Why West Africa and the Sahel are witnessing a resurgence in coups and political instability

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Africa seemed to be moving toward civilian rule, with democratic institutions and a more accountable and participatory system. After recent coups, main, these hard-won gains appear under threat. (AFP)
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Mohamed Toumba, one of the soldiers who ousted Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum, addresses supporters of Niger's ruling junta in Niamey on Aug. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/File)
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Supporters of Niger's ruling junta gather Niamey on Aug. 3, 2023, at the start of a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference. (AP Photo/File)
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1 Niger's junta supporters take part in a demonstration in front of a French army base in Niamey, Niger, on August 11, 2023. (REUTERS)
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Updated 17 August 2023

Why West Africa and the Sahel are witnessing a resurgence in coups and political instability

  • Niger, the latest country in the region to experience a military coup, embodies wider democratic rollback
  • Experts attribute trend to historical grievances, ethnic tensions, economic disparities and external influences

NAIROBI, Kenya: In the vast semi-arid expanse of West Africa’s Sahel, a series of military coups have dealt a heavy blow to the region’s political stability and democratic transformation, and created a new era of uncertainty and insecurity.

The July 26 coup in Niger, the latest in the region, where presidential guards ousted democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, was met with swift condemnation by the international community, including the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States.

Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum, shown in this picture addressing the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly on  Sept. 22, 2022, has been under detention since Niger presidential guards toppled him late last month. (REUTERS/File Photo)

Sanctions have been imposed against the new ruling junta, led by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, but hopes for the restoration of Bazoum’s rule are dwindling with each passing day.

The coup has raised questions about the viability of democratic transitions in Africa and the trajectory of political movements in the region.

The unsettling reality is that these military takeovers have derailed the democratic progress that many African nations had painstakingly made over several decades.

Before the recent wave of coups, the continent seemed to be moving toward civilian rule complete with democratic institutions and a more accountable and participatory system. These hard-won gains now appear to be under threat.

Fighters of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, shown in this picture released in August 1971, started an armed rebellion since 1956 for the independence of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau, a Portuguese colony. (XINHUA / AFP)

After a decline in the number of such coups in Africa since 2000, Mali appeared to be the outlier when its military seized power in 2020.

However, 2021 saw a significant rise in military takeovers, with coups and attempted coups taking place in Chad, Guinea, Sudan and Niger. In 2022, there were five coup attempts, with two proving successful in Burkina Faso.

The implications of these coups extend beyond the borders of the affected countries, sending shockwaves across the entire continent, and causing concern about the fragility of democratic governance in Africa in the face of several existential threats.

The international community now watches with a mix of dismay and apprehension as military interventions become more frequent, raising doubts about the long-term stability of many African nations.

As neighboring countries and regional institutions grapple with the consequences of these coups, it is crucial to understand the unique challenges faced by African nations, particularly those in the Sahel region.

Experts say it is not only critical that the root causes of instability, such as economic stagnation, political discontent and historical legacies, are addressed. They say regional- and international-level cooperation has a strong role to play in supporting the restoration of democratic governance and preventing future military interventions.

“The recent coups witnessed in Africa are orchestrated by opportunistic military personnel who exploit the vulnerabilities of their nations’ feeble institutions and underdeveloped human conditions,” Gbenga Erin, a Nigeria-based analyst with ECOWAS, told Arab News.

Since West African nations gained independence, economic underdevelopment and grievances blamed by some on colonial rule have contributed to successive military coups. (AFP file)

Across the continent, there is a broad consensus that democracy offers the most favorable governance structure and warrants safeguarding, he said.

Nevertheless, the persistent issues of terrorism, corruption, poor infrastructure and socio-economic backwardness mean that much of the African population has been experiencing nothing but varying states of deprivation.

These challenges have consistently served as a pretext for those plotting coups.

Demographic trends further magnify these challenges. Niger has the world’s fastest-growing population at a rate exceeding 3 percent annually.

UNFPA Infographic

The Sahel region, where these incidents are taking place, is currently home to approximately 354 million people, and the population in some of these countries is projected to more than double by 2050.

By then, Africa will have 40 percent of the global youth population aged 15 to 24, leading to larger class sizes in schools and universities that will outpace teacher training.

Consequently, young people are entering the labor market at a rate far greater than the growth of available jobs.

Infographic from World Bank Group discussion paper, August 2016.

