Africa’s Coup Calamity: What Happened to Deterrence?


Senegal, one of West Africa’s most stable democracies has the unfortunate distinction in becoming the first member in 2024 to join the democratic backslider club. Although not yet a coup, President Macky Sall has announced the postponement of the upcoming presidential election, triggering international and regional concern. Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau are the latest nations to experience coup attempts, and in August 2023 Gabon’s leader Ali Bongo Ondimbabecame the newest victim in a series of military takeovers on the African continent. Whose turn is next? Since 2020, there have been nine successful and seven failed coups in West and Central Africa. This is not yet the “coup contagion,” that some scholars have described, but coups d’etat are clearly on the rise and could threaten other stable neighbors in the region.

Extensive debates have emerged concerning the delicate balance between promoting democracy and addressing security concerns in West Africa and the Sahel. The occurrence of nine coups within a three-year period underscores the inadequacy of current efforts. Addressing the root causes of coups effectively requires upholding anti-coup norms, condemning attempts to extend political terms, prioritizing the development of defense institutions, and enhancing governance and oversight bodies. Consequently, both regional economic communities and global stakeholders should respond swiftly and resolutely over the long term to prevent future coups and reinforce stability and democracy in the region.



Coup Déjà Vu

Each coup is unique, making it difficult to determine the exact causes of the “coup wave” spreading across West Africa and the Sahel. However, scholars generally agree on commonalities driving coups, including poverty, political instability, systemic corruption, violent extremism, and the dilemmas of democratic development. Recent global shocks such as the 2019 coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and world economic downturn further intensify Africa’s problems. Also, some countries in the region have fallen victim to the “coup trap,” in which once a coup has occurred, the risk of further such events is much more likely. Historically, Africans often viewed coups negatively because they were seen to halt democratization, spark violence, and create more dysfunction. But today, unconstitutional military takeovers, particularly in the coup belt, appear to enjoy popular support. That said, this widespread support for coup plotters is often short-lived and largely driven by dissatisfaction, resentment, and frustration amongst citizens with their elected leaders and deteriorating socio-economic conditions.

Moreover, the recent withdrawal of French and European troops, who had been at the forefront of counter-terrorism efforts in the region, coincides with the emergence of private military companies. These companies, operating with less transparency and accountability, may exacerbate the existing security vacuum. Simultaneously, the “reckless exploitation of natural resources” by external actors and corrupt local leaders threatens the region’s stability. This volatile combination is likely to foster increased instability, potentially leading to more coup attempts. Furthermore, such circumstances could inadvertently strengthen populist support for regimes that emerge in the aftermath of these coups.

Furthermore, it appears the coup leaders in the Sahel are learning from and supporting each other. In fact, the military putschists of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea recognize each other as potential allies and know that they can rely on the support of other juntas in the region.

The result of all these factors is a post-2020 roadmap to executing a successful coup: bide time to withstand international pressure, blame regional blocs or foreign colonial powers, and build partnerships with like-minded allies. Eventually, the international community will become preoccupied with other pressing security challenges and fail to act decisively against the unlawful government takeover.

Waiting for a Western Response   

So, what is the international community doing to stem this proliferation of coups? Unfortunately, not much. Instead, competition for influence and security partnerships in Africa between the United States, Russia, and China prevails over policies to punish or manage post-coup governments. Specifically, Western nations are selective in their response to coups, often turning a blind eye to those that do not serve their interests. For more than two months, the U.S. delayed formally declaring the military ouster of Niger’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, a coup d’état, prioritizing instead the country’s critical role in supporting U.S. counter-terrorism activities in the region. This undermines U.S. efforts to reverse democratic backsliding and harms its long-term national interests in Africa.

Senior U.S. administration officials said they finally acted on openly announcing a formal coup declaration only after exhausting all diplomatic avenues to preserve constitutional order in the West African nation. Sadly, this is too little, too late. When Western countries fail to act swiftly against unlawful seizures of power, it weakens the taboo against coups.

