The West African Coup Belt and its Waning Humanitarian Situation - Part 1
Author: Fahad Mirza
October 24, 2023
Since 2020, there have been nine coup attempts in West Africa, Central Africa and the Sahel region. Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger, and most recently Gabon, have all had their democratically elected leaders overthrown and replaced with military juntas. The result of many of these coups has been a horrific humanitarian situation across the portion of Africa now known as “The Coup Belt.”
The geopolitical and domestic factors involved in these conflicts are significantly complex, and in order to properly examine them, this article will be split into three parts.
In this first part, we look at the domestic factors that led to each of these coups, discuss Africa’s history with coups, and highlight how the humanitarian situation in many of these countries has worsened since the coups.
In the second part, we examine how geopolitical actors in and out of Africa are reacting to these coups, which sides they are supporting, how former colonial powers contributed to these conflicts, and how different actors are looking to take advantage of the situation.
In the third and final part, we highlight the role terrorist/extremist groups are playing in these coups, including how counter-terrorism forces in the region are abusing their mandate by committing human rights violations in the name of security.
Military coups were a fairly regular part of Africa in the years following independence from colonial powers such as France, Britain, Germany and others. Since 1950, there have been over 200 coup attempts in Africa, with about half of them being successful. The average number of coup attempts between 1960 and 2000 was four per year. Experts point out that, in the immediate years after declaring independence, many African countries faced extreme levels of poverty and economic inequality. Many of these countries also declared independence in the middle of the Cold War, an era in which both the United States and Soviet Union were capitalizing on instability and waging proxy wars wherever possible. Additionally, research has shown that a precedent of a country having had a coup attempt, whether successful or not, makes it more likely that another attempt will occur.
Coups are rare events, yet nearly half of all coup attempts around the world since 1950 have been in Africa, which has experienced more coups than any other continent. Overall, coups have been on the decline since 2000, but in the last three years, there has been a sharp uptick as part of a larger global trend away from democracy.
The Coup Belt
The recent string of coups began in Mali when a group of Malian colonels led by Colonel Assimi Goita ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, often referred to as IBK, after three months of protests calling for Keita’s resignation. The protests called out the government for the country’s deteriorating security situation, contested legislative elections and allegations of corruption. Most notably, the security situation in Mali has been worsening due to ongoing violence from Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida. Security concerns contributed to Mali’s historically low turnout, at only 7.5%, in their 2020 parliamentary elections as ongoing violence forced the closure of a number of polling sites.
Initially, IBK deployed security forces to disperse the protests, leading to eleven deaths, which only exacerbated the situation. As mentioned before, the threat of extremist violence has led to an outpouring of counterterrorism aid from Western powers. Unfortunately, this aid did little to address the root causes of instability in Mali. Of the $79 million in U.S. foreign development assistance Mali received in 2020, only 1 percent went to democracy, rights and governance. This counterterrorism aid also shifted the balance of power in Mali, as the military budget more than doubled.
Following this coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional power bloc that will factor into many of the coups discussed later, imposed sanctions, restricting trade, closing borders, and suspending Mali from all its decision-making bodies. But ECOWAS soon lifted these sanctions once a transitional government was in place.
However, coup leaders soon clashed with the interim President Bah N’Daw and his Prime Minister, Moctar Ouane. On May 24, 2021, both were arrested along with others in the interim government. The next day, Colonel Goita, who was serving as interim vice president, appeared on national television declaring he was now the President of Mali.
It should be noted that while the first coup in 2020 had popular support among the population of Mali and the military, the second coup did not have support among the military. Shortly after the second coup, there were reports of fratricidal fighting among security forces. Then, in May 2022, the government claimed to have thwarted another coup attempt led by “Western-backed” army officers.
Elections in Mali had been scheduled for February 2024, already two years after the initial timetable laid out to ECOWAS. However, the military junta recently pushed back the election date over “technical reasons,” citing issues over payment with a French tech firm that handles the country’s civil registry database. As of now, Mali does not have a definitive date for their next elections to return to a “constitutional rule.”
