History of Military Coups in West Africa and its enigma

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According to the former chief of Army staff of the Nigerian Army, General Tukur Buratai “Coup plots by certain persons in the military should be seen as organised crime because, at the end of the day, apart from not allowing democracy to fester and grow, it results in a high rate of attrition against military personnel”.

The world, Africa, and particularly West Africa, woke up to another rude shock of a military takeover of government in the Niger Republic, just a few days after the Economic Community of West African States hammered hard on the need to eschew military takeover of Government in the continent and particularly in the region.

West Africa, a region abundant with diverse cultures, languages, and histories, has been embroiled in a tumultuous political landscape characterized by the recurrent occurrence of military coups. From the mid-20th century to the present, military interventions have played a momentous role in shaping the governance and stability of several West African nations.

In this exegesis, we look deep into the annals of history to explore the inception and underlying reasons behind the rise of military coups in the region. Unravelling the essence of these pivotal events and comprehending their impact on West Africa’s socio-political development, provide invaluable insights into the intricate challenges and prospective avenues of democratic governance in this geopolitical zone.

Decolonization and the Emergence of Military Coups

The genesis of military coups in West Africa can be traced back to the post-independence era, when colonial powers relinquished their grasp on the region and newly sovereign states grappled with the trials of nation-building, enfeebled institutions, and political naiveté. The absence of a steadfast democratic tradition created fertile ground for the sprouting of military coups as a viable avenue to seize power.

An early instance of such a coup transpired in Nigeria in 1966, spearheaded by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and a cadre of young army officers. This momentous coup set a precedent for future military interventions in the region. Subsequent coups swiftly followed (as shown in a table below) suit in countries like Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone, underscoring the region’s susceptibility to political turbulence.

The Cold War and External Influences

The epoch of the Cold War witnessed West Africa becoming a crucible for ideological strife between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers sought to secure allies in the region and extended their support to different leaders and factions. This external involvement heightened existing political tensions and conflicts, rendering certain West African nations susceptible to military coups. In certain instances, the military perceived itself as the custodian of national security, thereby intervening to safeguard the interests of their foreign allies and further entangling the political landscape.

Ethnic and Regional Divisions

Significant factors contributing to political instability and the prevalence of military coups in West Africa are rooted in ethnic and regional divisions. The region is home to numerous countries housing diverse ethnic groups, each bearing distinct cultural identities and historical grievances. Unscrupulous politicians have adeptly exploited these divisions to attain power, thus fomenting tensions and conflicts that paved the way for military intervention.

Mali and Guinea offer poignant illustrations of how ethnic tensions have played a pivotal role in the recurrence of coups. The ceaseless quest for power and dominion over resources has often precipitated violence and military intrusion, further exacerbating the fragility of governance in these nations.

Economic and Social Grievances

Persisting challenges in West Africa, such as economic mismanagement, corruption, and social inequality, have stoked public dissatisfaction and discontent with civilian administrations. Military leaders have intermittently justified their actions as a necessary means to address these grievances and reinstate order. Paradoxically, military rule has frequently perpetuated these very issues, engendering a vicious cycle of instability and underdevelopment.

Impact of Military Coups on West African Societies
The ramifications of military coups in West African societies have been multifaceted and far-reaching. While certain coups have ostensibly yielded ephemeral stability, they have simultaneously entrenched authoritarian rule, stifled democratic institutions, and subverted the rule of law. Military regimes have been entwined with human rights violations, media censorship, and the curtailment of civil liberties, effectively quashing political opposition and suppressing dissent.

The economic aftermath of military coups has also proved profound. Political instability and uncertainty have dissuaded foreign investments, impeded economic growth, and exacerbated poverty in afflicted countries. Moreover, military expenditures have often diverted resources away from critical sectors like education, healthcare, and infrastructure, hampering overall development.

Regional Responses and Democratic Progress

In response to the cyclical issue of military coups, regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) have taken a firm stance against unconstitutional changes of government and have wielded sanctions against coup perpetrators. These organisations have been instrumental in mediating political crises and nurturing democratic governance in the region.

Over the years, West Africa has made commendable strides towards the transition to democratic rule. Several countries have undergone successful metamorphoses from military rule to civilian-led democracies, as exemplified by periodic elections and peaceful transfers of power. Ghana, in particular, has emerged as a stable democracy in the region, with multiple seamless transitions of power between divergent political parties.

The Way Forward: Strengthening Democratic Governance

Just like I have stated in my previous write-ups on this subject, In order to address the recurrent quandary of military coups in West Africa and galvanise democratic governance, a series of pivotal steps demand urgent implementation:

Strengthening Institutions: Nurturing robust and independent institutions is indispensable for ensuring accountability and transparency in governance. Empowering institutions such as the judiciary, electoral bodies, and anti-corruption agencies is paramount to their effective functioning.

