If the uprising in Gabon is consolidated, Africa will have witnessed 10 successful coups d’état in just four years, staged by military leaders who, in general, seize power with the intention of retaining it. Many experts are already describing an “epidemic by contagion” of coups, in which the military entrench themselves in power. Whether it is to overthrow a repressive government or remove a president who wants to remain in power for life, to redirect the policies of a country threatened by the advance of jihadist terrorism or through mere ambition, the fact is that the interference of the armed forces in politics is increasing in Africa at levels that have not been seen since the golden age of military uprisings on the continent from the 1960s to the 1980s.
The first spasm of this latest cycle was experienced in Sudan. On April 11, 2019, after four months of intense protests that were triggered by the rise in the price of bread, but soon expanded to demand the head of the president, the military moved to overthrow the dictator Omar al-Bashir to popular jubilation. The coup leaders committed to remaining in power for two years before making way for a civilian government, but on October 25, 2021, the junta aborted the promised democratic transition and unleashed a wave of violence and repression against protesters. Today, the country is embroiled in a in devastating civil war sparked by the ambition of two generals who were previously comrades: Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Mohamed Handam Dagalo, commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.
In neighboring Chad, everything came to a head in mid-April 2021. The death of Idriss Déby — who had been president since 1990 — in a skirmish with a rebel group led to the immediate rise to power of his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, without adherence to the procedure laid down in the Constitution or democratic elections. To reassure the international community, the young general promised an 18-month transition period and called for a national dialogue that failed to make progress. Today, almost a year after that deadline passed, Déby remains in power and displays no intention of vacating the presidential chair.
But the region of Africa that has been most affected by the recent wave of coups d’état is the Sahel. From the time Colonel Assimi Goïta seized power in Mali in 2020 after overthrowing Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, to the recent military uprising in Niger with General Abdourahamane Tchiani leading a military junta that faces the threat of military intervention by the countries that comprise The Economic Community of West African States, the Sahel has been gripped by a series of military uprisings. In Mali, Goïta staged a second coup in May 2021 to consolidate his power, while in Burkina Faso two coups in 2022 eventually led to their leaders being installed in the presidency, first Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and, nine months later, Captain Ibrahim Traoré.
In these three countries, the common denominator is the jihadist threat and the enormous material and human losses suffered by their armies over the last decade. All the coup leaders have justified their actions by the need to redirect anti-terrorist policy, which in the case of Mali even led to the search for a new international ally — Russia — and a new military force in the theater of operations, Wagner’s mercenaries. Another similarity between the three countries is that the military coups rode a wave of anti-French sentiment, vehemently expressed in the streets and on social networks. The war against the jihadists has intensified in Mali and Burkina Faso, but progress has been slow and the trust placed in the military is beginning to wear thin.
This has also been the case in Guinea. On September 5, 2021, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya led a revolt against President Alpha Condé who, after forcing his candidacy for a third term in office and winning a dubious election, had launched a fierce crackdown on the opposition. Thus, the coup was received enthusiastically by a large part of the population, but it soon became apparent that Doumbouya was not exactly a liberator and that his intention was to remain in power. His promises of democratic transition have not been fulfilled and his divorce from a civil society living in fear and under constant surveillance has been total.
The barracks effervescence that has given rise to these coups is the subject of frequent debate by experts and intellectuals, who do not quite agree on their origin and what the future may hold. Cameroonian researcher and history professor Achille Mbembe has spoken of the “end of a historical cycle” and the emergence of “neo-sovereignism,” while Gilles Yabi, head of the Senegal-based Wathi think tank, believes Africa is witnessing a “return to the law of the strongest” and “an open path to permanent paranoia and abuses.” Where there is practical agreement is that, compared to previous coups that delivered democracy such as those in Mauritania in 2005 or Niger in 2010, now the military juntas have little intention of relinquishing control.
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