In Chad, President Idriss Deby was killed on the battlefield in April 2021 while visiting troops fighting rebels in the north. Under Chadian law, the speaker of Parliament should have become president, but Deby's son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby, and a military council stepped in to name Deby head of Chad’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) and dissolved parliament. Mahamat Deby promised “free and transparent” elections in 18 months and vowed not to run in that election.
On May 11, the military government named former Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke as interim prime minister. Five months later, Deby named 93 members to a new interim parliament.
As part of the transition period, Deby announced plans for a national dialogue with opposition parties and civil society groups to set the constitutional frame for a new government. The dialogue finally began on August 20, 2022, after long delays and the withdrawal of key actors such as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebel group and Wakit Tama, a civil society movement. The groups accused the military government of failing to provide enough guarantees that the military government would not be part of the government after the transition and about the length of the transition.
As the dialogue concluded, the forum announced the dissolution of the TMC but said elections would instead be held two years later in October 2024. Additionally, Deby would be installed as president and allowed to run for office at the end of the transitional period. Former opposition member Saleh Kebzado was named as the prime minister.
The move ignited anger in members of opposition parties and civil society, who took to the streets to protest on October 20, 2022, a day that marked the promised end of the transitional period. Protesters built up road barricades and set rubber tires on fire while security forces fired tear gas and live ammunition. About 50 people were killed and 300 wounded nationwide. The government declared a state of emergency in the capital, N’Djamena, and several other cities, allowing the respective regional governors to “take all necessary measures in compliance with the law” to quell the protests.
On September 5, 2021, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya and his special forces arrested President Alpha Conde and overthrew the government of Guinea. After arresting the president, Doumbouya appeared on public television draped in the national flag of Guinea to say that the army had little choice but to seize power because of the rampant corruption, disregard for human rights and economic mismanagement under 83-year-old President Condé. The military junta promised to hand over power to elected civilians within three years.
Despite the junta's ban on all rallies since May, scattered demonstrations took place in the capital's suburbs, such as Sonfonia, Wanindara, Bambeto and Hamdallaye. In Cosa, a dozen young people were arrested. The demonstrators tried to erect barricades, which were quickly dismantled by the police and military personnel.
President Condé remains in detention, while the UN, African Union (AU) and regional body ECOWAS all condemned the military junta that replaced him. ECOWAS and the AU have both suspended Guinea's membership in each respective organization.
The military junta has announced plans to move the country towards civilian rule but did not specify how long the transition would be. They did, however, announce that anyone taking part in the interim government, including Colonel Doumbouya himself, will be barred from standing in the following elections.
The situation in Sudan has been complicated to say the least. On April 11, 2019, Sudan’s military removed President Omar al-Bashir from power, suspended the country’s constitution and closed its borders and airspace. A three-month state of emergency was also imposed.
Al-Bashir, who was in power for nearly 30 years, was replaced by a transitional military government, but thousands of protesters camped in front of the army headquarters and demanded civilian rule. What followed was a bloody summer of military crackdowns and the rise of a paramilitary militia group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF and the Sudanese government forces were accused of excessive war crimes throughout the summer of 2019, including beating protesters, shooting civilians, and using sexual violence, particularly against female rights activists as a means of silencing them.
The African Union then intervened by suspending Sudan’s membership, leading to civilian and military factions agreeing to share power in a three-year transition with elections scheduled for 2023. A council of ministers was also formed in August 2019 under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the former deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
Shortly after this power-sharing agreement was passed, the situation in Sudan began to worsen. Prime Minister Hamdok survived an assassination attempt on March 9, 2020. In April, inflation skyrocketed to 99 percent and higher, with food prices soaring after borders were closed to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
From September into October 2021, there were protests in eastern Sudan to block trade through the key hub of Port Sudan. Also in September, the Sudan government announced it had thwarted another coup attempt by civilian and military plotters linked to al-Bashir’s overthrown government.
