InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion entitled "Driving Forces: Understanding the Recent Military Coups in Africa," featuring Dr. Samuel Ramani, a tutor in international relations at the University of Oxford and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Trends and Patterns
Dr. Ramani noted that there were some common features among the recent coups in Africa, including the following:
1. Coups targeted various types of regimes: The panel’s main speaker noted that the coups that have occurred in Africa since 2019 have certain commonalities as well as some differences. For example, there have been coup attempts and a coup in Gabon against Ali Bongo, who had recently won the Gabonese presidential elections. However, the Bongo family had ruled Gabon for almost half a century. This was a very different situation than that of the ousted democratically-elected Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum. Despite differences in forms of governance in various countries, military coups targeted all forms of rule—democratically-elected and authoritarian alike. The speaker added that Mali had experienced coups in 2020 and 2021, while another coup in Burkina Faso was led by Ibrahim Traoré, who was only 34 years old at the time. In Niger, the ouster of Mohamed Bazoum led to the chief of the Nigerien Presidential Guard assuming power. These coups targeted a range of systems of governance.
2. Many different catalysts for coups: Ramani indicated that António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, had said that there were many key drivers for the African coups. These causes included poverty, unemployment, geographic and demographic disparities, internal factors, rising prices, and the inability of the UN Security Council to enact serious measures to prevent coups. The lack of deterrents made it easier for militaries in neighboring countries to carry out similar coups. The coups in Africa occurred due to the convergence of various factors. For example, Sudan has some internal risk factors, especially poverty and unemployment, while Niger has hundreds of compounding concerns that can provoke coups. Niger is the third poorest nation in the world and has a very high rate of unemployment; 40 percent of Niger’s national budget is dependent on foreign aid.
Ramani noted that although Niger has more potential risk factors for coups than other nations, there is also an interesting paradox: Coups often occur during periods of relatively stability and economic growth. After the coup, economic and social conditions deteriorate and political violence spreads. For example, Mali has had an increasingly high number of civilian casualties, while ethnic cleansing operations are on the rise in some areas where coups occurred. The demographic explosion, challenges in education and health sectors, and the advanced age of certain leaders have collectively resulted in more coups.
3. Shifts in counterterrorism policies during coups: Ramani clarified that coups often lead to shifts in counterterrorism policies. He said that the new Nigerien leadership was facing challenges, including with regard to how to gather intelligence and amass weapons. The state could therefore experience a security vacuum amidst a lack of security support from other countries, especially with Russia trying to allocate its resources to the war in Ukraine. The Wagner Group will also not intervene. France is trying to get out of Niger, and the US will be forced to halt support for French reconnaissance in Niger. Niger therefore finds itself in a very vulnerable position to deal with terrorist attacks from neighboring countries. The Nigerien army is trying to expand its forces to respond to these developments, but it is unlikely to be able to develop sufficient capacities to deal with the threats it faces.
Ramani added that other coup regimes in Africa continue to struggle with increased activity by terrorist groups. In Mali, even with Russian support, there have been many terrorist attacks including attacks on one of Wagner’s bases. Niger is currently the most vulnerable to terrorist attacks and could potentially hold talks with representatives from those groups, a step that civil society organizations would support. Reaching a settlement with these groups is the only way that Niger can proceed given the lack of foreign security support. If Niger does not take those steps, there could be another coup.
4. Social movements challenge governments: Ramani noted that there were other factors contributing to the outbreak of coups, such as the emergence of social movements against the government. That was what happened in Niger after April 2022 when Mohamed Bazoum, who was then 62, tried to amend the constitution to extend his presidential term. Although Bazoum presented himself as combatting terrorism, he was not seriously focused on the issue, and made no progress with counterterrorism efforts in Niger. Social movements in Niger therefore became increasingly frustrating with Bazoum and with the French. Bazoum did not control the elections, but the military generals determined the results, and there was a lot of meddling from France and foreign actors.
