African democracy has been in a tight spot in the past few weeks. Senegal, Mali and Guinea Bissau’s elections in 2012 were seen as tests of political continuity in the region. Senegal succeeded, it stands out proudly as never having experienced military meddling in politics; but both Mali and Guinea Bissau have taken significant steps backwards.

But these are not isolated cases: there is a long history of coups d’état in the West African region. The reality is that for years, African democracy has been jeopardised by military uprisings still very present in the continent. The wave of independence in the 1960s was followed, after a few years, by a succession of coups in many countries, where bloody military dictatorships slowed or brought to a standstill any progress that could have been made in improving governance patterns.

In recent decades, however, much of Africa has stabilized, and the number of military uprisings has reduced significantly. In the previous century there were 42 coups d’état in the West African countries, dropping to a mere seven cases since the dawn of the new millennium (a cutback of about 48 per cent). Nevertheless, in 2012 it is much of a stretch to think that coups are an infectious disease endemic to West Africa. It seems as armies have not hesitated to intervene in civilian affairs, either because their interests were threatened, or in the name of the rule of law. We’ll take a look at some of the recent cases that have occurred since the start of this millennium.


Guinea-Bissau, one of the world’s poorest countries which is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, is not particularly known for its robust political values but for its coups, political assassinations and booming drug trade. The numbers are clear: since the country gained independence in 1974, no single elected leader has finished their time in office. The coup d’état on April 14th of this year is clearly another struggle in a long history of elite competition for power, and a reaction to the former prime minister’s perceived domination of Guinea-Bissau’s politics.

The former president Malam Bacai Sanha, seen as a stabilising force in the country, died in January 2012 of diabetes. The first round of the presidential election, called in order to appoint his replacement, was peaceful, which led observers to regard the forthcoming second round with optimism, as the end of the political uncertainty caused by Sanha’s death.

The first round gave an overwhelming majority (49 per cent) to the former Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. Opposition candidates felt they did not stand a chance and claimedfraud, as well as calling for a boycott of the second round, thus triggering new political tensions. The army decided to act and took over effortlessly on April 12th.

The military rulers denied having ambitions to take control of the country, declaring they had taken action because of an alleged secret agreement between Carlos Gomes Jr. and the Angolan government to “annihilate Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces”. Other factors that may have contributed to the coup include unconfirmed rumours about the entry of heavy weapons sent by Angola to reinforce the Angolan technical-military mission in Guinea Bissau (MISSANG).

The leader proposed by the Junta to run a two-year transition to democracy has refused the offer, questioning the country’s roadmap toward elections as the UN Security Council threatened sanctions against the West African nation.


The upheavals in Guinea-Bissau and Mali are very different. As opposed to Guinea Bissau, in Mali, a group of mid-ranking military officers reversed an established democracy that had been functioning for 20 years. Mali was within weeks of presidential elections when army officers protested the weak support they received in the fight against Tuareg rebels (see our article on Touaregs in Spanish).

The Tuaregs, seeking independence, started a rebellion against the Malian government in January 2012, inflicting serious losses on the soldiers in the north. The anger and dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of the government’s response to the uprising of Tuareg tribes lead to the coup on March 22, which forced the president Toure into exile. Many Malians support the military coup because they knew how corrupted the administration was.

At this point Mali’s military junta handed power back to a civilian administration, after which Dioncounda Traoré (not Toure), was sworn in as interim President. Mali is again planning elections to determine who will run the country. The question that arises now is what to do in the north.


Niger is the country that precedes Mali in the string of coups that have overthrown  West African presidents. Niger’s President, Mamadou Tandja, appointed a new Constitutional Court specifically to allow him to hold a referendum in order to extend his term beyond 2009. He thus sought a third term in office and the removal of term limits, leading to a serious political crisis.

