As coups have spread across the continent, there is a growing focus on which other countries might susceptible to a coup. Nigerians, in the wake of the fairly contentious elections in February, might be forgiven for looking over their shoulders and reviewing the position of their military. Yet over the thirty years since the last coup in 1993, a combination of elite consensus and, from 1999, a commitment to democracy has reduced the likelihood of a putsch from the army. Meanwhile, the military remains politicized in countries such as Uganda, but appears to be under tight control by elected leaders – at least for now.
What about other countries, like the many states of West Africa that have a history of military intervention? In order to understand where the next coup may take place, we need to take into account a number of factors including the outsized influence of former colonial powers, recent coup d’état attempts, the popularity of the government, and economic trends.
In the wake of very different military takeovers in Niger and Gabon in 2023, it is worth looking at factors that might make some national leaders more nervous than others. Coups are more likely in countries with weaker democratic institutions, frail economies, unpopular leaders and politicised militaries.
Learning from Niger and Gabon
It is often a bad idea to generalise issues happening on the African continent. Leadership styles, cultural homogeneity and responses vary across regions and, in some cases, even within the same region. Expertise is usually confined to specific zones and even countries because of how unique and exhaustive it can be to study countries enough to establish patterns and determine possible scenarios. Yet, it is worth looking at any common threads between the recent coups in Gabon and Niger to see what they tell us about the potential for future coups.
First, both have been described as ‘palace coups’, owing to coup leaders being close to the presidents. Second, both coups were relatively peaceful with no recorded fatalities, especially of the removed leader, and had seen mass demonstrations in their support. The third common thread is the existence of democratic institutions, which cuts across the often-cited differences between both coups.
Both states did not follow set democratic transitions in the removal of a president, instead immediately reverting to the military leaders who supervised the process. In the case of Niger, the legislature and other senior military commands eventually agreed to President Mohamed Bazoum’s removal, while in Gabon, the illusion of President Ali Bongo’s appeal was crushed in the aftermath of a contentious election. Both events also saw a rare consolidation of elite and mass consensus – key institutions of state proceeded to remove a leader and were met with signs of approval from the masses.
This creates a conundrum that regional organisations, like the African Union, have often struggled to grapple with; how to condemn a new power that has gained de facto legitimacy from its citizenry.
No one predicted these coups before they took place. However, there were signs that these states were not stable enough to avert a potential challenge to constitutional authority. For starters, both had recently experienced coup attempts – Gabon in 2019 and Niger in 2021. These attempts were targeted at the leaders who were subsequently removed by military intervention, with Bazoum’s coming two days before his inauguration.
This raises the question of how governments respond to failed coups. Most leaders appear to react to unsuccessful coups by beefing up personal protection or trying to rotate and allocate key military positions to allies or kinsfolk. For context, Bazoum had reportedly been in the process of thinning his presidential guard, its numbers dwindling from 2,000 to about 700 during his term.
Conversely, such leaders typically fail to strengthen democratic institutions – and the government’s democratic credibility – in the aftermath of these incidents to ensure avenues to preserve democracy in the future. This failure is why coups are often assumed to have forged an elite consensus, as courts and the legislature often acquiesce and accede to the demands of the new military rulers.
Finally, multiple analyses have rightly mentioned one key pattern in recent coups in West Africa – all were former French colonies. This relates to an argument about the outsized role that France, even long after independence, played and continues to play in the way coups have been carried out and received. Yet this is a complex issue and one that requires us to go beyond simply blaming a former colonial power without thinking through the choices and decision of African leaders themselves.
Relationships old and new
France’s response to African independence saw it retain a more than active involvement in the affairs of its former colonies, which at times has not allowed them to organically develop their own ways to deal with crises and form elite consensus. From 1964, when De Gaulle deployed troops to preserve the then-Gabonese government after a coup, to as recently as 2011, when French troops were critical in the eventual removal of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, there has been extensive French involvement in determining how the region has evolved.
After independence, 14 former colonies entered into reported agreements with the former metropole that were imbalanced and served to further the dependence that they had with France. Last year, Mali ended its defence partnerships with France, before dropping French as its official language in July 2023. Ahead of Ali Bongo’s removal this year, the decision of Gabon and Togo to move to the Commonwealth of Nations in June 2022 set the tone for a diplomatic pivot away from Paris.
Similarly, there have been strained relationships between France and other countries that have experienced coups. This was evident when Niger expelled the French Ambassador to Niamey, and protesters attacked the French Embassy in Burkina Faso after the counter-coup in September last year.
