Three Recent Coups in West Africa and How They Played Out

Many questions still surround the ongoing attempted military takeover in Mali: What motivated it? Will there be a counter-coup? What does it mean? What are its implications for the rebellion in the north and the future of Malian democracy? What are its implications for other countries? Answers to these questions will take shape over time, and Mali will follow its own path. In the meantime it is useful to think about other recent military coups in West Africa and how they played out.

The coups in question took place in Mauritania (2008), Guinea (2008), and Niger (2010), all of which border Mali. One commonality is that all three countries experienced coups at moments of perceived crisis. Another commonality is that they all eventually held elections. However, each took a different path towards its coup and towards the resolution of the coup. One key takeaway, indeed, is that coups can follow very different trajectories.

The order is chronological. This post fleshes out – and adds to – arguments I made here.


Mauritania‘s history, following the end of one-party rule in 1978, includes four successful coups: 1978, 1984, 2005, and 2008. While the coups of 1978 and 1984 installed military regimes, the 2005 coup was motivated by increasing domestic tension under the rule of Colonel Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya. This tension stemmed partly from Ould Taya’s limited toleration for democratization. The coup leaders organized open elections, and a civilian president was in 2007. Feelings within parts of the military leadership that the civilian regime was politically fecklessness and weak, especially in the face of a perceived Islamist and jihadist threat, prompted a coup in August 2008. The leader of that coup, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, had been a key participant in the 2005 coup. In 2009, the junta oversaw presidential elections. Abdel Aziz ran as a civilian and won. He remains in power today.


Guinea has had two successful coups: one in 1984, at the death of independence-era leader President Sekou Toure, and one in December 2008, at the death of President Lansana Conte, who came to power in the coup of 1984. The junta installed in 2008 was led by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara. Camara promised that elections would take place and that he would not stand, but tensions rose as his promises came to appear hollow and his behavior became erratic. In September 2009, soldiers brutally cracked down on an opposition rally in the capital. Then, in December 2009, one of Camara’s guards shot him in the head. The junta leader lived, but was flown to Morocco, later to Burkina Faso, and was not permitted to re-enter Guinea. Power passed to General Sekouba Konate, who oversaw a two-round election in June/November 2010. The elections were marred by violence and allegations of fraud. The winner, long-time opposition leader Alpha Conde, is still president.


In Niger, four successful coups have occurred: the 1974 coup that overthrew independence-era President Hamani Diori; a 1996 coup that installed Colonel Ibrahim Mainassara after several attempted civilian governments; the 1999 assassination of Mainassara by his bodyguards, who then organized civilian elections which were won by President Mamadou Tandja; and the February 2010 coup that ousted Tandja after he amended the constitution and remained in power beyond his original two-term limit. The 2010 coup, led by Colonel Salou Djibo, shows continuities with the 1999 coup: Djibo’s junta, appearing to consider itself the referee of Nigerien democracy, relatively quickly organized civilian elections. This two-round contest, held in January/March 2011, was won by opposition leader and current President Mahamadou Issoufou.


What lessons do these examples offer? I can think of four:

  1. These coups came out of (perceived) crisis. In addition to the big triggers I mention above – a sense of civilian incompetence in the face of threats, the death of a long-time leader, or the refusal of a leader to leave office – other problems were at work in each case, ones that civilian leaders struggled to deal with. Mauritania was juggling domestic unrest, non-violent Islamist political activism, and jihadist violence. Guinea saw military mutinies in 2008. Niger had experienced drought and famine. Military leaders seized power, it seems, in part because they feared further such situations would deteriorate further. This seems to have been the case in Mali as well.
  2. Coup leaders quickly adopted the rhetoric of democracy. Within months if not days of taking power, these military juntas were promising elections and, in Mauritania and Niger, working to organize them. This, too, holds for Mali, at least at the rhetorical level; vague promises to restore democracy have already surfaced.
  3. (Promises of) elections served different purposes for each junta. In Guinea, many came to see Camara’s promises as a tactic he exploited to delay having to clarify his status and his intentions. In Mauritania, elections brought a large measure of continuity. Some protesters in Mauritania believe the elections did not really end military rule; in this view, elections were an exercise Abdel Aziz went through to legitimate his rule. In Niger, finally, the junta lived up to its promises, and its leaders did not compete in the election. With Mali, how this junta will use/abuse the promise of democracy will be a key question.
  4. Coup leaders who cause chaos are overthrown in coups. I take this observation from the case of Camara (who only survived by luck) in Guinea and that of Mainassara in Niger. It arguably also applies to Ould Taya in Mauritania and even to General Sani Abacha in Nigeria, who rumor says was poisoned by treachery in 1998. In each case, the new military leaders exemplified a more sober style of leadership and transitioned fairly quickly to civilian democracy. The implication for Mali’s new junta, then, is that if they are seen to be dragging the country further into chaos and dragging their feet on democracy, there could be yet another coup in the coming years.

What implications for Mali do you see in these other cases?


12 thoughts on “Three Recent Coups in West Africa and How They Played Out

  1. While being concerned about Mali, I am much more concerned about how the situation in Mali prior to the coup closely mirrored the situation in Nigeria.

    It is a sobering thought.

  2. There’s also the specific type of crisis to consider. Was it a sense that the old leader (civilian or military) was simply incapable of leading, a worry that civilian leadership isn’t supporting their fight to hold on to territory against separatism or economic want of the soldiers? What caused the military to act, what rank they held as well as whether or not they had active support and political cover from leading civilians could determine a lot about the survival of military rule.

