US shouldn’t normalize post-coup military juntas in West Africa
On July 24, a delegation from the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, visited Burkina Faso to assess the country’s progress in transitioning back to civilian rule following a coup in January of this year.
The ECOWAS delegation effectively ratified the “dynamic compromise” that has fixed the length of the transition at two years, dating from July 1, 2022. The “compromise” is very close to what the Burkinabè junta initially wanted — 30 months, dating from January or perhaps February 2022 — and relatively far from the 18-month timetables that ECOWAS has sought to impose not just on Burkina Faso, but also on the other recent West African states where coups have occurred, namely Mali (August 2020, May 2021) and Guinea (September 2021).
In Mali and likely in Guinea, the trends are similar if not worse. Norms are eroding: coup-makers increasingly act not as temporary caretakers between civilian administrations, but as multi-year military regimes. Washington appears — or considers itself to be — effectively powerless in the face of this slippage, but it does not have to be that way.
The coups have been locally rooted in populations’ discontent and in the security forces’ frustration — the coups are neither Russian plots, nor are they a direct result of American training. Yet Washington has sent a message, since 9/11, that what it cares about most in West Africa and especially in the Sahel is killing terrorists. The present environment has been hospitable to coups in part because the region has been so securitized; the August 2020 coup in Mali, the first of the current wave, met with what I have called a “soft acceptance” because of American and French myopia on counterterrorism. Washington can have a hyper-securitized (and correspondingly unstable) Sahel, or it can take a meaningful stance in favor of democracy — it cannot do both.
ECOWAS has been negotiating with West African juntas not only on behalf of the region’s remaining civilian-led states (some of which are fairly authoritarian themselves), but also on behalf of the United States, France (the former colonizer of approximately half of ECOWAS’s member states), and other Western powers. When ECOWAS leads post-coup negotiations, there are several advantages for Washington: this approach positions regional stakeholders as the key decision-makers, reduces the reputational risk for the United States if negotiations stumble, and conserves diplomatic resources in what is, for better or worse, a relatively low-priority region for any White House.
ECOWAS will remain an indispensable partner for Washington, although working with the bloc has downsides — it is a heads of state club that ignores its own civilian members’ power grabs (including the 2020 third-term bid by then-Guinean President Alpha Condé, a move that led directly to the coup there). Given its elite orientation, ECOWAS is not always a convincing spokesperson for ordinary people in West Africa, who often appear frustrated with the civilians who rule them. Such frustration is another important ingredient in the region’s coups, as in Mali where then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s overthrow was preceded by a summer of civilian protests. Finally, deferring to ECOWAS means following its timelines, which can mean missing crucial early windows for responding to coups.
Washington formally opposes coups, although in practice, American responses to coups on the African continent vary widely — from a de facto embrace of the Egyptian coup of 2013, to overt celebration of the 2017 coup in Zimbabwe, to rejection of the recent wave of West African coups. Despite the foreign policy establishment’s hand-wringing over “democratic backsliding” and despite the Biden administration’s emphasis on “democratic renewal,” U.S. responses to coups — past and present — are dictated more by perceived interests than by principle.
That’s too bad for West Africa, because ordinary people there appear largely supportive of democracy in principle, however disappointed they may be with any current incumbent. And although recent coups have attracted strong support from populations, the excitement can fade once soldiers show their own self-interested, authoritarian tendencies, not to mention their inability to tame the insecurity that helped bring them to power in the first place. Countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso have endured both feckless civilians and harsh juntas in recent years, but that does not mean there are no other possible paths.
I have argued on this site previously that Washington should push back more forcefully against coups, including by publicly demanding that ousted incumbents (no matter how lackluster) be reinstated. Reversing coups is admittedly a tricky proposition, however. Reversing the normalization of multi-year transitions in the region will be even harder, especially when ECOWAS compromises with juntas. Yet American policymakers and diplomats should try.
There are at least two lessons here from an earlier era. At the end of the Cold War, many of Africa’s autocrats faced sharp reductions in support from Moscow for obvious reasons, but also from Washington. The changing landscape helped propel a “third wave” of democratization. Longstanding military regimes fell across the continent — including in Mali in 1991.
The first lesson is that American policymakers should not get comfortable with military regimes. If harsh sanctions and threats do not work (ECOWAS tried a sweeping sanctions package for Mali and then backed down when it did not sway the junta), neither should American policymakers fool themselves into thinking that a given autocrat is some vital ally on another priority. The African autocrats who survived the “third wave of democracy” did so because they partnered closely with Washington, Paris, or some other major power.
At the moment, American-Russian (and American-Chinese) competition and the African versions of the “War on Terror” have both led American policymakers to accept certain African leaders’ abuses — sometimes for decades, as in the case of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. The tradeoffs are not worth it, including reputationally, when American backing becomes closely linked with a ruler’s anti-democratic behavior and human rights abuses.
The second lesson is that American diplomats can and should build bridges beyond whoever sits in the presidential palace in a given country. It is worth recalling the constituencies and social movements that were at the vanguard of pressing for democratization in the early 1990s: labor unions, students, women’s movements, etc. The need to engage such forces is yet another reason why American embassies in Africa should be properly staffed — not to fuel competition with Russia and China, but so that diplomats can hear from and interact with the movements that really represent ordinary people.
Washington needs to avoid both the appearance and the reality of meddling in democratic outcomes. Yet, by working with civil society (meaning, again, actually representative groups, not “briefcase NGOs” or, even worse, the “fake civil society” of pro-government front groups), diplomats can elevate and protect pro-democracy voices even in societies where political tumult and insecurity are raging.
On the one hand, then, it is vital that Washington does not actively or passively turn juntas into friends. On the other hand, the solution is not disengagement, but rather the kind of engagement that lets autocrats know that America is paying attention to those autocrats’ critics and challengers.
Finally, even as American policymakers seek to reverse the normalization of past coups in West Africa, one additional priority should be preventing more coups. To do that, Washington will need to challenge, at least privately, the autocratic tendencies of some of its favored partners — not all of the region’s acclaimed “democracies” are as democratic as one would like. That leaves them vulnerable, as the cases of Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso have already demonstrated, to coups of their own.
Washington should re-weight its priorities; letting allies off the hook for domestic authoritarianism in the service of counterterrorism cooperation may prove appealing, but it’s shortsighted and counterproductive. West Africa’s trend lines are bad — Washington’s policies are not decisive for the region, but those policies can certainly help make things better or worse.