An epidemic of coups


As we went to press last night, an attempted coup was believed to be underway in Guinea-Bissau. The identity of the assailants and the status of President Umaro Sissoco Embalo were not immediately clear. If it succeeds, this would mark the fifth military coup in the past year in our sub-region once known as the continent’s “coup belt”.

It all began in Mali when a group of colonels first seized power in August 2020 by ousting President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. The coup followed anti-government protests over deteriorating security, contested legislative elections and allegations of corruption. Under pressure from Mali’s West African neighbours, the junta agreed to cede power to a civilian-led interim government tasked with overseeing an 18-month transition to democratic elections in February 2022.

But the coup leaders quickly clashed with the new interim president, Retired Colonel Bah Ndaw, and engineered a second coup in May 2021. Colonel Assimi Goïta, who had served as interim vice president, was elevated to the presidency. Goïta’s government made little progress toward organising elections and announced that it intended to delay them by up to five years. West African regional bloc Ecowas responded this month with sanctions, including closing its members’ borders with Mali.


In April 2021 Chadian soldiers took power after President Idriss Deby was killed while visiting troops fighting rebels in the north. Under Chadian law, the speaker of parliament should have become president. But a military council stepped in and dissolved parliament in the name of ensuring stability. Deby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby, was named interim president and tasked with overseeing an 18-month transition to elections.

Four months ago, in Guinea s,pecial forces commander Colonel Mamady Doumbouya led a coup against President Alpha Condé, saying he acted because of poverty and corruption. Condé had outraged opponents the previous year by changing the constitution to circumvent term limits that would have prevented him from standing for a third period. He won a third term in the October 2020 vote. Doumbouya became interim president and promised a transition to democratic elections but has not said when those will take place. Ecowas has imposed sanctions on junta members and their relatives, including freezing their bank accounts.

In Burkina Faso, the military ousted President Roch Kabore last week, blaming him for failing to contain violence by Islamist militants. The coup leader, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, said afterward that Burkina Faso would return to constitutional order “when the conditions are right”. Ecowas and the African Union suspended Burkina Faso from their governing bodies but stopped short of imposing additional sanctions for now. An Ecowas delegation met on Monday with Damiba to discuss a political transition and with Kabore, who is under military guard.

Civilian rule and democratic orders are under serious assault and a decade of multi-party democratic gains in the regoin are being rolled back and crushed under martial boots. The tough anti-coup stance of Ecowas should be adopted by the continental and global bodies. Heads of state throughout the continent, without exception, should speak with one voice and act in unison in condemning and pushing against the rising tide of military coups in Africa. They should beware of the warning of the American writer Angela Davis when she wrote, if they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.