5. Many unsuccessful coup attempts: Ramani observed that it is important to take into account that there were several unsuccessful coup attempts before the recent wave of coups, including failed coups in Gabon against President Bongo. Ironically, it was General Nguema, the head of the Gabonese Presidential Guard, who foiled previous attempts. There were various coup attempts against Ali Bongo in 2019, all of which were thwarted. The military authorities in Burkina Faso also announced that coup attempts had been foiled in September 2023 against Captain Ibrahim Traoré. There have been a total of 214 attempted military coups in Africa between 1950 and 2022, of which 106 succeeded and 108 failed—the highest coup success rate in the world.
6. Challenges in thwarting coup attempts: According to Ramani, it has often been difficult for African countries to prevent coups. Coups have succeeded in Mali and Burkina Faso; Mali is technically in a transitional period for three to five years. Sudan has tried to reach to a constitutional agreement but has suffered a coup, so it is hard to see which trajectory will prevail.
7. Unlikely that wave of coups will continue: Ramani indicated that many countries that were vulnerable to coups had experienced coups. Most of these situations were touched upon during the discussion. He stated that it was important to think about the danger that further coups could happen in Burkina Faso, Mali, or Sudan. Ramani also stated that another coup could lead to a chain of coups, which could result in political violence in Niger. This is especially concerning given that there have been skirmishes on the Nigerien border which resulted in multiple casualties. Energy and food prices are also rising due to sanctions on Niger and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Moscow’s Central Role
The panel discussion focused on the key role that Russia played in the wave of African coups, including with regard to the following:
1. Varied Russian responses to African coups: According to Ramani, Russia has dealt very differently with different Africa coups. In Sudan, the Wagner Group was frustrated with the 2019 coup. In Mali, the Wagner Group tried to take control of gold mines, but was not able to do so. Ramani stated that the broader issue that the Wagner Group is now facing in Mali since the coup there is that Russian resources need to be directed towards Ukraine. This means that the group in Mali has not received ammunition, supplies, or any heavy weaponry for a long time. However, things are changing now with the Russian Ministry of Defense in control, so the situation there could improve. In Niger, Wagner forces found it difficult to establish security control for several reasons including a very weak counterterrorism record in neighboring Mali. The local army was also struggling to use Russian technologies.
2. Growing Russian engagement as France pulls back: According to Ramani, there have been proxy wars between Russia and France in Africa during recent years. This has led to coups throughout the region, as France and its allies lose power and are replaced by Russia and its allies. That is what happened in Mali and Gabon. The French ambassador to Mali recently insisted that he would not recognize the new government in Mali, while the Russians have taken advantage of this to develop strong ties with the new government there. Russia has signed deals with the new Malian leadership and has exported grain and gas to Mali.
3. Increased Russian soft power in Africa: Ramani added that the third country where Russia has replaced France is Burkina Faso, where Russian flags were raised after the new regime came to power, as has also been the case elsewhere. Burkina Faso issued statements indicating that it prefers the presence of Russian to Western forces. During the December 2022 elections, Russian media developed programming against colonial interference and advertised the Wagner Group’s involvement in Burkina Faso. Ibrahim Traoré also attended a Russia-Africa Summit in Johannesburg and took photos with Putin. During the coup in Niger, in which General Tchiani took power from Mohamed Bazoum, the Russian flag was often seen flying in the streets, and Russian leaders welcomed the coup.
Ramani also mentioned that Russia had invested significantly in French-language media, has media offices that operate in French in Tunisia, and has tried to expand its reach as far as Johannesburg. Russia also has a Russia Today (RT) channel in Arabic to compete with Aljazeera and al-Arabiya, and which Ramani said sometimes has better programming than the latter. He affirmed that it was no coincidence that West Africa wants France out but welcomes Russia. For example, demonstrators in some countries held up banners with images of the leader of the Wagner Group. Protestors also demonstrated against Bazoum because he was seen as connected with the colonial forces and as being in the hands of the French at a time when West Africa strongly opposed any French interference. Of course, this is also the version of events that the Russian media was trying to circulate.
