The scene has played out repeatedly across the Sahel in recent years: A group of military officers take to the airwaves to announce that the nation’s president has been deposed and a new leader installed while crowds fill streets in celebration and protest.
African countries lead the world in coups, with military takeovers in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali (twice) and Sudan in the past 24 months. Chad experienced a nondemocratic transfer of power and the continent saw attempted coups in Guinea-Bissau and Niger.
Extremism, government corruption and economic pressures all have served as justification for the rash of military coups. But some observers see another force: foreign actors trying to restructure governments to their own advantage.
“As much as the drivers are largely domestic, the international dimension cannot be overlooked,” Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo told a recent gathering of the African Union Peace and Security Council. “Some foreign entities regard coups in Africa as a means of enhancing their regional ambitions.”
Akufo-Addo, who is chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), said those foreign entities engage in disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining elected governments and instigating opposition.
As France reconfigures its anti-extremist efforts in the Sahel, countries contributing to United Nations peacekeeping efforts in the region have begun to reconsider their own involvement as well, potentially worsening the Sahel’s security.
Extremist groups have tried to expand from Sahel countries to coastal nations such as Benin, Ghana and Togo. That has prompted Akufo-Addo and Senegalese President Macky Sall, who is chairman of the African Union, to call for strengthening the UN’s mission in Mali (MINUSMA) when it comes up for review in June. MINUSMA was established in 2013 after a coup.
Critics say Africa’s regional institutions aren’t doing enough to prevent coups or punish the perpetrators when they happen. Idayat Hassan, director of Nigeria’s Centre for Democracy and Development, said ECOWAS and the AU monitored elections but did little else when the presidents of Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire rewrote their national constitutions so they could serve third terms.
“There is a focus on elections being free and fair, and not enough focus on the way democracies are undermined,” Hassan told The Guardian. “Those were constitutional coup d’etats.”
At the AU Peace and Security gathering, Akufo-Addo called for greater investment in the social and economic aspects of African nations as a way to stabilize places where a lack of opportunity makes young people vulnerable to extremist recruitment.
Coup leaders in Burkina Faso and Mali cited rising economic uncertainty among their reasons for taking control. Environmental challenges and conflicts over limited water also are increasing insecurity in a region where agriculture is a primary economic driver.
Akufo-Addo called for African leaders to abide by the rule of law and accept the limits set by their national constitutions. Leaders’ decisions to ignore or rewrite their constitutions is undermining the continent’s decadeslong effort to build stable, democratic nations, he said.
“Is this the Africa we want?” Akufo-Addo asked those in attendance.