    Causing chaos is another matter. Were things unstable because Camara did specific things or did things become unstable simply because there was a coup? If the instability spread because of Camara himself then some officers and civilian leaders might have decided that he needed to be removed because he was bad for business. If instability spread because a group of soldiers (led by a mid-level soldier) seized political power then it suggests dislike for any military rule. Of course the two are not mutually exclusive, a poor captain-turned-administrator and a public generally opposed to military rule could have come about at the same time.

    Also it seems quite possible that mid-level coups might be more prone to creating instability then high-level coups for a number of reasons. The coup leaders lack the ties with important civilians that their superiors might have, the military is probably not united in supporting the coup*, the support of the police and intelligence agencies is uncertain, the coup leaders don’t have many political parties or civic organizations to rally support around and the coup leaders probably lack any real knowledge about administration.

    Of course all this requires more study about high-level coups and why they were or weren’t successful.

    *As we’re seeing in Mali the former president appears to currently be protected by an elite part of the military, albeit one that was probably set up to be loyal to him and so might have been reluctant to join a coup anyway.

    • Lot of good points here. This:

      Also it seems quite possible that mid-level coups might be more prone to creating instability then high-level coups for a number of reasons.

      is right on the money, I think.

      • I still think that mid-level coups may be inherently more unstable, but there’s another point I should have mentioned. States where mid-level coups occur may be more predisposed towards instability in the first place. Some of the points that have been mentioned about them such as disrupted payments and corrupt superiors could mean that any coups will provoke even greater instability and that mid-level ones are caused by these factors. Of course that doesn’t excuse the captains, majors and colonels that do this and it isn’t to imply that mid-level coups are blameless for the chaos that ensues, but it should be investigated.

        Of course the case of Mali might be a point against this. The government and opposition parties were preparing for elections, something that isn’t too common in unstable situations. If the Tuareg rebel victories were enough I would have assumed that it would be a high-level coup and an ensuing militarization of the state. Maybe basic assumptions about elites just aren’t quite enough for mid-level coups.

    • Once a Coup is successfully launched, the lack of any real knowledge by the young soldiers could be easily surmounted. How?  Easy. In Africa, there is no lack of hired guns. It is easy to find new, young, hungry, educated to the hilt elites who will do the dirty work for any coup leader. It happened from Field Marshall Amin’s Uganda to Sargeant Doe’s Liberia to Yahya Jammeh. The young Malian Captian could do the same.

      • The issue is whether or not the participants of the coup will be capable of convincing anyone* that they are actually capable of at least keeping things running as well as, if not better than, the previous government. Typically governments dominated by the military don’t have very good knowledge of how to encourage investment and maintain or create an efficient government institution for labor disputes and setting industry standards. Looking at Burma, Indonesia, Uganda, Pakistan and Mexico under military rule I’d say there’s a consistent pattern of the military proving that it is bad for business.

        Incidentally Amin doesn’t quite qualify for discussing mid-level coups since he was a general but his case is actually revealing on the problems of poorly educated soldiers in administrative positions. From what I understand the Ugandan economy suffered seriously during his time in power, ethnic Asians who were economically successful were forced to emigrate** and the military expanded into many industries, clear signs that technocrats had little ability to install sanity (though his predecessor’s state wasn’t much better).

        *Especially domestic civilian elites, labor unions, ethnic and religious leaders and foreign businesses.
        ** Rather similar to Spain and the Muslims and Jews actually.

      • Having a gun and control over the nation’s treasury is enough to “convince” a lot of people.

  3. The role of highly-educated civilians after the the coup takes place ( any coup regardless who leads it) should be studied deeply. The coup leaders may lust after power but the art of stealing the wealth of the nations are aided by the well-educated sycophants holding degrees from prestigious western countries. Some coups also are instigated by the developed nations also if resources and strategic location is the issue.
     This areas begs some serious theses by resourceful future hungry Phd’s.

    Also, if you carefully study African coups against civilian governments, you will find out that the Coup leader is usually from a small ethnic group or clan. Why is this important? Because, African Democratic exercisers always favor the bigger clans even if it is free and fair. One man one vote simply means the little guy will get zilch. All the ministerial posts will go to the winners ( big league clans) as they have the numbers. Election time in Africa is deadly serious matter. That is why you see all those long queues during election day. Naturally, all the disgruntled little guys in the army will conspire together, find a cause ( there will always be some good cause to launch a coup, exaggerated or otherwise) and one early morning execute their Coup! As they soldier on, they will learn on the job and organize their own one-man party.  The solution lies on reforming  African democratic exercises. The current election system may function well in Europe but Africa needs a mix of western AND local hybrid of elections if you want to see the LAST COUP.

    • You are correct. There is no shortage of highly educated people to do the coup plotters dirty work. Having spent much of my life under military rule in Nigeria, I understand this all too well.

  4. On the last Mauritanian coup, I think the stated motive (Sidioca being weak against AQIM) was more for Western consumption. At it’s root, there was a power struggle centered on Sidioca’s increasing assertiveness and his attempts to bring back ancien régime figures to empower the civilian side of the government, while trying to sideline his former military backers through officer transfers etc.

    There was already a nasty conflict, but the coup itself was triggered when Sidioca tried (somewhat desperately) to fire the military top brass, Gens. Abdelaziz, Ghazouani & Co. It was only after the fact that they really began pushing the “weak-on-terror” line.

  5. Interesting coordination between Ecowas on this one. Of course it remains to be soon whether they’ll all follow through and whether they would have done so for a larger economy.

    Also I’d be interesting in polling the apparent supporters of the coup. Getting their ethnicity, geographic area and class would be enlightening. Depending on how widespread it might suggest support from a marginalized group or real national cynicism about the system.

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