Protesters then took to the streets in Khartoum on October 16 to demand a military government while, in response, tens of thousands demonstrated in support of the country’s transition to a civilian-led democracy. Armed forces detained civilian members of the ruling council, ministers in the government, and Prime Minister Hamdok.
In November 2021, after several more mass rallies against the coup, military leaders and Hamdok announced a deal for his reinstatement as PM, a position from which he resigned two months later in January 2022 after being unable to form a new government and facing continuing protests. In his televised resignation Hamdok said:
“I tried my best to stop the country from sliding towards disaster…fragmentation of the political forces and conflicts between the [military and civilian] components of the transition…Despite everything done to reach a consensus … it has not happened.”
After a year filled with more protests and reports that more than 30 percent of Sudan’s population is currently facing a food crisis, on December 5, 2022, Sudanese civilian groups and the military signed a deal to pave the way for a two-year civilian-led transition towards elections. Several thousand people protested against the deal in Khartoum, with some facing off against security forces who fired tear gas and stun grenades about a mile away from the signing ceremony. Under the framework deal, the military - in charge since the coup - agreed it would only be represented on a security and defense council headed by a prime minister.
Then, like many other deals attempted during this period, the fragile power-sharing deal ended when armed forces from both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo began fighting over control of Sudan. Fighting between rival armed factions broke out in April 2023 in Khartoum, and many fear the country is heading for a full-scale civil war.
Entire neighborhoods in the capital have been destroyed and abandoned after more than 3.4 million have been displaced. In the western region of Darfur, ethnic violence between Arab and non-Arabs has once again taken hold. The United Nations estimates that 25 million people need humanitarian assistance in Sudan.
Burkina Faso's army, led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, ousted President Roch Kabore in January 2022, blaming him for failing to contain violence by Islamist militants. This announcement came after Kabore was more than six years in power and following several days of unrest in the capital Ouagadougou.
Damiba cited the failure of the Kabore administration to unite the country and control the deteriorating security situation as reasons for ousting the civilian government. Since 2015, Burkina Faso has been caught up in an escalating wave of violence attributed to rebel fighters allied to both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, killing thousands of people and further displacing two million.
ECOWAS suspended Burkina Faso from the organization, demanding the Damiba-led government hold elections as soon as possible.
Despite Damiba’s promises to improve the security situation in the country, the crisis worsened under his government. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), attacks by armed groups increased by 23 percent in the five months after Damiba took over.
The UN highlighted Burkina Faso, a country of 16 million people, as one of several West African nations facing an “alarming level” of hunger with the country facing the worst hunger crisis in six years and more than 630,000 people on the brink of starvation.
These factors and others compounded, leading to Damiba himself being deposed on September 30, 2022, by Army Captain Ibrahim Traore. Traore dissolved the transitional government and suspended the constitution. Damiba resigned from his post and fled to neighboring Togo.
On July 26, 2023, Nigerien soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum at his official residence in the capital Niamey. They announced they seized power in a coup because of the West African country’s deteriorating security situation. President Mohamed Bazoum was elected two years ago in Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960.
In a statement broadcast on national television, Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane, one of the coup’s leaders, said, “The defense and security forces … have decided to put an end to the regime you are familiar with … This follows the continuous deterioration of the security situation, the bad social and economic management.” The colonel also announced the closure of Niger’s borders.
ECOWAS issued an ultimatum to the coup leaders, threatening military intervention if the deposed Bazoum was not returned to power. ECOWAS member states suspended relations with Niger and closed their land and air borders with the country. The governments of Mali and Burkina Faso, both also led by military coup leaders, issued a joint statement warning that an ECOWAS intervention in Niger could lead to a military response from their states.
On August 20, the main coup leader and self-proclaimed head of state, General Abdourahamane Tiani, presented his roadmap in a televised address: a transition period of no more than three years and an inclusive national dialogue. He also reiterated that his country would defend itself in the event of military intervention.
On August 30, 2023, just hours after Gabon’s election commission announced that President Ali Bongo Ondimba had been elected to a third term, a group of Gabonese military officers from the elite presidential guard unit seized power and placed the president under arrest at his palace. Later that day, the officers declared General Brice Oligui Nguema as chairman of the transition.
