Changing Post-Coup/Transition Norms in West Africa?

I think I’ve made this point elsewhere (can’t remember where), but yesterday’s roundup on Burkina Faso reminded me of it, in the context of discussing the visit by an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) delegation to Ouagadougou. The point is this: ECOWAS seems now to be comfortable with (or reluctantly acquiescing to) two-year transitions, which differ from the previous expectation in two ways – the length (eighteen months) and the precision (“two years” can date from a more or less arbitrary point that is not necessarily when a given junta took power).

The coups in Mali (August 2020, May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), and Burkina Faso (January 2022) all upended business as usual in West Africa and confronted France, ECOWAS, the United States and other external actors with a major dilemma – how much pressure to apply to coup-makers, and to what end? The “gold standard” for an orderly post-coup transition, in the West African regional context, appears to be the fourteen-month transition in Niger in 2010-2011, and ECOWAS (with French backing) sought to enforce a standard of eighteen months. But intransigence from Mali in particular forced ECOWAS into negotiating. Sometimes ECOWAS negotiated in a tough way, as when ECOWAS imposed sweeping sanctions on Mali from January-July 2022 in response to the junta’s proposal for a transition that could have lasted through 2026. Yet even at its toughest-minded, ECOWAS was always negotiating at a disadvantage – ECOWAS is not, I think, going to physically force any junta from power, and I think the juntas all know that. So the end result – and here the juntas watch each other, clearly – is an adjusting of the norms in the ways I described above. Mali’s junta ended up getting sanctions lifted by offering a “two-year” transition plan (but dating from March 2022, meaning that March 2024 will in fact mark three and a half years since the junta took power) and Burkina Faso’s junta now appears to be on the same page as ECOWAS about a “two-year” transition plan (dating from July 2022, giving that junta as much as thirty months in power – not a far cry from what it demanded originally).

(ECOWAS’ mediation/negotiation efforts with Guinea – the new mediator [French] is former Beninese President Boni Yayi – are still ongoing.)

If one thinks that Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are part of an “epidemic” of West African (or African) coups and if one expects that “epidemic” to claim further victims – I’m ambivalent on both questions – then the next question is what expectations the Malian and Burkinabè experiences set up for potential coup-makers elsewhere in the region. Again, I’m not necessarily expecting any more coups in the short term, but any aspiring West African coup-makers now know that they can likely expect at least thirty months in power. Depending on how one reads their motivations – and especially if one is ultra-cynical and sees coup-makers as primarily there for their own enrichment and empowerment – then the incentives are clear. That ultra-cynical view is a bit too strong for me; I think it’s hard to get in the mind of Assimi Goïta (Mali) or Paul-Henri Damiba (Burkina Faso) and separate what may be, on the one hand, their legitimate frustrations over insecurity, civilian corruption and fecklessness, and pressures from below from their own soldiers versus, on the other hand, more self-serving motivations. But even if one sees these officers as heroes (I don’t), the coup/transition combo itself becomes something different depending on the length of time it lasts. Fourteen months, eighteen months…that’s hitting a reset button on the country’s politics, for better or worse. Thirty months, forty-two months…that’s a full-blown military regime. The pendulum has not, I think, swung back to where it was in the 1980s (Mauritania 1984, Burkina Faso 1987, Chad 1990) or earlier, when a coup-maker could expect to come into power and stay there practically indefinitely, perhaps with the occasional rigged election or cabinet reshuffle to placate various foreign and domestic stakeholders. But the pendulum has certainly swung a bit in that direction versus where it was a decade ago, when coup-makers had a lot more trouble making their rule stick – including in Mali (2012) and Guinea (2008).