Military Intervention in Africa Cannot Become a Norm
This year alone, three military coups took place deposing sitting presidents, prime ministers, and transitional governments in Africa. Mali, Guinea, and Sudan saw their governments fall to the institution established to protect their countries. Military coups are not a new phenomenon but accepting them as legitimate is. In these instances of military state capture, coup leaders claim to be intervening for the people of their country. Militaries claiming to be working on behalf of their citizens complicate internal legitimacy and external responses from the international community.
Col. Mamady Doumbouya, the newly appointed president of Guinea, invoked a quote from Ghanaian leader John Jerry Rawlings when speaking about the military stepping in on behalf of the people of Guinea. “If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom.” This trend in military coups does not bode well for regional institutions like the African Union, ECOWAS, and IGAD, who are experiencing multiple conflicts simultaneously.
Sudan is the latest example of a transitional government toppled by the military before civilian rule could take shape. Military officials arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and leaders of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan on October 25th. Sudan’s top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and former chairman of the Transitional Military Council, which took over after the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in 2019, led this new coup derailing Sudan’s transition to civilian rule.
In June, Prime Minister Hamdok warned of a complicated relationship between the military and the Sovereignty Council of Sudan. This warning of instability came as Sudanese citizens protested over economic conditions and a lack of accountability over a 2019 massacre by the military in Khartoum. An attempted coup thwarted by the military occurred in September. This failed coup led to the arrest of over 40 officers and shined a light on the growing instability within Sudan. Weeks before the October coup, thousands attended a pro-military rally and sit-in in Khartoum calling for a military takeover of the government. With multiple internal issues like hyperinflation, splintering factions, and persistent violence in Darfur, Sudan’s transitional government could not maintain stability as it fell to internal pressures.
Guinea’s military leader Colonel Mamady Doumbouya has appointed a prominent campaigner against female genital mutilation (FGM) as foreign minister, in his latest change since taking power last month. https://t.co/jKIUhswq7k pic.twitter.com/5arVlF4lqC
— Eyewitness News (@ewnupdates) October 26, 2021
Similar to Sudan, Mali’s transitional government fell as the military took over as the central authority. Col. Assimi Goïta, Mali’s current interim president, led the 2020 Malian coup that led to the ouster of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. After the 2020 coup, the military junta of Mali established the transitional government with Bah Ndaw as president and Col. Goïta as vice-president.
In May, the military detained Ndaw as Goïta declared himself president. Goïta detailed that former President Ndaw and civilian Prime Minister Moctar Ouane’s cabinet position changes violated the transition charter and thus forced him to overthrow the transitional government. Days after the coup, thousands took to the streets of Bamako to show their support for the military. Mali’s transition to civilian rule is now in jeopardy as the previously scheduled February presidential election may be delayed by the military government. With Mali still suffering from a long-standing insurgency in its northern region, France, a long-standing partner in the region, has begun to withdraw its troops. Despite pressure from the African Union, ECOWAS, the United States, and the European Union, Goïta and his government remain in power and are steering the transition to civilian rule.
In Guinea, the new military government did not come to power by deposing a transitional government but a democratically elected one. Former President Alpha Conde saw his tenure cut short after Col. Mamady Doumbouya overthrew his government. Conde’s removal from office comes a year after the electoral commission declared him the winner of a controversial third term bid in office. 2020 post-election violence in Guinea resulted in security forces using excessive force on protestors; numerous people died during this period with no government or military official being held responsible. Conde faced many accusations of corruption and human rights violations, those who dared to oppose the government faced jail time or death due to Conde’s crackdown on dissent. With the consolidation of power in one man and extreme oppression, it may have been a matter of time before Conde’s regime fell. After the September coup, Guineans celebrated the removal of Alpha Conde while uplifting the security forces that orchestrated the coup.
The UN, the European Union, and the United States swiftly condemned the coup in Guinea. The African Union and ECOWAS both suspended Guinea from their institutions and placed sanctions on the country. Despite international condemnation, President Mamady Doumbouya continues to lead the country and build his government, recently appointing former UN diplomat Mohamed Béavogui to the position of prime minister. The transition to civilian rule in Guinea is just beginning, Guinea will likely remain in isolation as the African Union and ECOWAS develop a course of action to work with the military junta.
The most pressing question is why these military coups are occurring in the first place. The relationship between African citizenry and the military has usually been stronger than the relationship between African citizens and their governments. Afrobarometer survey data shows that citizens in Guinea, Mali, and Sudan, trust the military over the president and parliament members, in Mali and Sudan’s case by a very wide margin. This trend correlates with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s survey data that shows high levels of trust in the military in both Mali and Sudan. Guinea was the only country out of the three to report a decrease in trust in the military from 2010 to 2019.
Trust in the military is not an adherently bad trait to have within a society; what is alarming is the level of military interventions we are seeing and the claims of intervening on behalf of the citizenry. Guinea, Mali, and Sudan are prime examples of how unchecked corruption, suppression of democratic norms, and economic instability can lead to military coups regardless of whether the government is in transition or not.
Between 2010 and 2020, seven successful coups occurred on the continent of Africa, with six out of the seven coups led by military officers. With 2021 having three military coups alone, greater regional stability should be of utmost importance. The African Union, ECOWAS, the United Nations, the United States, and other international partners must not give legitimacy to military coup leaders because this may lead to more attempts in different countries. The international community must put military coup leaders under pressure and isolate their authority from global legitimacy. A more concerted international response means greater pressure on leaders to transition to civilian rule and a collaborative effort to get the military out of politics. With Sudan and Mali’s transitional governments disrupted by military coups, it is now unclear how and when these two countries will shed their military government for democratic rule. As for Guinea, the slow process of reconciliation and transition to a civilian government is just beginning.