The military officers who carried out the coup have established what they call the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI). While the situation is still developing, if the coup is successful, it will have ended 55 years of dynastic rule under the Bongo family. President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s father, Omar Bongo, ruled Gabon from 1967 until his death in 2009, with Ali Bongo elected to succeed his father the same year.
The Humanitarian Situation
As touched on when discussing these recent events, the humanitarian situation in these countries has been worsening as a result of the coups. In many cases, the overthrow of the head of the country leads to an unstable power vacuum that different factions fight with each other to fill. The costs of this fighting are often felt by the civilian population.
In Mali, human rights violations have been perpetrated by several factions including Islamist fights, Malian armed forces, and the Russian-linked Wagner Group, who seem to have been brought in as part of a bilateral agreement between Russia and the military junta.
Islamist armed groups have carried out widespread killings, rapes, and looting of villages in northeast Mali since January 2023, forcing thousands of people to flee. Witnesses described a pattern of heavily armed men on motorcycles and in other vehicles surrounding their village, shooting indiscriminately, summarily executing men and other villagers, and looting and destroying property. Other villages in the region were often attacked around the same day, suggesting a plan or directive. Tens of thousands of people who lost their livestock, livelihoods, and valuables have fled elsewhere in Mali or to neighboring Niger. A more in depth analysis of the various terrorist groups fighting in the region will be in part three of this three-part series.
In late March 2022, Malian armed forces and associated foreign fighters were accused of executing an estimated 300 civilian men, some of them suspected Islamist fighters, in the central Malian town of Moura. The incident is the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict. Additionally, Wagner fighters with Malian armed forces have summarily executed and forcibly disappeared several dozen civilians in Mali’s central region since December 2022. They also destroyed and looted civilian property and allegedly tortured detainees in an army camp.
In Chad, in Spring 2021, hundreds of members and supporters of opposition parties and civil society organizations united in protests across the country to demand a transition to civilian rule. The Chadian security forces dispersed protests using excessive force, including live ammunition, and killed at least seven people while injuring dozens. Security forces beat four Chadian journalists who were covering the crackdown and arrested more than 700 people, several of whom claim that they were tortured and ill-treated in detention.
As discussed above, another protest to mark the date the military administration had initially promised to hand over power to a civilian government resulted in security forces killing at least 50 people and injuring dozens of others. Witnesses say that security forces fired their weapons indiscriminately into the crowd and one of the victims of the crackdown, Orédjé Narcisse, was a journalist who was reportedly shot outside his home by men in military uniforms.
In Guinea, the U.S. State Department reports a number of human rights issues including credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; and much more.
In Sudan, as discussed above, almost 25 million people need humanitarian assistance, and there are continuous human rights violations occurring every day from police crackdowns to sexual violence. One area to highlight is the rising levels of ethnic violence in Sudan’s West Darfur region. Darfur is infamous for the genocide that occurred there between 2003 and 2005, when an estimated 200,000 civilians died from brutal attacks, disease, and starvation. Now with West Darfur becoming a flashpoint for the ongoing power struggle between the RSF and SAF, there are fears that history is repeating itself. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said:
“We are seeing the evidence of it starting again,...What we see happening in Darfur right now pertains to what we saw happening in Darfur in 2004. So we have gone backward in those years.”
In Burkina Faso, there are numerous reports of military forces and pro-government militias committing human rights violations during counterterrorism operations. Hundreds of attacks on civilians and military targets by armed groups in 10 of Burkina Faso’s 13 regions intensified a humanitarian crisis and brought the total number of people internally displaced since 2016 to nearly 2 million, or just under 10 percent of the population.
Across the country, Islamist fighters raped dozens of girls and women who were foraging for wood, traveling to and from markets and fleeing the violence. They also burned and looted villages, markets, and businesses, commandeered ambulances and looted health centers. The fighters prevented farmers from accessing their fields; destroyed bridges, water sources, and telecommunications and electricity infrastructure; and engaged in widespread pillaging, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.
