In the past 18 months, coups have occurred in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Chad. Mali has had two in that period, and Niger and Guinea-Bissau have narrowly escaped coup attempts. More coups occurred in 2021 alone than in the prior five years combined. Africa has been no stranger to coups since the postcolonial independence period began in the 1960s, but they had been on the decline for 20 years — until now.
This uptick in coups has occurred at a time of democratic decline globally. The specific circumstances of each of the recent coups are different, but two factors have consistently contributed to an environment conducive to military takeovers.
First, weak democratic governments have failed to demonstrate that they can deliver security or services for their citizens. In Burkina Faso and Mali, people have lived in fear under an increasingly violent insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced millions across the Sahel, and their governments have been incapable of getting it under control. Military governments are no panacea to insecurity, but the public has become receptive to the idea that strongmen and hard power can save them.
In some ways, international assistance has taken this approach too. International partners have responded to the uptick in violence with a focus on military solutions at the cost of strengthening democratic institutions. France has led this with a counterterrorism operation in the region that began in 2014, but the United States and others have also been deeply engaged.
Look no further than the generals who led the coups. Since 2008, military officers trained by the United States have attempted at least nine coups across West Africa, eight of which succeeded. Many of the US-trained military units across the region have been implicated in serious human rights abuses as well.
As a way of addressing terrorism, this might make sense. But the conflicts in the Sahel are driven by underlying grievances that fueled local insurgencies well before the Islamic State group and al-Qaida entered the scene. Without addressing inequality, endemic poverty, scarce resources, ethnic conflict and poor governance, counterterrorism campaigns on their own are little more than whack-a-mole.
The West helps these militaries get stronger while democratic institutions struggle to gain a foothold, leaving populations disillusioned with their leadership. Improving institutions and governance is slow, making it an unsatisfying approach for donor countries seeking results. But leading with a security focus has failed. They should prioritize reinforcing democracy instead.
Second, international partners, including regional multilateral bodies, have been loath to take meaningful action against undemocratic acts in recent years. This has created a permissive environment in which strongmen have felt free to seize power with little concern for facing meaningful consequences.
This differs significantly from even a few years ago. In 2015, a coup attempt in Burkina Faso was met with uniform pushback, the threat of international intervention, and outcry not only from regional bodies like the African Union and the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), but from the United Nations as well. African political leaders intervened to hold talks that ultimately resulted in an agreement for a return to civilian rule.
This kind of response has been missing from subsequent coup attempts. The UN Security Council, for one, has lost its bite. In 2015, both Russia and China joined the rest of the UN Security Council members in condemning the military junta in Burkina Faso. This strongly reinforced the acts of ECOWAS and the African Union, whose actions alone do little to impede military strongmen.
Changing geopolitical realities make it harder for the leading multilateral institutions to act in unison over even the most extreme offenses against international norms. In January, Russia and China blocked the UN Security Council from supporting ECOWAS’ decision to sanction Mali’s military leaders after they announced that elections would not occur for five years. The body could not even muster enough support to release statements against the 2021 coups in Chad and Guinea. If the leading democratic nations cannot rely on global consensus, they must look for other ways to discourage democratic backsliding.
The future of democracy depends on its ability to provide security and prosperity for its people. Those who want democracy to succeed must help make the case. The United States and its democratic allies must work to reinforce democracy in those places where it is getting a foothold, rewarding leaders who make it work and helping them where needed. We must also stop unintentionally undermining it with a fixation on short-term security. This means not only condemning coups but also discouraging other undemocratic acts. For example, international partners can use carrots as well as sticks to persuade long-standing strongmen to give up power and open the door for democratic change before circumstances invite unconstitutional ones.
If this administration really seeks a renewal of democracy worldwide, it must put its money where its mouth is on democracy and human rights.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. — Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)
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