A perceived association between France and established – and often highly corrupt – political elites has made France the perfect foil for new leaders looking for an enemy to rally support against. In turn, this has opened the door to targeted campaigns of disinformation and increased economic partnerships with other countries. Ironically, disinformation campaigns in the region have often been driven by foreign powers, and appear to have created new opportunities for countries such as Russia to exert influence.
Of the 23 disinformation campaigns targeting African countries from 2014, a report from April 2022 found that fully alone were linked to Russia. As pro-Russia messaging increased, paramilitary contractors such as the Wagner Group were perfectly placed to fill the void when western troops depart. Interestingly, there are also reports of increased propaganda within the region emerging from China. In a March 2023 report on China’s media efforts in Africa, suggests that a clear strategy of seeking to increase awareness of and support for China has emerged. More specifically, the increased level of engagement with media professionals and groups appears to be designed to promote a subconscious change of mindset across Africa.
With President Emmanuel Macron’s recent announcement about the withdrawal of French troops from Niger by December 2023, these changes may signal the death knell of the country’s political dominance in West Africa, starting a fresh race for influence between aspiring global powers both old and new.
Which countries are now in play?
Even after learning the lessons of recent events in Gabon and Niger, it is important to keep in mind that it is not always easy to tell which countries are at risk from a coup. Niger was cited as a stable bastion in the region and a bulwark against jihadist extremism, while Gabon was engaging in elections under a long-term ruler that was expected to continue.
Furthermore, governments are also trying to pre-empt these moves, with Cameroon and Rwanda making personnel changes in response. In both cases, senior officials who did not have the full trust of the president were redeployed, with the aim of reducing their ability to instigate military intervention. How effectively these arrangements will be time will tell, but there is a risk that such actions only serve to suggest to citizens and officials that incumbent governments are concerned about their positions, and so will invite greater speculation that may itself be destabilising.
It is therefore important to be careful in our analysis and modest about what such forecasting can achieve – and to look for other important patterns beyond the recent coups in West Africa..
One of the most consistent patterns in political science is that coups are most likely to take place in countries that have had coups before. This is because leaders become aware that legitimacy can easily be seized with enough force. This is one reason that Gabon, Chad and Niger were susceptible to such incidents – and remain succesful to future coups. Already, Burkina Faso has reported a failed coup attempt, while the presence of an anti-coup force in Niger could yet prove to be a rallying point for Bazoum sympathisers. Significantly, this suggests that former one-party states that have never experienced military rule such as Kenya and Zambia should be relatively safe.
Other factors might not necessarily make a country more ‘coup-able’, but help new leaders gain quick legitimacy. Economic difficulties usually lead to frustration with ruling governments, and often result in opposition success. Contentious democratic processes, such as elections, are also significant.
In hazarding predictions about what might happen in the next two years, we can also learn important lessons by identifying signs of existing instability. Guinea Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe, for example, both experienced coup attempts in 2022. These cases clearly have coup drivers – but because the coups were not successful it is clear they have a degree of resilience.
We can see, for example, that both countries have relatively robust democracies – especially in Guinea Bissau, where the ruling party lost recent parliamentary elections. Sao Tome is also regularly seen as one of the continent’s more democratic states, despite the fact that the president of the National Assembly president was reportedly involved in the failed coup attempt.
Likewise, Cameroon and Togo, with long-term authoritarian leaders in the Gabon mould, might be considered ‘coup-able’, but elite and security structures in these countries tend to respond quickly to preserve the status quo. It is also not impossible that Senegal – a former one-party state with limited military intervention thus far – will prove to be less stable than its historical status as a relatively democratic state would suggest. For example, the recent intrigues surrounding next year’s presidential election, with incumbent Macky Sall deciding not to run but several prominent names being barred, could be the fodder for simmering tension to erupt, for example, and legitimate military intervention.
Ultimately, just as important as as the “where next” question is the issue of how to avoid the next coup. Democratic institutions need to be strengthened to provide recourse for those disillusioned with policies and to help ensure governance is balanced and fair. Regional organisations need to begin pivoting from focusing on states to instead refocus on providing what citizens need, such as infrastructure and public services.
For their part, leaders should also be aware that their offices are given in trust and that their tenure needs to be reinforced through legitimacy as much as through force – as it has been received, it can easily be taken away.
Afolabi Adekaiyaoja (@adekaiyaoja) is a Research Analyst at the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD-West Africa) and writer on the politics of people, governance and policy.