Analysts believe the failure of regional governments to meet the basic expectations of their peoples, such as employment, physical safety, education and healthcare, has contributed to the recent spate of military coups.

“The local populations in these countries often have high expectations for improved governance, economic development and security,” Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigeria-based policy analyst, told Arab News.


“But when these expectations are not met, there can be frustration with the existing government, leading some to support military interventions that promise change.”

Alex de Waal, a British researcher on African elite politics, argued in a recent piece for the New York Times that the response from developed nations has also been far from adequate.

A street merchant waits for customers in Niamey, Niger, on Aug. 14, 2023. (AP Photo)

He said many European and Middle Eastern countries have tended to focus on deterring migrants from leaving Africa rather than helping to create jobs that would encourage them to remain.

An assessment of democratic progress in Africa does reveal a mixed picture of success and failure. Despite certain advancements, the continent often finds itself taking one step forward and two steps back.

Regular elections coexist with democratic rollbacks, institutionalization of political parties with endemic corruption, and political freedoms with constraints and inequalities.

“Many of these governments are not delivering the so-called dividends of democracy, such as security, economic prosperity, protecting lives and property,” Christopher Ogunmodede, a foreign affairs expert from Nigeria, told Arab News.


“It’s not enough to sit back and lecture people about why democracy is so perfect and things like that. People nominally believe that they should have a civilian government ... but they have this very calling that suggests that if civilian governments are not working, they should be removed very fast.”

African democracies must reform if they are to succeed, says Fidel Amakye Owusu, an international relations and security analyst from Ghana.

“African countries urgently need reforms to enhance trust and legitimacy in elections, while corruption remains a critical issue,” but only democratic governments are equipped to improve things on the ground and fight extremism, he told Arab News.

A man stands outside a shop in a suburb of Niamey in Niger on August 14, 2023. Power grabs in the Sahel have been linked to the failure of many of the region's governments to deivering the so-called dividends of democracy, such as security, economic prosperity, and protecting lives and property. (AF/File)

At the same time, the conditions available to political opposition under which they can hold ruling parties to account, have not always been conducive to sustaining the democratic political order — something armed actors can capitalize on.

For instance, before the coup in Niger, democratic participation was relatively restricted, according to Ogunmodede, who highlighted the case of the M26 movement, composed of several civil society groups.

In 2022, M26 was barred from holding a protest against Operation Barkhane, a French counter-insurgency mission spanning the Sahel region, forcing it to limit itself to social-media campaigning.

Niger's junta supporters take part in a demonstration in front of a French army base in Niamey, Niger, on August 11, 2023. Restrictions against Niger'ss civil society groups are believed to have led them into supporting the military's plot to overthrow the country's democratically elected government. (REUTERS/Mahamadou Hamidou)

Analysts believe social media platforms have allowed for the spread of misinformation and disinformation about the security situation, undermining trust in the region’s democratic institutions.

While social media commentators claim the security situation was not improving, experts say Niger’s counterextremism operations were overall faring better than other nations in the region.

Beatrice Bianchi, a Sahel expert with the Med-Or Foundation, an Italian think tank, identifies social media as a vehicle spreading misinformation in the Sahel countries. “This has raised tensions particularly among the youth, and (has) radicalized people,” Bianchi told Arab News.


Having witnessed the coup unfold in the capital Niamey, Bianchi is of the view that the protests in support of the junta cannot be considered representative of the majority of the population.

“The junta violently crushed the anti-coup protesters, and then called for others to come to support them. These weren’t spontaneous protests in the beginning,” she said.

Nigerien security forces launch tear gas to disperse pro-junta demonstrators gathered outside the French embassy in Niamey on July 30, 2023. (Reuters)

Also, playing an anti-colonial card can be a very effective political tool, said analyst Eguegu, because “the legacy of colonialism continues to shape the discourse in all these countries.”

“The struggle for decolonization, coupled with concerns about foreign influence, is a significant factor in the political landscape, while the presence of foreign military installations aimed at fighting extremists, geopolitical interests, and regional security strategies add complexity to the situation,” said Eguegu.

Despite the political turbulence being witnessed in West Africa, Owusu, the Ghanaian expert, insists that “the destiny of Africa is intertwined with the fate of its democracies and the people of the continent deserve leaders who prioritize their welfare, promote accountable governance, and uphold the principles of democracy.”