Promoting Inclusivity: Embracing inclusive governance that addresses the concerns of diverse ethnic and regional groups can mollify tensions and minimise the likelihood of coups.

Investing in Education and Civil Society: Educating citizens about their rights and responsibilities and fostering an active civil society can engender democratic values and hold leaders accountable.

Encouraging Regional Cooperation: Collaborative efforts among West African nations and regional organisations can offer collective solutions to shared challenges, encompassing coup prevention and the cultivation of democratic norms.

Addressing Socio-Economic Grievances: Confronting issues of poverty, inequality, and corruption constitutes a pivotal means of tackling the root causes of political instability.

Some notable Military Coups in West Africa

1. Nigeria
January 15, 1966 – Coup Plotters: Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and other young army officers.
Leaders Ousted: Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and other regional leaders.

July 29, 1975 – Coup Plotter: Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka.
Leader Ousted: General Yakubu Gowon.

December 31, 1983 – Coup Plotter: Major General Muhammadu Buhari.
Leader Ousted: President Shehu Shagari.

2. Ghana
February 24, 1966 – Coup Plotter: Colonel Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka.
Leader Ousted: President Kwame Nkrumah.

January 13, 1972 – Coup Plotter: Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong.
Leader Ousted: President Edward Akufo-Addo.

3. Guinea-Bissau
November 14, 1980 – Coup Plotter: João Bernardo Vieira and other military officers.
Leader Ousted: President Luís Cabral.

September 14, 2003 – Coup Plotter: General Veríssimo Correia Seabra.
Leader Ousted: President Kumba Ialá.

4. Sierra Leone
March 21, 1967 – Coup Plotter: Siaka Stevens (later handed over power to the military).
Leader Ousted: President Sir Albert Margai.

April 29, 1992 – Coup Plotter: Captain Valentine Strasser.
Leader Ousted: President Joseph Saidu Momoh.
5. Liberia
April 12, 1980 – Coup Plotter: Master Sergeant Samuel Doe.
Leader Ousted: President William R. Tolbert Jr.

August 9, 1990 – Coup Plotter: Charles Taylor (launched a rebel invasion).
Leader Ousted: President Samuel Doe (eventually killed).

6. Burkina Faso
November 25, 1980 – Coup Plotter: Colonel Zerbo and the National Revolutionary Council.
Leader Ousted: President Saye Zerbo.

October 15, 1987 – Coup Plotter: Captain Thomas Sankara (killed during a coup).
Leader Ousted: President Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo.

7. Mali
March 26, 1991 – Coup Plotter: Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré.
Leader Ousted: President Moussa Traoré.

March 22, 2012 – Coup Plotter: Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo.
Leader Ousted: President Amadou Toumani Touré.

8. Mauritania
July 10, 1978 – Coup Plotter: Colonel Mustafa Ould Salek.
Leader Ousted: President Moktar Ould Daddah.

August 6, 2005 – Coup Plotter: Ely Ould Mohamed Vall.
Leader Ousted: President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.

9. Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire)
December 24, 1999 – Coup Plotter: Robert Guéï.
Leader Ousted: President Henri Konan Bédié.

September 19, 2002 – Coup Plotter: Dissident soldiers (rebel forces).
Leader Ousted: President Laurent Gbagbo.

10. Guinea
April 3, 1984 – Coup Plotter: Colonel Lansana Conté.
Leader Ousted: President Ahmed Sékou Touré.

December 23, 2008 – Coup Plotter: Captain Moussa Dadis Camara.
Leader Ousted: President Lansana Conté (posthumously).

11. Niger
April 15, 1974 – Coup Plotter: Seyni Kountché and other military officers.
Leader Ousted: President Hamani Diori.

January 27, 1996 – Coup Plotter: Colonel Ibrahim Baré Maïnassara.
Leader Ousted: Transitional civilian government.

July 27, 2023 – Coup Plotter: General Salifou Mody
Leader Ousted: President Mohammed Bazoum.

A Tapestry of Complexity and Hope

The history of military coups in West Africa weaves a complex narrative, interwoven with an amalgamation of internal and external factors. While decolonization, ethnic divisions, and economic grievances have all contributed to political instability, external influences and the dynamics of the Cold War have further convoluted the region’s political topography. The impact of military coups on West African societies has proven far-reaching, influencing democratic progress, economic development, and human rights.

Nonetheless, amid the shadows of uncertainty, West Africa has also witnessed glimmers of hope in its trajectory towards democratic governance. Regional organizations and efforts to fortify democratic institutions have kindled optimism for a more stable and prosperous future. By addressing the bedrock causes of military coups and investing in democratic values, West Africa can lay the foundation for enduring peace, prosperity, and political stability in the region.


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