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Are coups back en vogue in West Africa?

21 September 2021

Africa has experienced the highest number of military coups in the world with West Africa leading this rather dubious league table. According to a 2003 study by Patrick J. McGowan entitled ‘African Military Coups D’état 1956 – 2001,’ Africa saw 80 successful coups and 108 failed ones between 1956 and 2001 – an average of four every year. After the Nigerian military was overthrown in 1999 and retired military general Olusegun “OBJ” Obasanjo sworn in as an elected president, many believed the ‘coup culture’ in Africa would come to an end.  This was not to be as there have been about 40 coups in the last two decades with less than half succeeding.

Many countries across the continent have undergone major political change at the hands of their respective armies. On 5 September 2021, President Alpha Condé of Guinea was removed by the military less than a year after winning a controversial third term election. In June 2021, ONGOLO published an article entitled ‘Mali suspended as coup leader seizes power again’ about Colonel Assimi Goïta who led two coup d’etat in Mali in 2020 and 2021. There was also an unsuccessful coup attempt in Niger in March 2021 and a covert dynastic coup in Chad after President Idriss Deby was assassinated in April 2021 and replaced by his son. Elsewhere on the continent, Sudanese soldiers toppled the unpopular dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019 after he led the country for 30 years and Robert Mugabe was overthrown by the Zimbabwe military after 37 years in 2017.

This practice begs the question: why are coups seen as the answer?

Democracy has failed to evolve in some parts of Africa

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Former Guinea President Alpha Condé attending a rally in October 2020 ahead of a democracy-washing election which saw him win a controversial third term. He was ousted in a coup on 5 September 2021 and the military has rejected calls from African leaders to let him go into exile. It's time to face the music. Photo credit: Reuters stringer

Democracy is more than just having an election every four or five years, which is the minimum standard that many African countries strive to meet. It is about having well-functioning institutions and processes to keep governments in check and to ensure that the will of the people is heard and respected.

Many countries that have witnessed coups are characterised by strongman leaders and oppressed masses with weak arms of the legislature and judiciary. The military is often the only body that the people can rely on to get rid of bad leaders and coups are sometimes met with public jubilation as seen on the streets of Mali and Guinea this year.

In Guinea, Mali and Chad, the governments were criticised for corruption, unfavourable climate change policies (Mali is facing a crisis from internal migration from the North to the South due to poor rainfall) or poor strategies to fight radical Islamist movements and botching the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent survey by researcher Afrobarometer found that 63% of Guineans believed corruption was increasing in the country. Alpha Condé’s government may have averted the coup had they paid closer attention to the sentiments of their people.

Many bad leaders choose to live in a bubble cut off from the very people who ultimately determine their fate


Governments’ failure to manage the military

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The 2020 Mali coup started in mid August when disgruntled soldiers in crisis-torn Mali rebelled at a key base near the capital city of Bamako. The government recognised their 'legitimate frustrations' and urged them to return to the baracks. The issue soon escalated into a coup.

Many African leaders know that they must, as a rule, always keep the military happy because disgruntled soldiers are most likely to stage a coup. Soldiers are often excluded when civil servants in some countries go months without pay and even Robert Mugabe, at the height of the sanctions that crippled Zimbabwe’s economy, still found the money to pay the army.

Coups are also less likely in countries where the army are profession, well-trained, well-paid and have a clear mandate, usually defending internal threats (e.g. the Kenyan army fighting Al-Shabab) or taking part in African peacekeeping efforts (e.g. the South African army)

The weak threat of sanctions by African regional bodies

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The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is the regional and economic union of 15 countries in West Africa. Photo credit:

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union, are staunchly against coups and quick to issue statements of condemnation after the fact. But these proclamations hold little sway as the intra-Africa political and economic bonds are not strong.

We expect the threat of military coups to remain high across the continent until African governments start to make real strides to uplift the economic conditions of their people.



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