Similarly, regional organizations such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States are hesitant to enforce their anti-coup rules when powerful member states experience coups. Mauritania, Egypt, Chad, and Sudan, for example, escaped sanctions while Burkina Faso, Niger, and others became targets for Western outcry. The regional blocs once had a satisfactory record in deterring and reversing coups. In 2017, the Economic Community of West African States deployed troops to The Gambia to force the country’s dictator, Yahya Jammeh, to step down and leave the country after he lost the election. Now, however, it appears to be weak, divided, and lacking the capacity to deal with democratic overthrows that arise in the region. During the 2023 Nigerien constitutional crisis, the group threatened to use force to restore democracy, but the threat proved hollow — letting its ultimatum expire without taking action.

Conversely, the military governments in Burkina Faso and Mali announced they would send troops in support of the Niger junta if the Economic Community of West African States intervened militarily. To solidify their ill-gotten gains and further shield themselves from possible threats of armed rebellion or external aggression, the three putschist regimes agreed to form the Alliance of Sahel States. This mutual defense pact binds the signatories to assist one another emphasizing, “any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracted parties will be considered an aggression against the other parties.” In late 2023, the three Sahel nations met to legitimize and strengthen this political, security, and potentially economic alliance. On Jan. 28, 2024, the military leaders issued a joint statement announcing they are withdrawing from the Economic Community of West African States “without delay,” because they said it imposed “inhumane” sanctions on their nations. So, it seems the three junta-led governments are confident in the strength of their new alliance and are advancing the concept of military rule as a solution to poor security and bad governance in the region.

Then there are the middle-tier powers such as Turkey, which recently expanded defense and military cooperation with post-coup states like Burkina Faso and Mali and is reportedly exploring closer military ties with Niger’s junta. Turkey has established itself as an important arms supplier throughout the region, reshaping conflicts in Mali and Chad with its military technology and training. Alongside Turkey, Gulf powers are also getting involved in Africa, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia supporting opposing groups in Sudan’s genocidal civil war. The Emiratis purportedly provides the Rapid Support Forces, a Sudanese paramilitary group, with military weapons and materiel via Chad, despite a longstanding U.N. arms embargo on Darfur. These actions by middle-tier powers undermine Western anti-coup efforts and make isolating putschist regimes more difficult.

Immediate and Consistent with No Exceptions

In general, regional and international communities have been consistent in condemning coups but are reluctant to impose swift sanctions for fear this would further destabilize the affected country. Issuing broad statements condemning coups, threatening sanctions, and incremental approaches are not enough. Also, officially recognizing military juntas once they forcibly take power only exacerbates the coup crisis. Thus, effective responses commensurate with the scale of the problem are needed to successfully punish and deter coup-makers.

How Western countries respond to coups is critical. Reversing coups once they happen is exceedingly difficult but active diplomacy and policy measures that impose costs can make a difference to discourage putschists and external actors from supporting or benefitting from coup attempts. When Western countries and regional organizations adopt a “zero-tolerance” approach to military uprisings — imposing targeted sanctions on coup leaders and suspending regional bloc activities — there can be effective punitive mechanisms, but only if they are applied immediately, consistently, and without exception.

Of course, developing a long-term proactive approach that not only includes security but also addresses the underlying governance and economic structural issues is a necessary step to bring stability and discourage coup-mongers. Given the serious implications of West African state fragility, regional and global actors should implement policies now to seek both to prevent another coup flare-up and be prepared to in the event of another constitutional crisis erupting. The recommendations below provide a starting point for the international community and regional blocs in deterring and responding to the spate of unconstitutional changes of government occurring in the region.

Implement Presidential Term Limits and Tenure Elongation Rules. The Economic Community of West African States should reexamine adopting a rule to mandate term limits for presidents and other heads of state in the region to address tenure elongation and curtail unlawful changes of government. In a region where political dysfunction is prevalent, long-time leaders often pursue the extension or elimination of term limits. According to the West Africa Democracy Network, a civil society organization, 75 percent of citizens in 34 African countries favor limiting presidential mandates to two terms.

