There is a resurgence of military coups in Africa's Sahel region. Why?

Collins Molua Ikome and Gift Mwonzora argue that the decision by Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso to leave the Economic Community of West African States was a rash one, which may risk legitimising further coups. What's more, deteriorating diplomatic relations between these countries and the West could have knock-on effects for regional peace and security

The African Union's (AU) Agenda 2063 pledged that 2020 would be the year that guns in Africa fell silent. The AU, however, is far from meeting this aspiration. Indeed, rather than falling silent, gunfire continues to ring out across the continent. Since 2020, Africa has experienced eight successful coups, and there have been more than ten reported cases of failed attempts.

The African Union (AU) and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) appear ill-prepared – if not incapable – of halting this rising tide. And while most emerging coups in Africa occur without bloodshed, the fact that they happen at all remains antithetical to the AU’s lofty aspirations to silence the guns entirely.

One coup is one too many

The continent of Africa has an enduring history of military coups. But Africa's lull in coups between 2000 and 2020 was not surprising, considering the regional emphasis on good governance and democracy. Some argue that the lull was the result of anti-coup reforms, most notably, the adoption of the Lomé Declaration, the AU’s Peace and Security Council Protocol and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Good Governance. Alternatively, perhaps there simply wasn't much incentive to grab power at that time. Indeed, historically, most military elites have been co-opted into the state machinery to enjoy patronage and largesse.

However, the continent now finds itself entangled in military coups and unconstitutional changes in government with renewed vigour. But why is this happening? And why now? Much existing analysis focuses on the grievances, drivers, motivations, (f)actors, interests, and ethnic cleavages which mirror military / political composition at elite level. Abundant literature exists on what drives military coups. Yet the behaviour of coup leaders and the changing dynamics still ignite curiosity among African security analysts.

Coup leaders withdraw from ECOWAS

The decision by the AES countries – Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – to withdraw from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was not a complete surprise. Indeed, the telltale signs were already apparent. There was a standoff between ECOWAS and Niger's junta on the need to return to civilian rule. ECOWAS' threats to intervene drew the battle lines. The regional bloc became the Niger junta's number-one enemy in its attempts to consolidate power in the uranium-rich nation.

On 28 January 2024, AES countries announced their withdrawal from ECOWAS. They did not take this decision in anger, nor merely to spite the AES grouping. Rather, it was a well-calculated, pre-emptive move to escape criticism and scrutiny. Here, we offer some context as to why the AES left ECOWAS to form a new organisation.

The exit of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso from the Economic Community of West African States was a move aimed at reconstituting junta solidarity, alliance, and power

ECOWAS had already suspended all three countries from its ranks. However, their definitive exit was a rebellion aimed at reconstituting junta solidarity, alliance, and power. Any new bloc these countries form will only give a veneer of legitimacy to actors contemplating seizing power by military means. Also, these juntas' decision to leave ECOWAS will rubber-stamp and sanitise coups that have swept through the region like a contagion.

The exit of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso from ECOWAS is a strategic manoeuvre that risks perpetuating yet more conflicts and coups. Moreover, the Sahelian coups, in particular, pose a challenge to regional peace and security within and beyond the ECOWAS sub-region.

Democratic retreat

AES juntas bemoan ECOWAS weaknesses in addressing security and other regional challenges. Yet, the leaders of these countries have failed to make meaningful security improvements under military leadership. Military coups might not, therefore, be the solution to Sahelian security challenges. Rather, they might simply be a means for men in uniform to usurp and consolidate power.

Once they taste power, military elites are reluctant to relinquish it, and they seem loath to restore democratic rule

What is even more concerning is that none of these juntas have put forward a timeline for the return of constitutional order and civilian rule. Judging from the regional trend, once they taste power, military elites are reluctant to relinquish it, and they seem loath to restore democratic rule.

Military technology: realignment and great power politics

Power politics and geostrategic interests also come into the mix. Notably, the radical Sahelian juntas are prone to anti-French rhetoric. Tension between all three juntas and France has increased, and Franco-Nigerien relations in particular have deteriorated. Indeed, France has announced the indefinite closure of its embassy in Niamey.

AES countries are using anti-western rhetoric – and anti-French sentiments in particular – to rally domestic support and legitimise their regimes. But the use of such rhetoric is also a strategic geopolitical move to garner international support from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. And this is creating a security and power vacuum in the Sahel, particularly in the fight against jihadism.

AES countries' use of anti-western rhetoric is a strategic geopolitical move to garner international support from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea

The UN's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission concluded its operations in Mali in 2023. Niger, meanwhile, cut all security and defence cooperation with the European Union, notably the EU Capacity Building Mission in the Sahel, and the EU Military Partnership Mission. Again, the three radical juntas of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso withdrew from the G-5 Sahel Force, and expelled French military personnel. The abrupt cessation of these Western-led counterinsurgency operations poses a challenge to the AU’s Agenda 2063.

It is no coincidence that these states' withdrawal from ECOWAS coincided with the private visit of its incumbent chair – Nigeria’s President, Bola Tinubu – to France. At the same time, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured Africa without visiting either Mali, Niger or Burkina Faso. Nonetheless, Captain Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso expressed optimism for bilateral relations with non-Western states, notably the ease of purchasing military technology and weapons from Russia. This signals Russia’s growing influence, and the waning of Western influence on the region. Is Russia a reliable security ally in the Sahel – the hotspot for jihadists in Africa? Only time will tell.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Collins Molua Ikome Collins Molua Ikome Freelance Civic Educator, Europäische Jugendbildungs und Jugendbegegnungsstätte Weimar More by this author
photograph of Gift Mwonzora Gift Mwonzora Research Associate / Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Erfurt More by this author

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