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Report of Monday Morning Meeting on Recent Coups in Africa’s Sahel Region: Trends and Challenges

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  • October 30, 2023
    Monday Morning Meeting

    Dr. Abhishek Mishra, Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, made a presentation on “Recent Coups in Africa’s Sahel Region: Trends and Challenges” at the Monday Morning Meeting held on 30 October 2023. The Session was moderated by Dr. Rajeesh Kumar, Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA. Scholars of the Institute were in attendance.

    Executive Summary

    The recent spate of coups in West Africa and the Sahel, notably in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, has raised significant concerns regarding political stability in the Sahel region. Driven by socio-political grievances and security challenges, military interventions have disrupted democratic governance. Burkina Faso experienced a coup amid economic challenges and rising extremist violence, while Niger and Gabon also faced coups, citing dissatisfaction with the government's handling of security threats. The international community has strongly condemned these actions, emphasising the urgent need for a return to democratic principles. Regional organisations, such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) play a pivotal role in mediating and restoring stability to the region. Their efforts are crucial in addressing the complex socio-political and security issues that have led to these unsettling developments.

    Detailed Report

    The presentation commenced with Dr. Rajeesh Kumar delivering opening remarks, providing a foundation for examination of recurring coups in Africa. Dr. Rajeesh mentioned the historical depth of this phenomenon, spanning from 1946 to 2020, with over 300 instances documented. The focus of the discussion, led by Dr. Abhishek Mishra, was on unravelling the intricacies and understanding the root causes of these coups.

    The presentation proceeded with Dr. Abhishek providing an overview of the research methods employed, with particular emphasis on the utilization of descriptive and analytical approaches in addition to using both primary and secondary sources. Transitioning to the theme, he highlighted three distinct waves of coups in Africa. The first wave (1960s-1970s) was characterised by the overthrow of leaders whose political visions conflicted with the interests of major colonial powers. The second wave (1990-2001) is examined in terms of failures in the 1980s, reduced violence involving mid-level officers, and the impact of evolving democratic norms at the regional and continental level. The ongoing third wave (2020 onwards) is marked by diverse motivations, ranging from unconstitutional Presidential term limit extensions and anti-colonial sentiments, with a spotlight on country-specific manifestations.

    Subsequently, he provided analysis on factors propelling coups in the Sahel, identifying perennially weak states, overdependence on aid, and electoral governance shortcomings as pivotal drivers over the past three decades. A comprehensive overview of recent coups from January 2020 to August 2023 was presented, incorporating statistics on attempted and successful coups, notable incidents (e.g., Niger in July, Gabon in August 2023), and the resultant implications for the region.

    Dr. Abhishek further explored the Sahel region, revealing a landscape fraught with intricate challenges influenced by structural, governance, and external dynamics. The collapse of Libya intensified military involvement, fostering discontent and challenges to elected leaders. Cold War-era neocolonialism deepened reliance on external aid. Governance systems, a legacy of colonialism, often lack true democratic principles, consolidating power within group of elites and particular communities. While certain nations successfully transitioned to functioning democracies like Ghana, Mauritius, Cote d’Ivoire, unmet youth aspirations persist. Military coups, orchestrated by well-trained officers, lack economic direction and ideological foundations, with citizen’s support for military overthrow reflecting dissatisfaction rather than endorsement of military rule. Democratic regression, evident in superficial democracies and declining satisfaction, underscore governance hurdles. Recommendations emphasise regional collaboration, institutional investment, and local governance focus. Strained state-society relations necessitate inclusivity efforts and resolution of historical grievances. Discrepancies between legality and legitimacy, driven by foreign interference, impede effective governance. France's role, rooted in colonial history, faces scrutiny amid growing decolonial sentiments and regional tensions. Insecurity, exemplified by the failure of Operation Barkhane, further complicates the region's landscape.

    In his exploration of the Sahel region, Dr. Abhishek highlighted the intricacies surrounding Operation Barkhane, France's initiative in 2013 to curb Islamist violence. While initially successful against insurgencies, France's recent withdrawal, commencing on 15 August 2022, has raised concerns about potential destabilisation and power vacuums in the region. The "Francafrique" system, characterising France's relationship with African nations, came under scrutiny for inconsistencies and double standards in promoting Western values, contributing to tensions. Immigration and visa issues further strained relations between France, Africa, and Europe, complicating diplomatic dynamics.

    Amidst these complexities, Russia's role in the region received attention, with Dr. Abhishek urging caution against media hype. Despite Russia's deep pockets, limitations to its influence in certain African countries were noted. The heightened violence following the withdrawal of Operation Barkhane and the United Nations Multinational Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) brought attention to security challenges, notably attributed to groups like Jamaá Nusrat ul-Islam wa-al Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

    Dr. Abhishek advocated a political and diplomatic resolution to the crisis, emphasising the temporary nature of sanctions and the need for a bottom-up governance-focused approach. Improved coordination among international organisations, revisiting peace deals, and cautious dialogue with militants were underscored as essential elements for a sustainable resolution. The potential for African Union and ECOWAS intervention was acknowledged, particularly in preventing political transitions through diplomatic means. The assessment of countries susceptible to coups, including Cameroon, Republic of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea, highlighted concerns about dissatisfaction with long-serving leaders and the potential for power shifts in these regions.

    Questions and Comments

    During the Q&A session the scholars raised a number of thought-provoking inquiries, ranging from the implications of foreign intervention, specifically dissecting the aftermath of French involvement in African nations, to a deep dive into the role of social media in shaping post-coup leadership. The motivations behind unconstitutional power extensions took centre stage, prompting discussions on whether civilian governments or military leaders were more prone to such actions. Scrutiny extended to the effectiveness of regional blocks and the African Union in curbing coups, prompting a collective call for a re-evaluation of existing sanctions and conditions.

    Dr. Abhishek Mishra addressed the questions posed by the scholars. On the issue of instability in Francophone West Africa, he noted that successive coups haven't directly led to instability, explaining the uniqueness of each country's situation. Coup prevention emerged as a priority, particularly in cases where leaders attempt third terms, leading to concentrated power. Regarding democracy, Dr. Mishra stressed the need to revisit the social contract and build institutions for sustained trust between civilians and leaders. From India's perspective, the instability poses a limited threat to investments, but the country continues to seek new markets, as Indian embassies in these regions continue to operate despite the instability. The coup phenomenon is more pronounced in Francophone West African countries due to France's historical legacy. Mishra highlighted challenges in weak states, with citizens blaming leaders for unfulfilled promises, emphasising the necessity of inclusive approaches to state-building, bringing in diverse communities for sustainable development.

    The report has been prepared by Mohanasakthivel J., Research Analyst, ALACUN Centre, MP-IDSA.