Why has West Africa experienced so many military coups over the past couple of years? Reuben Twinomujuni and Hannah Muzee say the inadequacies of the African Union are only part of the problem. They argue that the phenomenon is also the result of internal and external forces that impede united African action
The African Union has a mandate to maintain peace and security in the region. Yet since its inception in 2002, the Union, comprised of 55 member states, has grappled continuously with this challenge. The increasing number of military coups in western Africa and the Sahel is a worrying testament to the Union's shortcomings.
With coups rampant throughout the continent since 2011, the Union has lost its grip on peace. Actors both local and international have exerted their influence over these coups. Examples are the events in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, Burkina Faso in 2014 and 2022, Zimbabwe in 2017, Algeria and Sudan in 2019, Mali in 2020 and 2021, Guinea in 2021, Niger in 2023 and Gabon in 2023.
Unfortunately, the governments that follow these coups have failed to address the circumstances that caused them. This, of course, leads to further coups. Succeeding regimes entrench themselves in power by corruption and by marginalising their political adversaries. Eventually, rising mass poverty provokes deep political disgruntlement. Political instability triggers a coup — and so the cycle continues.
The governments that follow military coups have failed to address the circumstances that caused them. This, of course, leads to further coups
Foreign influence from the likes of France and the US play a significant role in the instability in West Africa and the Sahel. Africa has hosted foreign military personnel for decades. At least 13 countries, including the US, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Japan, and India, have a military presence.
The US and France have the most troops on the continent, with an estimated 7,550 military personnel involved in various operations and missions. US military personnel are spread across 34 known outposts in Africa's Northern, Western, and Horn regions.
The presence of foreign military forces has resulted in an overcrowded security landscape, particularly in the Sahel and Horn of Africa. As a result, ad hoc regional response structures have emerged, including the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force.
The Accra Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa requires the African Union to condemn unconstitutional government changes. These include coups and manipulations of democratic processes.
However, many African leaders have held on to power for decades through manipulated constitutional amendment processes, electoral fraud, and suppression of the opposition. Examples include Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Eritrea, Djibouti and Rwanda. To combat this, the Union must push for adherence to term limits, for free and fair elections, and for respect for election outcomes.
In response to constitutional manipulation and electoral fraud, citizens protest, or the military stages a mutiny. Both responses lead to so-called unconstitutional government changes. Coups are not just a cry for help. They are attempts by the military to take matters into their own hands, and make a democratic stand.
The Accra Declaration rejects 'foreign interference' in peace and security matters. Such foreign interference includes the financing of coups, and the mobilisation of mercenary forces to African States. While the African Union's Peace and Security Council has a mandate to promote peace, security, and stability, thirteen foreign countries have military bases on the continent. There are over eleven military bases in the Horn of Africa alone.
Foreign armies manage to expand their own influence without contributing to Africa's development or security
Foreign armies sustain their presence by cosying up to friendly regimes. Thus, they manage to expand their own influence without contributing to Africa's development and security. African authoritarian leaders exploit this phenomenon. They welcome overseas military presence to help maintain their hold on power in the face of a passive and toothless African Union.
The challenges to Africa’s unity stem from a lack of effective leadership. Unlike European unity, preceded by well-established nations, African unity tends to be hampered by the fact that the continent is comprised of developing countries that exist largely through foreign support. Besides perpetuating corruption, foreign aid compromises the ability of African governments to act on their own accord. African governments are thus encouraged to pledge even stronger allegiance to their foreign benefactors.
The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance promotes democracy, and encourages free and fair elections. Electoral malpractice, however, is widespread in Africa. The continent's elections are marred by fraud, discrimination, violence and fake votes.
Elections can be tense affairs in countries with authoritarian legacies or ethnic divides. And poverty can make people susceptible to vote buying or selling. In Africa, elections are often merely a tool for elites to gain power through intimidation, fraud, and manipulation of tribal and religious allegiances. As Western powers pursue their own interests, their influence in African elections results in the appointment of puppet leaders opposed to popular opinion.
Though quick to condemn military coups, the African Union has limited power to prevent member states violating democratic norms
Contrary to its mandate, the African Union favours state regimes over democratic commitments. This is why its response to government crackdowns has been so limited. Though quick to condemn military coups, the Union has limited power to prevent member states violating democratic norms.
Agenda 2063 aimed to end African wars by 2020. However, guns, including weaponry belonging to foreign militaries, continue to roar throughout the continent.
In 1963, Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah argued that only a truly united continent, rather than sporadic acts and pious resolutions, could resolve Africa's problems. Guinean president Sékou Touré raised thought-provoking questions about whether the relative success of other continents was the result of shared customs, language or economic systems. Touré believed that the merit of a larger community lies in the consistent coordination of activities.
Persistent military coups are evidence of Africa's internal unity challenges. But we must not absolve foreign influence from its role in perpetuating the phenomenon.
As the African Union moves closer towards attaining Agenda 2063, it is vital that we reflect on these unachieved milestones.