Are foreign actors scapegoated in Africa’s coups?

Blaming coups on external influences often negates domestic leaders’ role and detracts from addressing the causes.

Following the 26 July Niger coup, the 1172nd Peace and Security Council (PSC) communiqué – which suspended Niger from African Union (AU) activities – strongly rejected external interferences by any actor or country outside the continent in African peace and security matters.

Even though internal issues have been the primary drivers of recent coups, mounting concerns about the role of external actors have steadily gained traction among African citizens. This is due largely to the rise in anti-Western sentiment associated with recent military takeovers. The question, however, remains whether external actors have played roles in recent increases in the occurrence of coups.

Allegations and arguments

An examination of arguments about external footprints in Africa’s recent coups indicates contrasting viewpoints. Some argue that political and military interests and access to natural resources are major motivations for Western interference in Africa, including removing leaders who stand in their way. This camp associates the quest for strategic interests with the inconsistency of foreign actors’ responses to coups. It highlights French endorsement of the April 2021 military takeover in Chad and its citing of ‘exceptional circumstances’ and security reasons as an example.

The United States (US) and France condemned military takeovers of and suspended aid to Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. However, they permitted militarised rule in Chad because of its role in the fight against Islamist militants in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. Chad is a key ally of France in its security strategy in Africa, particularly its military campaign against Islamist groups in the two regions.

The US also delayed using the coup label on Niger, neither applying sanctions nor suspending assistance until two months following the coup for similar geopolitical reasons. Meanwhile, the Russian private military Wagner Group is reported to have thwarted a plot in the Central African Republic, which in return guaranteed its continued presence and interest in the country. In Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt reportedly supported the military’s bid to hold onto power to enhance their regional ambitions.

Foreign actors’ security failures have led to anti-Western sentiment exploited by coup plotters

Relatedly, the failure of foreign actors’ approaches to security has led to anti-Western sentiment that coup plotters have used to justify their actions in the Sahel. The lack of its military success in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has weakened France’s credibility as a security partner and frayed relations with its former colonies.

This has caused a concomitant rise in anti-French sentiment among sections of the military elite to justify the overthrow of leaders close to France. As this rhetoric intensifies, Niger’s military regime has joined forces with Mali and Burkina Faso to blame Paris for the Sahel’s security crises.

More controversially, various reports have raised questions in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea about the foreign military training of junta leaders. Colonel Assimi Goïta, who led Mali’s 2020 and 2021 coups, received training from the US, Russia, France and Germany. Guinea’s Colonel Mamady Doumbouya led the 2021 coup, allegedly while receiving US military training.

Fuelling perceptions

Since it is common in Africa for military officers to be trained by multiple countries abroad, efforts to link military training to foreign manipulation, short of direct evidence, have lacked substance. They, however, bring into question the extent to which perceptions can be fuelled by the association of coup-makers with certain countries, whether through training or professional closeness. 

Beyond military interests, some have argued that the need to access Africa’s natural resources is a key driver of external influence in coups. Until its coup, Niger had played a significant role in the security architecture of the West, particularly in the US and France, in the fight against armed insurgencies in the Sahel region.

Although France has finally vacated the country, its protracted refusal to do so following the coup – citing the illegitimacy of the putschist regime and ‘instrumentalised anti-Westernism’ - raised questions in some policy circles about its motives, given that it vacated Mali and Burkina Faso under similar circumstances.

External players will strive to maintain a continental footprint for ‘counterinsurgency’ operations

Certain observers contend that French reluctance to leave despite sustained pressure to withdraw diplomatically and militarily is attributable to the need for access to Niger’s uranium. This France requires for its energy needs and to preserve its political hegemony in the country.

Some Guineans raised questions about Washington in their 2021 coup, citing American mining interests. Analysts have also suggested that Gabon’s recent coup, led by General Brice Oligui Nguema, was driven partly by Ali Bongo’s slow shift away from Paris – symbolised by Gabon’s joining of the Commonwealth.

They portrayed Bongo’s October 2022 meeting with King Charles as widening the wedge between the deposed leader and the French, who feared the United Kingdom might be encroaching on its interests in Gabon. Opposition leader Ondo Ossa – who was likely to continue tilting away from Paris – believes the coup was designed to prevent him from assuming office and to maintain the Bongo family in power. 

Scapegoating or genuine concern?

Others contend that whatever role external actors may have played in recent coups is only an extension of politics. They believe that this demonstrates that the events were perpetrated to serve the economic and political ambitions of certain African civilian and military actors, which sometimes align with the interests of foreign parties. 

Hence, it is not illogical to imagine that the US, France and other European actors will strive to maintain their footprint in parts of the continent for ‘counterinsurgency’ operations. This is so even if it means backing and working with military-led governments. In this context, the recent coups can be seen as an extension of politics by other means.  

The recent uptick in takeovers can be explained by a confluence of factors – oscillating between deteriorating domestic dynamics and foreign influences. At the core, these coups are a symptom of the chronic misgovernance and insecurity, dogging affected countries. This manifests in weaknesses in the military that translate to failure in addressing Islamist insurgency (such as in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger).

They are also a direct consequence of fissures between civilian and military governments over control of transitional governments. These were factors behind the coups in Mali (2021), Burkina Faso (January and September 2022) and Niger (2023), and the attempted coups in Guinea-Bissau (2022) and The Gambia (2022).

Domestically, addressing misgovernance and insecurity that trigger coups is crucial

Additionally, elections deemed credible and democratic by international and continental observers, although tarnished by opposition allegations of fraud and anti-government protests, contributed to the coups in Mali (2018) and Niger (2021). Deepening economic woes and autocratic moves, including political clientelism and constitutional manipulation, were also factors in the coup in Guinea.

This makes it difficult to place the blame wholly on external factors or actors. However, it does not take away the valid concern of how external influences impinge on Africa’s peace, security and governance landscape. Blaming the recent uptick on external influences alone constitutes scapegoating and detracts from the role of domestic factors and the agency of African leaders in finding solutions to the myriad driving causes.

Policy implications

It is in the continent’s best interests to address factors that create an environment conducive to external interference rather than focusing on external influence itself. With a holistic approach that addresses internal and external factors, policymakers can better navigate the challenges associated with coups and promote stability and democratic governance.

While addressing the failure to contain Islamist insurgencies, a rethink is needed of Sahel and Lake Chad Basin security strategies given the increasing withdrawal of foreign security forces. A new security response framework that addresses the security void created by exiting foreign actors should be implemented. It should reshape the nature of engagement with parties with foreign military presence across the continent. Simultaneously, the capacity of regional and continental policymakers must be strengthened to monitor and shape security partnerships across states.  

Relatedly, the weakness of Sahel militaries in continental and regional counterinsurgency efforts underlines the urgent need for action. The AU and regional economic communities must rally continental resources and lead the coordination of counterinsurgency approaches in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin. Improved security in these regions could minimise the incidence of coups. The importance of full deployment of the African Standby Force and the establishment of its counter-terrorism unit cannot be overemphasised.

Domestically, addressing misgovernance and insecurity that trigger coups in member states is crucial. Activating the anticipatory role of the PSC could help revitalise an often-neglected dimension in coup containment, namely prevention. Popularising the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance could also help entrench accountable governance and promote constitutionalism in member states. 

Image: © Master Sgt. Ken Bergmann / 1st Combat Camera Squadron

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