Are civil-military relations spurring recent coups in West Africa?

Multiple coups suggest a vicious cycle of African instability that could be alleviated by enhanced civilian oversight.

In response to the first (1960s and 1970s) and second waves (1980s and 1990s) of military coups in Africa, the African Union (AU) and the continent’s regional economic communities and mechanisms established normative frameworks to counter unconstitutional changes of government (UCG). Efforts culminated in the 2000 Lomé Declaration on unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs), which ‘rejected any unconstitutional change as an unacceptable and anachronistic act’ that contradicts the AU’s democratic norms.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) established the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance (2001), which defined constitutional convergence principles. These stipulated free, fair and transparent elections as the only route to power.

The continent also adopted a zero-tolerance policy against power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means and demanded that armed forces be apolitical and under legally constituted political authorities. For instance, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region promulgated a similar protocol in 2006 to reinforce the norms governing civil-military relations.

Despite these and other normative instruments, civilian and military unconstitutionality has resurged, with dire implications for implementing the African Governance Architecture and the Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). This has rekindled the debate about the state of civil-military relations in Africa and their role in instigating instability, including civil wars, violent protests and coup d’états.  

Is it all about military coups?

Civil-military relations (CMR) refers to the nature and form of interactions among the armed forces, political entities and citizens. In practice, however, it entails balancing the need to create and maintain a military establishment strong enough to protect the state but not overthrow the government. In Africa’s fragile states and democracies with weak institutions, CMR is crucial to national security.

Two significant trends define Africa’s current challenges with UCGs and CMR, reflecting a ‘third wave’ of coup d’états that threaten to reverse democratic gains. The first is UCGs perpetrated by the military. Since 2000, Africa has witnessed 25 successful coups amid many failed attempts.   

Since 2000, Africa has witnessed 25 successful coups amid many failed attempts

Aside from the 14 successful coups, West African states alone experienced 17 coup attempts and plots and significant constitutional crises in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Togo, Gambia, Guinea and Senegal.

The second trend relates to democratically elected leaders who engineer the national constitution to extend their terms in office. In West Africa alone, 11 attempts have been made since 2003 to extend presidential terms in seven countries. These were Burkina Faso (2005 and 2014), Togo (2005 and 2015), Benin (2006, 2010 and 2019), Guinea (2020), Côte d’Ivoire (2020), Senegal (2023) and The Gambia (2020 to 2021). Apart from contradicting democratic norms and processes, civilian incumbents, who are commanders-in-chief, have adopted strategies to remain in power, including violence and constitutional manipulation.

Civil-military frictions

Further to the numerous issues underlying frictions in member states, including competition for control over natural resources, unemployment, corruption and defence procurement matters, tensions also arise from the politicisation of national militaries and other security-sector institutions.

Another pertinent challenge observed in recent coups is the role of presidential guards inherited from the French Republican Guard system. In francophone countries, presidential guards are directly answerable to and protect the presidency. Presidential guards have instigated some of Africa’s recent coups, notably in Niger (2010), Mali (2012), The Gambia (2014), Burkina Faso (2015) and Gabon (2023).

These underscore the dilemma of abusing the assigned functions of presidential guards that are maintained to the detriment of the capabilities of regular armed forces and security forces in preserving constitutional order. It also stokes tensions between well-equipped presidential guard regiments that do not usually participate in national security operations, such as counter-insurgency, but are very well equipped compared with the regular armed forces that often endure most combat. It also blurs the boundaries between civilian control and military subordination, encouraging the politicisation of security services with adverse consequences for national security and regional stability.

Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have experienced extended military rule in the periods following independence

Tensions have also emerged around political actors’ approaches to national security threats. Examples are the presence of foreign powers such as France in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger and Gabon, Russia’s Wagner Group in Togo, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, and the United States in Burkina Faso and Niger. These are not only efforts by weak states to outsource national security but also part of a calculated regime security measure.

Since 2012, a series of intractable insurgencies appears to have exacerbated CMR in Mali, Burkina Faso (2016 and 2022) and Niger (2023). In the first two, CMR frictions arose from disagreements over the role of the Wagner Group. In Niger, then-president Mohamed Bazoum appears to have triggered Niger’s ‘military grievance’ coup (26 July). This was prompted by the April ‘sacking’ of General Salifou Mody, chief of staff of Niger’s armed forces, for negotiating a ‘hot pursuit’ agreement with Mali.

Bazoum viewed this as an embarrassing violation of ECOWAS sanctions against Mali. His second cardinal sin might have been his investigation of the disappearance of 50% of Niger’s defence budget (US$125 million) during Mahamadou Issoufou’s administration (2011 to 2021). A third was the attempt to restructure and downsize the presidential guard (from about 2 000 to 700) and scrutinise its budget.  

After being in power, the military struggles to become subordinate to civilian rule and oversight

Long periods of military rule undermine a culture of military subordination to civilian rule and oversight. Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have experienced extended military rule in the periods following independence. Having tasted power, the military struggles to adapt when political dynamics change and it must again be subservient to civilian rule. This catalogue of CMR irritations causes civilian clashes with the armed forces, which perceive themselves as guarantors of constitutional sanctity or national security strategies, including tensions over alliances with external powers.


Improving relations

The many civilian and military coups suggest a vicious cycle of instability arising from weak governance, corruption and human rights abuses that perpetuate grievances and fuel rebellions and other political violence.

To effectively stem this cycle and improve civil-military relations, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), regional organisations and member states need to encourage member states to enhance civilian oversight. This can be achieved by strengthening the capacity and independence of civilian institutions, including through budget transparency and parliamentary oversight to ensure transparency, accountability and adherence to democratic principles within African armed forces. Also important are promoting professionalism within the military and emphasising the need to respect civilian authority, human rights and international humanitarian law.

PSC sessions can also serve as vehicles to strengthen regional cooperation to actively promote and monitor CMR and for member states to share best practices and experiences around norms and standards. PSC sessions should foster dialogue, cooperation and education by creating regular engagement and collaboration platforms on the issues raised above. 

Efforts to address civil-military challenges in Africa require comprehensive approaches to strengthen democratic institutions, promote good governance and address the causes of socio-economic disparities. This is preferable to the irrational, knee-jerk military intervention projected in Niger in 2023 or the misinformed call for an African counter-coup force.   

Image: © Issouf Sanogo/AFP

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