Spotlight: Challenging assumptions about West Africa’s coups

By providing balanced commentary on complex political developments, the ISS is questioning a simplified narrative about Africa’s coups.

Since 2020, West Africa has seen two governments overthrown in Mali, one in Guinea, and the most recent in Burkina Faso in January this year. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is a vital source of informed African insights into these events, with a team monitoring daily developments on the ground.

The ISS encourages an approach that recognises structural deficits in countries experiencing coups, and explores the motivation of coup leaders and reasons for their popular support.  

Ornella Moderan, Head of the ISS Sahel programme, says responses to coups in the region have lacked nuance and pragmatism. After Mali’s August 2020 coup, for example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) started talks with the interim government on a swift return to democracy and civilian rule. But the bloc was dogmatic about election timelines, and didn’t engage in meaningful discussions on the equally important need for political reform.

This ECOWAS pressure resulted in a short-lived agreement. In May 2021 the military junta seized power from the civilian-led interim government, and in January 2022 proposed extending the deadline for elections by up to five years. ECOWAS responded with more severe sanctions that have damaged not only Mali’s economy, but that of neighboring countries such as Senegal, Mali’s main trading partner.

Instead of cornering Mali’s transitional authorities, the sanctions consolidated their popular support. Sanctions also backfired on ECOWAS. The regional bloc is perceived as having double standards because it condemns coups but also indulges third terms and authoritarian abuses by incumbent leaders.

The ISS has helped global audiences see that ECOWAS is facing a credibility crisis and has failed to constructively respond to several complex situations. Ahead of an ECOWAS summit in January on the Mali situation, former United States special envoy for the Sahel, Dr J Peter Pham, described the ISS analysis and advice as ‘excellent.’ He agreed with Moderan that it was counter-productive to treat Mali’s authorities as diplomatic juniors, ignore their statements and hope to force their hand. 

The reasons for the coups differed, so the generic narrative about a contagion of coups misses the mark

Targeted sanctions, travel bans and a suspension from ECOWAS were also imposed on Guinea. In the Burkina Faso case, the regional body suspended the country’s membership but stopped short of imposing further sanctions.

‘A complex situation requires careful analysis which avoids sweeping assumptions and one-size-fits-all conclusions,’ Moderan says. ‘If a country requires reforms before elections, then the best way to support these reforms must be seriously considered, even if the protagonists include military coup leaders.’

Moderan is based in Mali’s capital Bamako, and has worked in West Africa and the Sahel for 12 years, with experience in development, governance and humanitarian sectors. Her team includes human security experts from across Africa who offer nuanced analysis that takes account of economic, political and cultural dynamics.  

‘Our local expertise is critical to put developments into perspective and challenge unhelpful narratives driven by the remote international media and commentators,’ Moderan says. ‘The reasons for the coups in Mali, Guinea and Burkina were very different, and responses need to take account of specific national factors. The generic narrative about a contagion of coups simply misses the mark.’

Years of ISS research has shown the importance of understanding drivers of conflict and instability in a region facing corruption, weak and unresponsive governance, and deep-rooted gender, social and economic inequalities.

In January, the ISS Sahel team did 63 media interviews about coups and the role of ECOWAS sanctions with African and international news organisations including Al Jazzera, The New York Times, BBC Radio, Agence France Presse. ISS analysis has been reported across the world in at least six languages. It has helped to shape international understanding of the region, with diplomats and policy makers now approaching the ISS directly for insights.  

For more information contact:

Ornella Moderan, ISS: [email protected]

Image: © John Wessels / AFP

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