As a result, the resurgence of military coups serves as a stark reminder that these ideals are not yet fully realized and the path forward requires a united effort to protect and nurture the democratic aspirations of African nations.

Doing so might ensure that the continent’s future is one of progress, prosperity and true democratic representation.


US pledges $3 billion to Green Climate Fund at COP28

Updated 10 sec ago

US pledges $3 billion to Green Climate Fund at COP28

  • The fund funnels grants for adaptation, mitigation projects such as solar panels in Pakistan or flood management in Haiti
  • The last US contribution to the fund was made under then President Barack Obama, who had committed $3 billion in 2014

DUBAI: Vice President Kamala Harris told the UN's COP28 conference on Saturday that the United States will contribute $3 billion to a global climate fund -- its first pledge to it since 2014. 

"Today, we are demonstrating through action how the world can and must meet this crisis," Harris told the climate summit in Dubai. 

The new money, which must be approved by the US Congress, will go into the Green Climate Fund (GCF), which was created in 2010. 

The last US contribution to the fund for developing countries was made under then President Barack Obama, who committed $3 billion in 2014. 

US President Joe Biden sent Harris in his place to COP28. 

The world's biggest climate fund funnels grants and loans for adaptation and mitigation projects in developing countries, such as solar panels in Pakistan or flood management in Haiti. 

Prior to the US announcement, $13.5 billion had been pledged to the GCF. 

The failure of wealthy nations to fulfil financial pledges to help developing nations cope with climate change has fuelled tensions and mistrust at climate negotiations. 

Developing countries least responsible for climate change are seeking support from richer polluting nations to adapt to the increasingly ferocious and expensive consequences of extreme weather, and for their transitions to cleaner energy sources. 

The GCF plays a part in a separate promise by rich countries to supply $100 billion of climate financing to poorer nations annually. But that pledge was only likely met in 2022, two years late. 

UN lifts arms embargo on Somali forces

The United Nations headquarters building is seen from inside the General Assembly hall, on Sept. 21, 2021. (AP)
Updated 02 December 2023

UN lifts arms embargo on Somali forces

  • “The lifting of the arms embargo enables us to confront security threats, including those posed by Al-Shabab,” he said

UNITED NATIONS, United States: The UN Security Council on Friday completely lifted an arms embargo on Somali government forces, but continued to maintain sanctions against the Al-Shabab jihadist group.
The UN implemented a general arms embargo on Somalia in 1992, but has since largely eased it in regards to Somali forces.
The embargo did not apply to deliveries of weapons for the development of Somali security forces, although the UN committee overseeing the sanctions had to be notified and could object to certain heavy weapons.
A first resolution adopted unanimously Friday lifted the general embargo, removing the last restrictions on the Somali government.
A second resolution reimposed the arms embargo on Al-Shabab, maintaining the ban on delivery of weapons, ammunition and military equipment to the Islamist group and “other actors intent on undermining peace and security in Somalia.”
Somali ambassador Abukar Dahir Osman welcomed the moves.
“The lifting of the arms embargo enables us to confront security threats, including those posed by Al-Shabab,” he said.
“It also allows us to bolster the capacity of the Somali security forces by accessing lethal arms and equipment to adequately safeguard our citizens and our nation.”
After making significant progress, Somalia’s offensive against Al-Shabab has stalled for months, raising concerns about the government’s capacity to crush the 16-year insurgency led by the Al-Qaeda-linked militants.
The Somali army, in alliance with clan militias, has been supported by troops from the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) in recapturing vast areas of the territory.
UN resolutions call for the ATMIS force to be reduced to zero by the end of next year, handing over security to the Somali army and police.
However, the government requested in September a three-month “technical pause” in the pullout of 3,000 troops.
The drawdown of those troops “will conclude as scheduled on December 31 of 2023,” the Somali envoy said, adding that the government was committed to the country’s forces taking over security responsibilities “within the agreed timelines.”