4. Demonstrating the Wagner Group’s military might: Ramani said that the Wagner Group and its former head Yevgeny Prigozhin also sought to demonstrate their military capabilities in Africa. The Russian government was focused on highlighting corruption in Africa as it did with Ali Bongo This kind of Russian involvement could be seen in other contexts where coups occurred, such as the CAR and Mali, while Russians were also accused of smuggling arms into Somalia. Ramani added that Russia sought war in Africa and helped catalyze coups in these regions. There is evidence that Russian forces were training some African forces and officers, which should be taken into account. Russians have a military presence in more than twenty countries in Africa either through memorandums of understanding or training of forces. This is also tied to the Russian presence in the region, and African leaders and members of the US Congress have expressed their concerns about this issue.
A Conflicted Western Response
Dr. Ramani described Western responses to the coups in Africa as follows:
1. A cautious approach: Ramani noted that Europe and the US have dealt cautiously with the recent coups in order to protect their economic interests. Meanwhile, the Russians have intervened more directly. In Gabon, the US did not want to intervene in order to preserve bilateral relations. However, French relations with Gabon were negatively impacted and the French ambassador was asked leave the country. In Burkina Faso, French companies are still carrying out business because they want to make a profit. Not everyone rejected the coup, and some accepted the coup in order to preserve their economic interests. Although the US condemned the coup in Niger, it was more careful with Gabon and did not directly denounce the events. Ramani said that the panel had spoken at length about the intervention in Niger, the Nigerien leadership and president, and whether National Assembly supported the president or not, and that there was still a lack of consensus on these questions.
2. US focus on protecting investments: According to Ramani, the US is focused on a single issue, namely, protecting its investments. It is interested in preventing coups to protect its investments. He noted that there are many think tanks focused on this issue, and which analyze coups in order to prevent similar incidents from happening again. They want to prevent these incidents from happening and are also focused on investment flowing into these countries.
3. Disagreements between Washington and other Western countries: Ramani noted that the US and other Western countries, especially France, hold divergent views on how to deal with these coups. He indicated this was not a new dispute but rather dates back to the Cold War. During that time, there were many coups in various countries due to US and French aid on grounds of preventing communism from coming to power and spreading. There was a similar approach at that time between France and US on this issue, but differences began to emerge in the early 2000s. At that point, the US felt that the best way to prevent coups was to strengthen democracy, civil society, and human rights, while the French wanted to back certain dictatorial regimes, as was the case in various countries including Mali.
Ramani added that the US and France were not always in conflict with each other. For example, in Niger they had shared interests and coordinated extensively on their respective roles. The French were training Nigeriens alongside the Americans and were focused on targeting terrorist leaders while the US directed its energies towards supporting reconnaissance and surveillance. Despite the differences between the US and France since the Cold War, they also have engaged in close cooperation at various intervals.
4. Turning away from military intervention to prevent coups: Ramani indicated that the prevailing sentiment in Niger was that the international community would not intervene after these coups. At most, they might impose sanctions as the US did in Mali with the coup leaders who worked with the Wagner Group, or as Nigeria did in cutting off electricity to Niger. There has not been a significant response from Western and other countries, which is what the coup leaders were depending on. This is a pragmatic matter to some extent since countries bordering Niger such as Algeria and Chad opposed the coup but did not take a decisive stance on Bazoum. France likewise did not want to get involved in military action. Macron announced that he was ready to end Operation Barkhane and since local leaders had taken control of the security situation, it would have been difficult to justify further French military intervention in Africa.
In conclusion, Dr. Ramani affirmed that the African coups clearly targeted all kinds of regimes (dictatorships, democracies, or hybrid forms of governance), and that there were many challenges and threats facing the region. However, he said there was hope of achieving democracy in some African nations such as Nigeria and Kenya, which have experienced peaceful transfers of power. There is a desire to achieve democracy, but these efforts will not receive international support, as we have witnessed in Gabon, where the West pulled its backing from the opposition leader. There are disparate efforts towards democratization which have encountered difficulties, especially since military institutions hold sway over public opinion, while democratic forces lack the same capabilities.