It is difficult for the Economic Community of West African States to adopt term limit or tenure elongation rules because it makes decisions at the heads-of-state level by consensus. Still, it should continue to pursue term limits along with good governance and anti-corruption initiatives. To sweeten the deal, regional blocs with international support could offer conditional economic incentives for supporting term limits and tenure elongation rules. Certainly, economic incentives require stakeholder buy-in from the broader public, key political actors, and civil society. Also, they need to be tied to specific conditions related to democratic reforms, such as the implementation of term limits, tenure rules, and respect for the rule of law. Without genuine stakeholder buy-in or conditional assistance, incentives may be perceived as manipulative, illegitimate, or induce public skepticism.

Bolster Regional Early Warning Systems and Persistent Monitoring. Regional blocs and international organizations should support civil society, non-governmental organizations, or academia to monitor political situations and provide early warning signals for potential intra-state conflict and regional instability. In 2002, the African Union established the Continental Warning System to anticipate and prevent conflicts on the continent. The system coordinated with regional economic communities and assisted member states in conflict analysis and mitigation actions. However, in 2021 the warning system, along with its functions, disappeared amid a series of African Union institutional reforms.

With the dissolution of the African Union version, the Economic Community of West African States should strengthen its own early warning system (ECOWARN) to better identify the emergence of coups. Established in 2005, this system comprises a team of field reporters stationed across all 15 member states and analysts in the Observation and Monitoring Centre based in Abuja, Nigeria. The early warning system “enables the collection of precise, real time data that enhances policy-making and facilitates swift and appropriate responses to emerging or escalating threats.” However, the challenge is closing the gap between alert and response in a region plagued by coups and insecurity.

Therefore, the new early warning system should leverage emerging technologies designed specifically to detect state fragility or political instability. Artificial intelligence and machine learning have shown promise in predictingdestabilizing events by analyzing vast data sources and creating predictive models. While these tools can offer valuable insights and issue alerts when certain thresholds are crossed, predicting complex socio-political events is inherently challenging. Therefore, collaboration between big data experts, political scientists, and regional specialists is critical in assessing and addressing issues of state structural stability and the root causes of conflict.

Prioritize Defense Institution Building Commensurate with Other Security Force Assistance Efforts. Too often defense institution building takes a backseat in favor of security force assistance activities and episodic military training exercises primarily dedicated to building host nation counterterrorism capabilities. In some cases, nations facing active conflicts or imminent security risks may prioritize short-term security measures over comprehensive institution-building efforts. Yet, addressing these immediate security threats should not supplant long-term defense institutional development. So, defense institution building should not be just a stepping stone to achieving regional or foreign defense objectives, but a key foundation in enhancing civilian oversight mechanisms and ensuring democratic governance of military and security forces.

As a subset of security sector reform, defense institution building stresses building the capability, capacity, effectiveness, and professionalism of armed forces, improving strategic planning, and ensuring responsible resource management within the defense sector. Regional actors and international partners like the United States and the European Union should look beyond their immediate security interests and promote principles vital to the establishment of accountable and transparent defense institutions. Of course, this is a long-term endeavor that requires sustained engagement, investment, and support from both the host nation and international actors. Also, it should be part of a multi-faceted approach that considers the complexities of political dynamics in West Africa and the broader goals of democratic governance.

Finally, fostering economic development and inclusive growth for all segments of society, empowering civil society to advocate for democratic values, and investing in media freedom and responsible information dissemination training are additional measures that addresses both the root causes of political instability and the immediate sources of coups d’état. Certainly, implementing these concepts requires a collaborative effort from governments, civil society, regional organizations, and the international community. While investing in strong states and inculcating political institutionalization at the local level takes time and consistent support, it can engender meaningful political change and provide Africans with a realistic framework to promote good governance and apply effective anti-corruption measures.

To be sure, deterring coups is becoming increasingly challenging. International norms and penalties against coup-making are weakening and regional blocs have too few tools to roll them back. But existing tools can be quickly strengthened, and new tools developed, when the international community steadfastly supports and incentivizes pro-democratic initiatives. If regional and global actors are serious about promoting democracy, stability, and maintaining rule of law on the continent, then they should act now to curb potential coups. If international leaders do not act, the coup scourge will continue to march across Africa.



Claude A. Lambert is a U.S. Army strategic plans and policy officer. He is a U.S. Army War College fellow serving as a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Petty Officer 2nd Class Gary Keen