Sanchez says Israel is a ‘friend’ of Spain

Updated 02 December 2023

Sanchez says Israel is a ‘friend’ of Spain

  • “I reaffirmed that Spain considers the death of civilians in Gaza unbearable and that Israel must respect international humanitarian law,” Sanchez added

MADRID: Israel is “a friend of Spain,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Friday, a day after Israel recalled its envoy to Madrid over “outrageous remarks” he made regarding the country’s military campaign in Gaza.
The Socialist premier, one of the most critical voices within the European Union regarding Israel, at the same time stood by his position regarding Israel’s campaign, which has sparked tension between Madrid and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in recent days.
In a message posted on X, formerly Twitter, Sanchez said he had “reiterated that Israel is a partner and friend of Spain” in a telephone conversation with Israeli former defense minister and current war cabinet member, Benny Gantz.
“Once again, I condemned the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7,” he said, before adding “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
“But I reaffirmed that Spain considers the death of civilians in Gaza unbearable and that Israel must respect international humanitarian law,” Sanchez added.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Thursday he was recalling the country’s envoy to Spain for consultations in Jerusalem “because of the outrageous remarks by the Spanish prime minister, who again repeated baseless claims.”
Speaking to Spanish public television on Thursday, Sanchez said he had “serious doubts” that Israel is complying with international humanitarian law in its military campaign in Gaza given the “images we are seeing and the growing number of people dying, especially boys and girls.”
Israel has also recalled its ambassadors from Turkiye and South Africa following remarks by those countries’ leaders over the war in Gaza.
Hamas broke through Gaza’s militarised border with Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and seizing around 240 Israeli and foreign hostages, according to Israeli officials.
Israel has vowed to “crush” Hamas in response and unleashed a withering military campaign that Gaza’s Hamas government says has killed more than 15,000 people in the coastal territory.


Protester in Atlanta sets self on fire outside Israeli consulate

Police stand guard in Washington, DC. (AFP file photo)
Updated 02 December 2023

Protester in Atlanta sets self on fire outside Israeli consulate

  • The United States has seen an uptick in Anti-Semitic, anti-Arab and Islamophobic threats and violence since the start of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza in October

WASHINGTON: A protester outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta was in critical condition Friday after setting themself on fire, in what police said was likely an “extreme” political statement.
“A Palestinian flag was reported at the location and was part of the protest,” said Darin Schierbaum, police chief of the southern US city.
He said the incident was “likely an extreme act of political protest.”
A security guard was also injured after trying to stop the protester, according to emergency first responders.
“Both individuals sustained burns,” Atlanta Fire Chief Roderick Smith told journalists.
He did not specify the age or gender of the protester.
“The security guard noticed that the individual was attempting to set themselves afire” shortly after the protester arrived outside the consulate building around noon (1700 GMT), Smith said.
The guard “immediately attempted but failed to stop the individual.”
The guard was burned on his wrist and leg, Smith said, while the protester was in critical condition with “full thickness” burns to their body. Both were taken to the hospital, he added.
“We actually have dedicated patrols that are occurring at this location and other Jewish and Muslim communities in the city,” Schierbaum added.
The United States has seen an uptick in Anti-Semitic, anti-Arab and Islamophobic threats and violence since the start of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza in October.
Earlier this week a US man was charged with attempted murder over the shooting of three men of Palestinian descent in Vermont, and a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy was stabbed to death in Illinois in October.


Philippines builds new coast guard station on island in South China Sea

Updated 01 December 2023

Philippines builds new coast guard station on island in South China Sea

THITU ISLAND: The Philippines inaugurated a new coast guard monitoring base Friday on an island occupied by Filipino forces in the disputed South China Sea and plans to expand joint patrols with the US and Australia to counter China’s “pure bullying” in the strategic waterway, a Philippine security official said.
High-seas faceoffs between Chinese and Philippine ships have intensified this year in the contested waters, fueling fears of a larger conflict that could involve the US. The US has repeatedly warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea.
China has accused the US of meddling in an Asian dispute and sowing discord in the region.
National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano and other Philippine officials flew to Thitu Island on an air force plane on Friday and led a ceremony to open the newly constructed, two-story center that will have radar, ship-tracking and other monitoring equipment to monitor China’s actions in the hotly disputed waters and other problems, including sea accidents.
“It’s no longer gray zone. It’s pure bullying,” Ano told reporters after the seaside ceremony, describing the actions of Chinese ships as openly flouting international law.
Dwarfed by China’s military might, the Philippines decided this year to allow an expansion of the US military presence in its local camps under a 2014 defense pact.
It also recently launched joint sea and air patrols with the United States and Australia in a new deterrence strategy that puts the two allied powers on a collision course with Beijing.
Ano said the separate joint patrols involving the US and Australia would continue and could expand to include other nations like Japan once a security agreement being negotiated by Tokyo and Manila was concluded.
“We’re open to like-minded countries to join as observers or participants,” Ano said.