Hope Amidst Uncertainty: Reflections on the Recent Coups in Francophone Africa

The recent coups in West Africa are not likely to spread beyond the region, given their unique historical and foreign relations. It, however, finds that should the new governments fail to urgently fulfil their promises, the search for alternative leadership is likely to commence, Israel Nyaburi Nyadera writes.

Since the year 2020, eight governments in francophone Africa have been overthrown by the military, adding up to a disturbing trend of coups in the continent. To put it into context, since the 1950s there has been a total of 486 coup attempts; 214 of these attempted coups have taken place in Africa, out of which 106 have been successful. Beyond the statistics, however, two questions often emerge with regards to the coups. The first question is whether these coups are a result of internal failures, especially of governance institutions within these countries, or a consequence of an international system that is increasingly becoming illiberal. Perhaps even more disturbing is whether these coups are as a result of both internal and external factors, which would then make them more difficult to address. This could explain why both the African Union and the regional economic communities have failed to address the unending trend of military takeovers in the continent.

The second question is whether these coups are capable of providing solutions to the challenges facing the people in the countries where they have been carried out. The justification for this question stems from the pronouncements of coup leaders themselves, who often identify the socio-economic and political weaknesses of the existing regimes and promise to swiftly address them. Some of the issues that have dominated coup leaders` narratives has been the question of insecurity, poverty, corruption, external interference as well as development. These issues are indeed common characteristics among many developing countries, and in Africa they have been serious obstacles to the achievement of both the Millennium Development Goals as well as the Sustainable Development Goals. There is no doubt that anyone or any institution that promises to rapidly address these problems is likely to get the support of the people.
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On October 26, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion dedicated to the protest movements in Africa. The moderator was Oleg Barabanov, programme director of the Club.
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The cheerful reception of the coup leaders is an indicator of hope among the civilians, who look forward to the speedy resolution of most of the challenges identified by the coup plotters. This hope is further enforced by the charismatic and patriotic display by the coup leaders, who are often dressed in their military uniforms. The image presented by such a display can be interpreted as the securitization of the problems and an indicator that the new military governments can indeed bring about the promised transformation. Perhaps, civilians are equally motivated by the known sense of discipline among members of the defence forces, a feeling that most citizens lack with regards to their political leaders.

Furthermore, military coups have also historically been triggers of success in many parts of the world and therefore the support coup leaders receive from their citizens cannot be seen as purely naive. For example, Gaius Julius Caesar’s overthrow of Pompey led to the massive expansion of the Roman Empire across Europe and the Middle East. Napoleon and his armies also expanded French dominion far and wide, and although both the expeditions of Caesar and Napoleon led to serious battles, they did succeed in extending the power and influence of their territories. Apart from these historical examples, there are many other examples of coups that have recently had positive impacts. For example, in Indonesia, when Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the country was able to mend its foreign relations, including rejoining the United Nations as well as its confrontations with Malaysia. In South Korea, the 1960s coup by General Park Chung Hee laid the foundation for the country`s rapid economic development that made it one of the Asian Tigers. In Taiwan, the military government of Chiang Kai Shek in 1949 is credited with laying the foundation for the country`s economic success, leading the island to be called one of the Asian Tigers.

Of course, it would be naive to conclude that all coups are likely to have a positive outcome. In fact, the majority of the coups tend to produce authoritarian regimes that have very little achievement in political and economic development as they often remain paranoid regarding their survival in power. Regimes such as those of military leaders Iddi Amin, Robert Mugabe, Mobutu Sese Seko and General Sani Abacha did little to fulfil the hopes of their citizens. Indeed, their paranoia isn’t particularly farfetched, given the documented high chances of countries that have experienced successful coups facing another coup. On the other hand, even coup leaders who seemed to have had the will and ability to bring about change were never spared.
The experience of Burkina Faso`s Thomas Sankara, who was overthrown despite the reforms he brought to the country, serves as an indicator to the fragility of military regimes.

It is against this background that our debate with the on —going coups can be contextualized around three other important questions.

What are the expectations from the recent coups in countries such as the ones in Gabon (August 2023), Niger (July 2023), Burkina Faso (January 2022 and September 2022), Guinea (September 2021), Chad (April 2021) and Mali (August 2020 and May 2021)? The answer to this question needs to be understood within the context that majority of these countries had previously had military coups and have also attempted to have `democratic` governments. These previous models seem not to have placed the countries on a sustainable path of economic and political development. The return to military government and the nature of the support they are receiving in the aforementioned countries is a reflection of betrayal by elected governments. This means that while there could be some elements of excitement, the new military governments ought to be aware of public opinion and expectations from their regimes. That is, what exactly did the citizens support — the coup leaders or the promises they made? If it is the latter, then the coup leaders have no alternative than to quickly embark on fulfilling the promises they made, otherwise the people are likely to support alternative leadership relatively soon. This could be attributed to the demographic changes that the continent has undergone, resulting in there being more young people than elsewhere. This generation may have less patience with promises made and are more ambitious than the previous generations. Equally, they are much more informed and have stronger mobilization capabilities thanks to social media.

Second is the question as to whether the new military leaders have learned from their predecessors. This includes both their successes and failures, as this will go a long way in influencing the actions taken and decisions made by the new leaders. Much depends on if they’re aware that most of the countries in Africa have already passed the half-century mark since independence and need to start taking responsibility for their own fate. Thus the success of these new military governments could be pegged on their understanding of deep rooted challenges facing their countries and their ability to offer practical solutions to the problems. As mentioned above, some of the challenges facing francophone Africa are indeed emotional issues such as corruption, impunity and neocolonialism. However, they are also issues that are very difficult to address and perhaps will need an inclusive approach, tapping on their countries’ best and most experienced men and women. Ultimately, citizens will be keen on seeing tangible results soon.

Lastly, is the question of how these coups are likely to impact the region’s geopolitical trends. Since the beginning, the new military governments and the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) have not had the best relations, which then threatens to either isolate these countries at the regional level or lead to the demise of ECOWAS. If this happens, it should not just be seen as a sub-regional problem but as a tragedy for the pan-African spirit, which could best be built on through sub-regional communities. Similarly, the new governments are likely to seek new levels and partners for cooperation, especially in the security and development spheres. Existing relations have not yielded sufficient outcomes for more than five decades; new players such as Russia, China, the Gulf countries, Turkey, and non-state actors such as private military companies and NGOs would be keen to fill in the gap left by what is expected to be deteriorating relations between francophone countries and their traditional Western allies.

The paper concludes therefore that the recent coups in West Africa are not likely to spread beyond the region, given their unique historical and foreign relations. It, however, finds that should the new governments fail to urgently fulfil their promises, the search for alternative leadership is likely to commence. At the centre of this turbulence and uncertainty are the citizens, who are mainly keen on better prospects for their future.
Norms and Values
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Israel Nyaburi Nyadera
Summit diplomacies can offer African countries a channel to explore different avenues of engagement by listening to the proposals on the table during one summit to another and strengthen cooperation with those that offer better terms of cooperation. By choosing to isolate one country from the summits simply because of great power politics should not be in the interests of African countries, who should approach international relations with an open heart and a sharp desire to improve the wellbeing of the people of the continent. The Second Russia-Africa summit did have numerous opportunities regarding this direction, even though some of these benefits were overshadowed by information warfare.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.