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Why are civilians welcoming coups in West Africa?

Why are civilians welcoming coups in West Africa?

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In the last two years, three fragile countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso – succumbed to instability and experienced military takeovers. While the Covid-19 pandemic may have played a role in pushing these countries over the edge, they were on the precipice of instability long before the emergence of the virus due to deep-seated vulnerabilities such as chronic insecurity, political corruption and mass unemployment. Indeed, in all three countries military interventions came not as a surprise but on the back of long-ignored systemic failures and growing societal discontent.

In Burkina Faso, repeated attacks by armed groups and a failure to govern (partly evidenced in the apparent ill-equipping of the country’s security forces against such groups) created a security vacuum. In Mali, attempts by the ruling party to manipulate the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections in favour of candidates supported by the then president led to street demonstrations during which aggrieved masses called on the government to resign. In Guinea, the September 2021 military coup was the consequence of a months-long political crisis, triggered by President Alpha Conde’s bid to remove presidential term-limit restrictions through a constitutional referendum in March 2020 – a move that allowed him to seek a third term in office.

In countries with relative stability and security, as well as functioning constitutional guardrails against threats like electoral fraud, manipulation of courts, and illegal attempts at presidential tenure elongation, armed forces may stage coups, but they often fail to convincingly justify their intervention or gain the support of the majority of the population.

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In Mali, Burkino Faso and Guinea, however, the lack of such safeguards resulted in civilian populations enthusiastically embracing the recent military interventions. Indeed, citizens in these countries responded to the news of military takeovers with protests not against the intervening military, but the removed political leaders. In further legitimising the putschists, citizens in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali have accused their former colonial masters of being complicit in their plight and rejected external interventions and sanctions – mainly imposed by the regional political bloc Ecowas – meant to hamstring the military and compel them to accept proposed conditions for democratic elections and return to “constitutional” rule.

This reaction was a reflection of the masses’ lack of faith in the state of democratic politics in their countries, and it may have significant consequences not only for Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, but the wider region.

Firstly, widespread civilian support for these coups reinforces the notion that the armed forces are the guardians of states. Convinced that existing constitutional processes are not adequate to support good governance in their countries, citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea appear to believe that the military may be a credible alternative to the band of corrupt and unrepentant political elites that have betrayed their confidence.

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So far, all attempts by regional bodies like Ecowas and the AU to turn back this trend have failed, largely because such attempts focused on punishing the militaries rather than understanding and attempting to help fix the underlying causes that led to civilian populations supporting their actions.

Today, citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea clearly feel that they have “found their voice”, and punished corrupt political elites who have long ruled their countries, by ascribing legitimacy to military takeovers. The legitimate fears that citizens across the continent can follow their lead can put underperforming democratic rulers on their toes and push them to swiftly and efficiently address political and socioeconomic challenges facing their countries.

Whatever happens in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and other African nations that have experienced coups in recent times, if the continent’s democratic leaders and multilateral bodies continue to ignore the conditions that triggered this new wave of military interventions, what we have witnessed so far might very well be a foretaste of what is to come.

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