Corruption, protests against the results of the legislative elections in March, the stalled 2015 peace agreement with the Azawadi Liberation Movement in the north, the mounting terrorist threat, tribal disputes and economic straits are said to be the chief causes of the coup d’état in Mali. No country in the African Sahel lacks similar conditions that combine to create the tinderboxes that could ignite a wildfire of upheaval and instability in that region. This is all the more the case given how cross border tribal and other identity affiliations compound the ways in which political, security and developmental crises are felt across the region.
The approaching electoral processes in these countries further aggravates the situation this year. In the Ivory Coast, the ruling party’s nomination of incumbent President Alassane Ouattara to run for a third term in October has triggered a bitter controversy.
Whereas the opposition protests that the new constitution bars him from running again, the ruling party claims that it does not apply to Ouattara since the constitution was only adopted in 2016, thereby nullifying his first term.
Observers fear tensions will escalate into a crisis similar to the outbreak of civil strife in 2010, which necessitated regional and international intervention. In Niger, where President Mahamadou Issoufou, in power since 2011, announced that he would not field himself in the elections scheduled for December, the ruling party nominated Issoufou’s interior minister in a bid to perpetuate his political hold over the country.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burkina Faso, corruption allegations haunting political circles surrounding incumbent President Marc Christian Kaboré, to the extent that his former defence minister was found guilty of money laundering, have not kept him from running for a second term in the forthcoming elections in November. His decision has aggravated already seething tensions in a country that has barely recovered from a popular uprising that overthrew the Blaise Compaoré regime in 2014 and where mounting terrorist related violence in the north and east during the past five years has displaced nearly a million people.
The recently released Coupcast report for 2019 listed Burkina Faso among the 10 African countries most at risk of a coup. Chad, where Idriss Déby has been in power since the military coup in 1990, may be more at risk. After eliminating the constitutional two-term restriction, he went on to win three more terms in office and is now planning to field himself for a sixth term in the April 2021 presidential elections.
In most African Sahel countries, leaderships that gained power through democratic mechanisms have attempted to perpetuate themselves through police repression but lack the resources necessary to subdue popular anger.
These countries are reeling under severe economic straits. More than half the populations of Mali, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso are under the poverty line while the declining resources at the disposal of the ruling regimes gives rise to volatile socioeconomic contexts favourable to coups. For example, Chad was plunged into an economic crisis by the fall in oil prices in 2014. This combined with the austerity policies the government was forced to adopted in order to borrow from the IMF engendered widespread discontent that has repeatedly erupted into mass demonstrations led by opposition forces.
Anti-terrorist policies have failed to justify ruling regimes’ bids to perpetuate their control in these countries. The strength and scope of operations of terrorist groups have grown, not receded, in the region. Groups such as Nasrat Al-Islam and the Islamic State (IS) in the Greater Sahara have expanded from north and central Mali into the border areas of Burkina Faso and Niger, and penetrated West African countries such as Benin and Ivory Coast.
There now exists a geographic continuity between them and Boko Haram and IS-West Africa which have expanded their operations from northeast Nigeria to Lake Chad (at the juncture of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon).
Although Sahel countries have accepted foreign military presences to help with the fight against terrorism (the French intervention in northern Mali in 2013, the multi-national force in Lake Chad since 2015, the creation of the G5-Sahel force in 2017 and the Takuba operation in January 2020), these efforts have so far failed to curb the proliferation of terrorism. One main reason for this is attrition these forces have suffered as the result of the long duration of these operations which have also stretched their resources and capacities.
For example, Chadian forces have been involved in anti-terrorist operations in the Lake Chad area, along the borders with Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, as well as in the fight against the separatist military insurgency in northern Chad. The army in Niger has come under increased pressure due to the mounting abductions of foreigners and relief workers by terrorist groups.
The second main reason for the failure resides in the interweave between terrorism and tribal conflicts with major economic dimensions, such as the disputes between pasturalists and sedentary farmers over increasingly limited land resources due to decertification and climate change.
The Macina Liberation Front in Central Mali is associated with the Fulani herder tribes which complain that the government is biased in favour of agriculturalist peoples such as the Bambara and Dogon. In like manner, Ansar Al-Islam in Burkina Faso reflects an overlap between a fundamentalist religious affiliation and the Fulani in the north part of the country.
As a result of the complexity of the terrorist phenomenon and the poor deterrence capacity of counterterrorist operations, terrorist activities have been on the rise. According to recent UN reports, deaths from terrorist attacks have risen from 770 in 2016 to around 4,000 in 2019 in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
If Sahel regimes have relied on foreign powers, and especially France in view of its historical influence there, as a stay against coups, that has not always stood the test. For example, while Paris helped strike the militant Chadian opposition that attempted to move in from Libya in order to topple the Déby regime in 2019, it was of little help in deterring the coup against Boubacar Keita in Mali.
Moreover, although Paris condemned the coup at the outset, two days later the French defence minister announced that his country would continue the anti-terrorist Operation Barkhane, signalling that Paris might be willing to accommodate to the regime change.
For its part, the military council that assumed power in Bamako announced its intent to abide by Mali’s commitment to international agreements related to the fight against terrorism. It could be that France fears a repetition of the experience that followed the coup against Amadou Touré in 2012 when a jihadist-Touareg coalition seized control of northern Mali necessitating a French counterinsurgency military operation in 2013. At the same time, Paris may fear that the recent coup will undermine its efforts to attract European support for counterterrorist operations in the Takuba framework.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup against Keita, suspended Mali’s membership in ECOWAS, imposed sanctions and called on neighbouring states to close their land and air borders with Mali. However, the regional organisation has also begun to bow to the de facto reality.
In its recent summit, it called on the military council in Bamako to initiate a transitional period to restore civilian rule and hold elections next year in exchange for a gradual lifting of sanctions.
Despite the conditions conducive to the spread of the coup virus from Mali to other Sahel countries, the risk remains contingent on these countries’ ability to counter such conditions through political reforms, economic improvements and other such measures. Conversely, the regimes in Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and elsewhere in the region could accelerate the risk of coup if they think themselves isolated from the phenomena that led to the coup in Mali, or fail to believe that the message from Bamako does not apply to them.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly