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  • Human Rights Research Center

The West African Coup Belt and its Waning Humanitarian Situation - Part 3

June 21, 2024


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.”

In part 1 of this 3-part series, we examined the domestic factors that led to each of these coups, discussed Africa’s history with coups, and highlighted how the humanitarian situation in many of these countries has worsened since the coups.

In part 2, we explored the role of resentment towards former colonial powers in fueling these conflicts, analyzed the reactions of geopolitical actors in and out of Africa to these coups, and assessed what their responses mean for the future of the region.

In part 3, we will explore the role terrorist/extremist groups are playing in these coups, including how counterterrorism forces in the region are abusing their mandate by committing human rights violations in the name of security.


Over the last decade, West Africa and the Sahel region have experienced an unprecedented rise in terrorist violence. According to the Global Terrorism Index, the Sahel region of Africa now accounts for 43 percent of the world’s terrorism deaths—more than South Asia and the MENA region combined. The Sahel saw an 8% increase in terrorism-related deaths in 2022, while similar deaths decreased across the globe. Two Sahel countries, Mali and Burkina Faso, are among the top five countries in the world most impacted by terrorism deaths. With 1,135 terrorism deaths in 2022, Burkina Faso now records more annual terrorism deaths than any other country.

Some experts attribute the expansion of violent extremism in the Sahel to persistently weak governance, characterized by corruption, democratic backsliding, legitimacy deficits, and human rights violations. Other factors related to this problem are the numerous ethnic and religious conflicts in the region. African countries have some of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world and have seen decades of turmoil among clashing ethnic groups. Additionally, the region's weather extremes, unpredictable growing cycles, desertification, and diminishing arable land contribute to declining economic opportunities in the region. This has left many young people struggling to get by financially and vulnerable to recruitment tactics from terrorist groups.

The majority of recent terrorist attacks in Africa have been carried out by various Islamic State-aligned terrorist groups. In September 2016, the Islamic  State in the Greater Sahara  (ISGS) surfaced in Burkina Faso, launching its first major attack on a border post near the city of Markoye. In 2017, several al-Qaeda affiliates merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). Violent extremism in the Lake Chad Basin at the intersection of Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria prevailed in the same period with the reemergence of Boko Haram, who soon after had rebranded as the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP). Since March 2023, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for 1,121 attacks, resulting in 4,770 casualties. Most of these claims were issued by ISWAP.


As mentioned in part 2, France, alongside other Western allies, has led the most significant counterterrorism effort in the Sahel region. In 2013, French forces entered Mali at the request of the Malian government and began Operation Serval, which later transformed into Operation Barkhane. This operation was a three-thousand-strong force based in N’Djamena, Chad, focused on rooting out violent extremists in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, in partnership with local governments and with the support of Chad and Mauritania. In 2015, Operation Barkhane expanded to fight against Boko Haram and by 2020 France had deployed 5,100 troops supported by 15,000 UN peacekeepers from around the world. Throughout these years, the US provided logistical and advisory support deploying approximately 1,500 troops to the region and building a drone base in Niger as a platform for strikes against groups across West and North Africa.

Despite counterterrorism efforts, the security situation in the region has only gotten worse for two main reasons. First, as discussed in part 2, there is a large anti-French sentiment in the region due to the legacy of colonialism. The deployment of Western forces in the region helped fuel this sentiment and painted the national governments in these countries as in league with colonial forces. This resentment towards the regimes contributed to the coups across the region and worsened terrorism in these countries as result of the power vacuums caused by the coups.

Second, Western counterterrorism efforts to bolster the military power of the governments also led to a concentration of power in the military in these countries. Military forces often took over areas and brutalized the local population in the name of counterterrorism. This brutality would also help to bolster support for terrorism forces as a means of the local population fighting back against the state.

Again, as discussed in part 2, when Western forces pulled out of the region, the Russian military and the PMC Wagner moved in to take their place. Russian aligned forces have been brutal in their counterterrorism methods and have committed an alarming number of human right violations.

Human Right Violations

As mentioned above, both terrorist groups and counterterrorism forces in the region have committed an alarming number of human rights violations. Some of those violations include, but are not limited to, more than 12,000 people being killed, many of whom were civilians, when fighting erupted between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who both dropped explosive weapons into densely populated neighborhoods. Also in Sudan, many cases have been reported of women and girls being subject to sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery, by the RSF. In one case, RSF members abducted 24 women and girls, holding them in a hotel in Nyala for days.

In Burkina Faso, pro-government forces, including soldiers and civilian militias, unlawfully killed or forcibly disappeared hundreds of civilians during counterinsurgency operations. In one instance, 147 civilians were targeted and killed in the village of Karma.

Furthermore, an airstrike by the Nigerian air force killed 21 civilians in Niger. While in the Central African Republic, the UN announced that it had collected evidence of rape, incriminating 11 Tanzanian peacekeepers. Another UN report outlines the Wagner Group’s pattern of human right violations in the CAR, including arbitrary detention, torture, disappearances, and summary execution.

The Future

What does the future hold for Africa’s Coup Belt? Will the Coup contagion spread? A failed coup attempt on May 19th, 2024 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) raises this question. Had the coup plotters, three of whom were American citizens, not been stopped, the DRC would have joined the infamous Coup Belt. Despite these ongoing threats, there is still hope for African democracy. In Senegal, after President Macky Sall attempted to delay the country’s presidential election indefinitely to extend his own term in office, the pro-democracy candidate Bassirou Diomaye Faye won. At 44 years old, Faye represents a new generation of leadership. His victory is a sign that generational change is possible without violence and that progress can occur through the democratic process. The peaceful transfer of power in Senegal highlights an alternative path towards change that many young Africans may hopefully follow in years to come.  


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