Another West African coup? After Burkina Faso, time to rethink military aid
On January 23-24, a coup in Burkina Faso overthrew President Roch Kabore. This is the fourth coup in Africa’s Sahel region in less than eighteen months, counting the August 2020 coup in Mali, the April 2021 coup in Chad, and Mali’s “coup within a coup” last May.
The latest coup will certainly be a topic of conversation at urgent regional coordination meetings, including an upcoming emergency virtual summit of the Economic Community of West African States on January 28 — although European and American leaders currently appear more concerned with the presence of Russian-linked Wagner Group mercenaries than with the region’s core political problems.
All of these coups illustrate the dangers of regional and international actors prioritizing counterterrorism (and competition with Russia) while ignoring other warning signs — flawed, low-turnout elections; out-of-touch rulers; crackdowns on free expression; overemphasis on counterterrorism; grinding poverty (even before the current crisis); and astonishing levels of internal displacement — until it is too late. The latest coup now presents a fork in the road for West African, French, and American policymakers who can decide to either let the coup stand and thus confirm de facto military dominance across the Sahel, or draw a red line and demand that it be reversed.
The overthrow of Burkina Faso’s president by the military not only has regional precedents but domestic ones as well, including a series of coups dating back to 1966. Out of the tumultuous 1980s, the ultimate victor was a military dictator named Blaise Compaore, who closed the door on the revolutionary promise of Compaore’s flawed but admirable predecessor, Thomas Sankara, by installing himself as de facto president for life. Compaore was overthrown in a 2014 popular revolution.
The revolution survived its first major challenge — a 2015 coup attempt by Compaore loyalists — but then floundered. A major part of the disappointment was Kabore, who was elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2020. Kabore, who was close to Compaore until the early 2010s, came late to the opposition and proved a poor vehicle for the aspirations of the youth-led revolution. The mainstream alternatives were little better – in both 2015 and 2020, the runners-up were politicians with ties to Compaore, such as former Finance Minister Zephirin Diabre. During his first and second terms, Kabore drifted along without much of a program.
Meanwhile, security collapsed across much of Burkina Faso. The easy — too easy — explanation one sometimes hears is that Compaore had maintained an unofficial deal with jihadists in Mali and beyond, keeping Burkina Faso free of their attacks; once he fell, the argument goes, jihadists crowded in. Another simplistic explanation one hears is that West African jihadists, flush with cash and tactical know-how from abroad, are strategic masterminds bulldozing their way across the region.
The reality is substantially more complex: Sahelian jihadists have had ups and downs, and it has taken the confluence of many factors — beyond just Compaore’s fall or whatever strategic acumen jihadists may possess — to make the central Sahel into one of the world’s worst conflict zones. In central Mali, a renewed wave of jihadist mobilization starting in 2015 drew on longstanding grievances connected to inequitable land access, ossified social hierarchies, and the brutal, knee-jerk reactions of the Malian security forces. Across the border in northern Burkina Faso, similar developments set in by 2016, drawing on ultra-local grievances, the exchange of personnel and ideas across the Mali-Burkina Faso border, and the deteriorating picture throughout the sub-region.
As Mali’s crisis grew into a Sahelian crisis, the region’s militaries have been both humiliated and coddled — by their own civilian leaders, and by France, the European Union, and the United States. Endlessly (and credibly) accused of egregious human rights violations, Sahelian militaries have been simultaneously and collectively pressed to deliver more results; in other words, more dead jihadists. From Paris, Washington, and Brussels, patronizing language about “partnerships” and “training” barely camouflages contempt — European and even American ground troops, helicopters, and drones crisscross the region, leaving Sahelian armies as supporting actors or bypassing them altogether. Litanies about “good governance” decry corruption in generic terms but rarely focus on specific targets, leaving little accountability for militaries or civilians.
Military corruption scandals — such as one in Niger, now the next country where coup fears are rising – have been routinely swept under the rug. Meanwhile, Sahelian security forces take casualties from enemies who melt into the countryside, leaving rank-and-file soldiers and gendarmes fearful and quick to pull the trigger against civilians, compounding insecurity.
All of these dynamics leave colonels — the key movers in recent coups — caught between ineffective presidents, complacent generals, and their own disgruntled troops. Elections bring no substantive changes, major opposition leaders offer vague alternatives, and Sahelian capitals periodically erupt into massive protests demanding an alternative to a broken status quo. One can understand why the colonels react, and why many civilians often initially support coups — even as the coups make the overall situation even worse by layering new political crises over existing crises of insecurity, humanitarian emergencies, and civilian politicians’ own inability to address fundamental problems.
From Paris, Washington, Brussels, and Abuja, the reaction to the latest round of Sahelian and West African coups has been to decry them while quietly accepting them as done deals. A “political reality” sets in the moment each leader reluctantly signs a hastily drafted resignation letter under clear duress, a “reality” dictating that such leaders are never coming back. The “international community,” with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as the lead negotiator, then haggles with each junta over the parameters of a transition back to civilian rule.
That template bogs regional diplomacy down in extended negotiations with juntas that are clearly willing to play outside the rules — a situation that has increasingly affected Mali. Paris and Washington, meanwhile, routinely appear overeager to get back to business as usual with whoever is in charge. In this case, business as usual means counterterrorism campaigns. Such campaigns are supposedly a means of boosting political stability, but in reality they constrain effective diplomatic responses to coups, corruption, electoral irregularities, and human rights abuses.
Why should it be considered politically fanciful to try to reverse coups? Examples of coups being reversed are few, but that does not mean Washington shouldn’t try. At a minimum, Washington can take the lead rhetorically by not just “expressing concern” or “calling for the release” of detained, overthrown presidents, but also by demanding the reinstatement of overthrown leaders. Any concerns about “losing credibility” should be tempered by the fact that Washington already appears weak and deeply hypocritical on the issue of democracy promotion and respect for human rights.
It is never too late to attempt consistency, including on cases now assumed to be completely settled — the Chadian junta’s rule is as unconstitutional today as it was in April 2021 when it began, for example. Beyond the rhetorical level, meanwhile, there are plenty of options for pressuring juntas through sanctions, aid suspensions, withdrawal of ambassadors, suspensions from regional and international organizations, and more.
ECOWAS, which pulled back from draconian economic sanctions in the immediate aftermath of the August 2020 coup in Mali, has now ended up imposing them some seventeen months later, after realizing that the junta was essentially ignoring ECOWAS dictates all along. To not use these tools when they would be most effective — in other words, in the immediate hours and days following each coup — is to become complicit in the region’s militarization, now not only in the far-flung peripheries where jihadists gravitate, but also in the capitals across the Sahel.