On 18 February 2010, however, the soldiers attacked the presidential palace and announced the formation of a Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy, chaired by chief of squadron Djib Salou. The military officers claimed they wanted to restore democratic rule in Niger. In 2011, upon the completion of the one-year transition plan designed by the independent National Consultative Council (Conseil Consultatif National), presidential elections were held. Subsequently, the opposition National Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS) of Mahamadou Issoufou, assumed power. Niger looks set to emerge as an example of a successful post-coup transition.


In Guinea the dictator Lansana Conté died of diabetes on 22 December 2008 after 24 years in office. This left a power vacuum that brought on a struggle for control of the country, which was solved by a coup. Captain Moussa Camara Dadis, as leader of the junta, was also the country’s president. A year later, he was wounded during an assassination attempt by his former aide-de-camp. While he left to Morocco to receive treatment, his Vice President Sékouba Konaté, also in uniform, relieved him in leading the National Council for Democracy and Development (Conseil National de la Démocratie et du Development, CNDD).

In November 2010 elections were held, which were characterized by strong inter-ethnic rivalry between rival parties. Alpha Condé, leader of the opposition, won the presidential elections, and Camara stepped down. However, on 18 July 2011, the residence of President Condé was attacked, in an assassination attempt which points out the West African country’s fragile transition to democratic rule.


In 2003, Mauritania underwent a failed uprising. However, in 2005, soldiers led by Ely Ould Mohamed Vall did manage to put an end to Maaouya Sid’Ahmed Ould Taya’s 21-year-old regime. The bloodless coup was followed by the adoption of a new constitution the next year and presidential elections in March 2007. Still, stability did not last long, and by August 2008, the first freely elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi, was ousted by a coup led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

These events took place in a context of political tension and social crisis that was exacerbated by serious dissent within the presidential entourage. The debacle started in May 2008, when Abdallahi replaced his government with 12 ministers of Taya’s former government. Afterwards, Prime Minister Waghef was forced to resign to avoid a motion of no-confidence, and Abdallahi immediately reappointed him to form a new government. This new government did not include members of the opposition or the former associates of Taya, whose presence in the previous government had attracted criticism. In August, the crisis culminated in the resignation en masse of MPs and senators from the ruling party, which can be considered as a ‘constitutional democratic coup d’état’.

What triggered the take-over was Abdallahi’s decree trying to dismiss four military’s top commanders. The coup leaders created a transitional government of national unity to hold elections in July 18, 2009. The newly elected President was coup leader General Abdel Aziz. Despite opposition protests, alleging massive irregularities in the electoral process, the international community, including the African Union, enthusiastically welcomed the Mauritanian election results.

The overall picture of West Africa

Despite the string of coups, it is not possible to consider the West African countries as a whole. They experience, as seen in the cases described, different dilemmas caused by domestic complexities. Nevertheless, at the same time, there are common threads one might identify in understanding the political movements and shifting power dynamics in the Sahel: high levels of corruption, drug trafficking and intolerable economic situations; their post-colonial history and the legitimacy the armies gained during the independence process; and the high percentage of people living in poverty (according to the UNDP Human Development Report of 2011, of 186 countries, Guinea Bissau ranks lowest in human development, at number 176, with Mali just one step above it on the list).

Furthermore, the democratic instability is due to a process of balancing powers within the different elite factions and ethnic groups. As the result of fragility of the democratisation process, the economic conditions and the human rights situation in these countries worsen.

In response to the political situation, the West African regional bloc ECOWAS agreed on April 26th 2012, after an emergency summit, to send troops to Mali and Guinea-Bissau. Their mandate is meant to help swiftly reinstate civilian rule, with presidential elections within the next 12 months. ECOWAS threatened sanctions if junta leaders try to cling to power, demonstrating its commitment to implement the 2001 ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance (A/SP1/12/01).

There are also other instruments to promote stable democracies, such as the Lomé Declaration, or the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, adopted by the African Union in 2007. They all hope to reduce the risks of unconstitutional changes of government on the continent. Despite the existence of these instruments to empower democracy, the successive coups in the region can lead us to doubt how effective – if at all – these mechanisms are.

This is a nonprofit explanation.

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