According to the United Nations, Niger faces a complex humanitarian crisis with 4.3 million people, about 17 percent of the population, requiring humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Niger faces many of the same issues with Islamist groups that other countries in West Africa have been facing. Over 420 civilians have been killed and tens of thousands have been driven from their homes in western Niger since January 2021.
Prior to the August 30th coup in Gabon, the country faced accusations of torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment by the government harsh and life-threatening prison conditions. In the wake of the coup, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced the organization's condemnation of the ongoing coup in Gabon and their deep concern at the announcement of election results amidst reports of serious infringements of fundamental freedoms. The body called for human rights and the rule of law to be fully protected and respected.
The coups in Niger and Gabon are very recent and it has yet to be seen if they will worsen the humanitarian situation in each country as they both were already facing significant humanitarian situations prior to each coup.
While, as discussed above, Africa does have a reputation for military coups, the recent string of coups has a number of similarities that set them apart from those in the past.
First, there seems to be a common generational element occurring within the coup belt. Many of the coup leaders are much younger than the leaders they are overthrowing and younger than other coup leaders have been in the past.
Colonel Assimi Goita of Mali is 42;
Mahamat Idriss Deby of Chad is 39;
Colonel Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea is 43;
General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo of the RSF in Sudan is 48;
Captain Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso is 34;
General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema of Gabon is 49.
With some exceptions, the majority of new heads of state in Africa’s coup belt are millennials. In fact, Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso is the world’s youngest currently serving head of state, not even being old enough to run for President in the United States. As discussed above, Traore ousted the already quite young at only 41, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba.
Second, there seems to be a desire for change among the population in many of these countries and oftentimes the coup seems to be welcomed by the people. For example, some analysts have suggested that the coup in Mali in 2020 came as a relief to many Malians, many of whom had lost faith in the leadership of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta with 82% saying they trust the military, while only 47% expressing trust in the President. Additionally, more than 1,000 people gathered in the capital in support of Burkina Faso’s military coup, as many citizens had lost faith in the government’s ability to protect them against Islamist violence.
Finally, the world is paying very close attention to these coups and the coup leaders are noticing. There is a brewing tension between ECOWAS and the coup belt. After Niger’s coup, ECOWAS gave an ultimatum to the coup leaders promising to take “all measures necessary” to reinstate ousted Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum. This proclamation seemed to trigger coup leaders in Mali and Burkina Faso who announced that any move by a foreign power to directly undermine Niger’s ongoing coup would be deemed a “declaration of war” against their own countries.
Additionally, there is also a Great Powers dimension to this conflict with France, a former colonizer to many of these countries, and the rest of the West continuously being pushed out of the region with each successive coup, only for Russia and its Wagner Group mercenaries to come fill the void left behind. Russia seems to be offering much of the same counterterrorism support the West was without the pesky need for these new regimes to respect human rights. Overall, there is a larger geopolitical picture these coups are painting that will be discussed in part two of this series.
Bilateral agreement: A formal agreement between two people or groups that both promise to do something for each other.
Coup: A sudden decisive exercise of force in politics and especially the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group.
Fratricidal: One that murders or kills his or her own brother or sister or an individual (such as a countryman) having a relationship like that of a brother or sister.
Geopolitical: A study of the influence of such factors as geography, economics, and demography on the politics and especially the foreign policy of a state.
Military junta: A government led by a military council or committee for political or governmental purposes.
Militia: A private group of armed individuals that operates as a paramilitary force and is typically motivated by a political or religious ideology.
Paramilitary: An organization whose structure, tactics, training, subculture, and (often) function are similar to those of a professional military, but which is not part of a country's official or legitimate armed forces.
Proxy wars: A military conflict in which one or more third parties directly or indirectly support one or more state or non-state combatants in an effort to influence the conflict’s outcome and thereby to advance their own strategic interests or to undermine those of their opponents.
Sanction: An official order, such as the stopping of trade, that is taken against a country in order to make it obey international law.