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How this wave of African coups differs from previous ones

To maintain power, military leaders are likely to turn to elections

Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Damiba is sworn in as head of state in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on Feb. 16. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

In many ways, the recent spate of coups and coup attempts in Africa feels like a flashback to earlier periods in the continent’s history. With 11 coup attempts since 2019, coups appear to be on the rise after steadily declining, raising concerns about a return to military rule.

Recent coups, like the one in Burkina Faso, followed a familiar pattern — coup leaders suspended the constitution, closed borders, revealed the acronym of the new junta and promised their rule will be more aligned with the interests of “the people.”

But this recent wave of coups is distinct in a number of key ways. Here’s what’s different in the motives, tactics and consequences of coups in the region.

The war on terrorism gives militaries an elevated role

The coups come alongside the growth in Islamist threats in parts of West Africa. Africa’s national armies are central to combating the transnational threats, giving military leaders a heightened importance domestically and internationally.

The task has been extremely challenging — with rising military and civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis in many countries in the Sahel region, south of the Sahara.

This security and humanitarian crisis has also created new tensions between the armed forces and elected political leaders. A perceived lack of support for the troops in their fight against insurgents has been a root grievance of coup leaders. These issues probably resonate across the ranks, giving coups support within security forces.

Are coups really contagious?

Combat-related coups also occurred in West Africa in the 1990s, but countries outside the region largely refrained from intervening, viewing them more as domestic and regional conflicts. The insurgencies in West African countries today have attracted wider attention, placing countries in the center of multiple international counterterrorism initiatives.

Many recent coup leaders have international training and combat experience related to the global war on terrorism, which some citizens may see as an advantage in dealing with the country’s growing security concerns. Yet it’s uncertain if — or how — military juntas will address the security situation differently. In Mali, for instance, attacks reportedly increased by 30 percent in the year following the 2020 coup.

Coup plotters are younger and include few generals

In marked contrast to prior waves of coups in Africa, coup attempts since 2019 have featured relatively low-ranking plotters.

Historically, coups from the top of the military hierarchy — those led by perpetrators ranked general and above — have been the norm. Between 1990 and 2015, data we have collected on the rank of coup plotters suggests that 45 percent of coup attempts in Africa involved at least one general.

The same is true of only three of the eleven coup attempts since 2019 — the coup in Chad, which brought Idriss Déby’s son, Mahamat, to power, and two of the coup attempts in Sudan.

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The other eight attempts have come from lower in the military hierarchy. Regimes in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea are now run by young colonels and lieutenant colonels, who drew upon their combat experience to legitimize their efforts to seize power.

Our research shows that coups from the lower ranks tend to be riskier and involve higher rates of violence than those staged by generals. In this month’s Guinea Bissau coup attempt, for instance, 11 people were killed.

Social media makes it harder to monopolize information

The control of radio and television stations has typically been a key tactical priority during coups. In the past, state broadcast announcements were usually the first way people heard of an overthrow. Social media has altered this pattern.

Citizens and journalists often capture and share what’s going on, countering the secrecy that coup plotters typically aim for. In the digital age, coup plotters and governments alike struggle to control the narrative.

Social media platforms also allow supporters on either side to quickly mobilize, sometimes filling the streets even before the coup has been announced.

And governments now have a new “weapon” to attempt to counter coups: shutting off the Internet. Blackouts, as was the case in Sudan, regularly continue long after coup attempts, marking a new tool of repression.

Regional responses have been more severe

The international context has also shifted, with regional organizations taking more active responses to coup attempts to pressure countries to return to constitutional rule.

The African Union has been remarkably consistent in its responses to coups — the A.U. suspended nearly all governments that experienced coups since 2003 and imposed sanctions 73 percent of the time. The decision not to suspend Chad following the 2021 coup, which the A.U. made citing security concerns, was an exception.

The response from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been more varied but also, in a number of cases, more severe — the regional body directly intervened in some cases and leveraged suspensions or sanctions in others. If anything, ECOWAS has faced some criticism for having been too aggressive with sanctions in response to the recent coup in Mali.

Don’t expect regional organizations to rein in coups

Unlike in prior decades, today’s coup plotters can thus be more certain of some form of punishment. Sanctions make it costlier for coup plotters to remain in power, which suggests these recent coups are less likely to usher in long periods of military rule. Instead, militaries are likely to use elections to maintain power.

What to look for in the coming months

In the months ahead, we can expect coup leaders to take steps to consolidate their power. Coup attempts often result in repression against citizens, a pattern that is likely to continue following recent coups.

What may be distinct is the consequences of the coups for militaries themselves. Mass dismissals and leadership changes within armed forces following coup attempts have been common in the past. However, the Sahel countries may have incentives to avoid significant changes because upheavals within the ranks could undermine their counterinsurgency efforts.

In the meantime, the distinct features of this recent wave of coup attempts suggest that the dynamics of coups are evolving in important ways.

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Erica De Bruin (@esdebruin) is an associate professor of government at Hamilton College and the author of “How to Prevent Coups d’état: Counterbalancing and Regime Survival” (Cornell University Press, 2020).

Maggie Dwyer (@MagDwyer) is a lecturer in African studies and international development at the University of Edinburgh and author of “Soldiers in Revolt: Army Mutinies in Africa” (Oxford University Press, 2018).