic shift away from French influence," he said.

Besseling highlighted that both ECOWAS and the African Union have failed to condemn elected leaders who seek to alter their constitutions to prolong their rule.

New AU Chair and Senegalese President Macky Sall has himself mooted an unconstitutional third term, and like third-term Côte d'Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, staunchly opposes military transfers of power.

CONAKRY, Guinea - Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, head of the army's special forces and coup leader, waves to the crowd as he arrives at the Palace of the People in Conakry on September 6, 2021, ahead of a meeting with the Ministers of the Ex-President of Guinea, Alpha Conde.
CELLOU BINANI/AFP via Getty Images

"While the trend of coups may indicate a shift in counterinsurgency strategy in the Sahel and across West Africa, the hawkish response to coups, including sanctions, asset freezes, and military interventions, will further entrench opposition to ECOWAS, the AU, and their western allies, most notably France," Besseling said.

Pangea-Risk suggested that the risk of sanctions to countries deemed susceptible to coups could deter foreign investment and slow economic recoveries.