Burkina president returns, but don't be surprised if Africa had more, not fewer, future coups

West Africa is a champion: Between 1960 and 2010, the region experienced 106 failed and successful military take overs.

BURKINA FASO’s interim president Michel Kafando returned to power a week after soldiers arrested him and the prime minister and dissolved the transitional government in Africa’s fourth- biggest gold producer.

Coup leader General Gilbert Diendere, the head of Compoare’s former presidential guard, bowed to demands from West African presidents to allow the transitional government to return to office.

The big question now is the actions (if any) that will be taken against the coup leaders, and whether Burkina Faso - and Africa -  can afford to breathe a sigh of relief.

Regional leaders arrived in Ouagadougou Wednesday to negotiate contentious issues such as an amnesty for those involved in the coup and whether Compoare’s supporters could run for office.

Amnesty opposed

Pro-democracy activists oppose any amnesty for the soldiers who carried out the coup and want the presidential guard to be disbanded, Karim Sama, a founding member of the Balai Citoyen, or Citizen’s Broom, group said. They hoped that what has happened in Burkina Faso would signal the end of coups in West Africa, he said.

“Everyone must understand that the times of coups are over and we hope Burkina Faso can serve as an example to other countries so that the youth understands that it has to take action against those who prevent us from moving forward,” Sama said by phone from Ouagadougou.

But a declaration that the days of coups are over does not make it so. The risks on stability remain – demographic pressures as an increasingly youthful population demands jobs and livelihoods, income inequality and neglect of peripheral regions, a new publication on the challenge of stability in West Africa by the World Bank group indicates.

More broadly, West Africa also has one of the most mobile populations in the world; the migratory populations that have at times been seen as contributing to instability and conflict as a result of competition over land, resources, and jobs are also a key motor that drives the economies of the subregion.

The return of the presidential guard to its barracks in Burkina Faso may calm unrest in the short term, said Rinaldo Depagne, Brussels- based International Crisis Group’s director for West Africa.

“What will they do if the transition leaders don’t go in their direction or if the president-elect is not the one they want?” he said by phone from the Senegalese capital, Dakar. “The fundamental problem is the involvement of the army in Burkina Faso’s political life.”

But it is the very presence of the military in political life is an indication that civilian institutions have failed to ensure fair contestation of power. It means that sometimes the military ends up being the only way to challenge the stranglehold that Big Men presidents and their instruments have on power, and so enforce change.

Historically, West Africa experienced more than twice as many attempts (successful and unsuccessful) at unconstitutional changes of government in the decades after 1960 as any other subregion on the continent.

Between 1960 and 2010, the wider West Africa experienced 106 failed and successful coups—many times more than in East Africa (48), Central Africa (35), or Southern Africa (16). Benin and Burkina Faso have each had seven, Mauritania has had six, Ghana and Sierra Leone have each had five, and Guinea-Bissau and Niger have each had four.

Fragility trap

Political scientists like to talk of a fragility trap - if a country can for whatever reason avoid a coup plot, it gradually becomes much easier to avoid them. By contrast, some countries are highly coup-prone - the best example is Guinea-Bissau today - not because of a fixed effect, but because they never break out of the high-risk, spiralling environment that prevails in the recent aftermath of a plot.

Still, military coups did not inevitably lead to the replacement of a civilian dictatorship by a military one. In Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, for example, the military voluntarily withdrew in favour of electoral democracy and allowed the restoration of civilian regimes.

Competition among elites aligned to factions of  the military and within civilian governments has largely driven coups in the subregion, the World Bank report says, but army men also often represented the only real chance at change, intervening because of frustration with the stagnation of political competition. By so doing, they are ensured of civilian support, which is an incentive to make coup.

As such, military coups had become the method of choice to displace regimes; they remained as such until the wave of democratisation in 1990 opened up West Africa’s political arena.

Today, regular elections - even though most are rarely free - are the norm.

But around Africa, the political space constricting and civilian institutions weakening – particularly as presidents try, and often succeed to fiddle with their constitutions and prolong their terms in office.

In addition, nearly all those countries, where strongmen have been in power for over 20 years, and also have the added fact that the opposition don’t have a fighting chance, are tempting the soldiers. 

Commentators like to note that it raises the vexing age old choice in African politics - between a bad civilian government, and a “good” military regime. It would not be a wonder if Africa had more, not less, coups.

- Additional reporting by Simon Gongo and Olivier Monnier, Bloomberg

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