How to Counter Africa’s Coup Problem

Demonstrating in support of Ibrahim Traoré, Burkina Faso’s self-declared leader, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, October 2022. Vincent Bado / Reuters
Demonstrating in support of Ibrahim Traoré, Burkina Faso’s self-declared leader, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, October 2022. Vincent Bado / Reuters

The eight coups d’état that have rocked Africa’s Sahel region since 2020 are a flashing, red-light warning: Washington’s efforts to stabilize the region have failed. For too long, the United States has acted on the assumption that jihadi terrorism is the source of the Sahel’s crises and therefore funneled military assistance to the governments fighting it. But Washington must jettison that misconception. The extremist violence and wave of coups that have plagued the region are twin symptoms of a deeper problem: corrupt, failed governance that radicalizes civilians and soldiers alike. Outside efforts to solve the Sahel crises must shift their focus away from security assistance aimed at reinforcing countries’ combat proficiency and toward building responsive governance that grants Africans, particularly youths, the promise of a brighter future.

The military assistance that the United States and Europe have given to Sahel governments that are unresponsive to their people’s basic needs has contributed to the region’s rise in violence, including coups. These aid programs have too often allowed corrupt regimes to enrich themselves and prioritize their own security at the expense of their societies. Assistance must instead aim to protect the population and counter deprivation and radicalization. Tackling corruption and repression would also pay economic dividends, as the rule of law is a precondition to broad, stabilizing prosperity. Moreover, to thwart coup attempts in the near term, Western partners must support an African-led plan—a so-called short game—that can assemble regional governments, African multilateral organizations, and civil society to immediately counter attempts to overthrow legitimately elected leaders. The prerequisite for these changes is a shift in mindset: the United States and its European allies should treat Africans as valuable partners in regional policymaking, rather than as the targets of solutions shaped in Washington or Paris.

A shift toward Western-African partnerships is vital to U.S. and international security. Over the coming decades, Africa is likely to outstrip the world’s other regions in population growth, vulnerability to climate change, and potential for economic development. This increases both its risk of catastrophe and its potential to cultivate more stable democracies. The U.S. government declared a move toward partnership in its U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit in December 2022. Washington must now act on that commitment and implement this mindset shift across the full spectrum of its policies.

FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE

Although many African countries saw widespread democratic gains starting in the 1990s, the past decade has seen a decline in effective governance and security across the continent. These erosions are neither universal nor inevitable; according to Freedom House, 11 African countries experienced improvements in political rights in 2022 compared to nine states that experienced backsliding. But these limited improvements, as measured by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, have stalled since 2019—and declines in security and rule of law are only accelerating. Corruption and authoritarianism—often shrouded by the pretended democracy of rigged elections, rubber-stamp legislatures, and kowtowing judiciaries—are widespread enough that an estimated half of Africans live in countries that Freedom House considers “not free”. Moreover, the destabilizing damage wreaked by unresponsive governance, including extreme poverty, festering political grievances, and widespread despair, has only been exacerbated by global catastrophes such as COVID-19, climate-related disasters, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The catastrophic multiplier of Africa’s governance failures—and the source of hope for solving them—is the continent’s massive, booming youth population, which by 2030 will constitute a projected 42 percent of the world’s young people. Where democratic openings allow, youth fuel civil society demands for change, as in the case of Nigeria’s 2020 protests against violence by state security forces, Ghana’s 2023 anticorruption rallies, and courageous grassroots pro-democracy movements in Burkina Faso in the mid-2010s and in Sudan beginning in 2018. But where corrupt authoritarianism blocks avenues for peaceful change, diverts national resources, and stifles economic opportunity, the despair of youth can ferment into a social explosive, erupting into extremism, secessionist movements, criminal gangsterism, and even military coups.

The chaos that has overtaken the Sahel illustrates both the continent’s rise in instability and the misguided nature of the international community’s military-dominated response. For over a decade, unresponsive, undemocratic governance has bred violent insurgencies throughout the region. Libya’s collapse in 2011 exacerbated communal and jihadi uprisings in nearby Mali that then spread into Burkina Faso and Niger. All told, the wave of coups, jihadi attacks, militia insurgencies, and civil warfare have since turned the Sahel into the global epicenter of terrorism, a crisis zone vastly larger and more populous than other areas of U.S. concern such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But the estimated $3.3 billion that the United States has spent on weapons, training, and other military aid to prevent or contain uprisings over the past 20 years has not addressed the root of the problem.

Instead, such U.S. aid has repeatedly enabled authoritarian regimes to wield deadlier force against civilians, heightening the violence. This aid has also tilted the balance of power away from civilian governments and toward militaries. Recent experience in the Sahel, as well as a 2017 study by scholars at the U.S. Naval War College, suggests an unsurprising outcome in countries where civilian governance is failing and foreign aid is focused on building military muscle: an increased chance of coups. Around the western Sahel, at least seven coups since 2012 were led by military officers or units that had received U.S. training—three in Mali, three in Burkina Faso, and one in Guinea.

By contrast, U.S. efforts to help Africans build the effective, democratic governance essential for political stability are marginal. Aid that is flagged for this purpose constitutes only five percent of the United States’ main development assistance spending for Africa, according to the Congressional Research Service. (Seventy percent of U.S. nonhumanitarian aid to Africa over the past decade has promoted health programs, overwhelmingly to counter HIV/AIDS.)

Since 2005, the United States has pursued a supposedly improved version of security assistance through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP). This program laudably checks some boxes for better policy. It aims to integrate defense, diplomacy, and development efforts across U.S. agencies. It operates regionally across 11 countries in northwestern Africa. And it works on a long timeline. But it suffers from uneven implementation, poor management of funds, and a lack of mechanisms to evaluate progress, according to assessments by the State Department and the General Accounting Office. A deeper problem is that the program remains a military-focused effort with a patchwork of development activities that do not seriously engage with the root problem of failed governance. Like France’s ill-fated nine-year military mission in Mali—Operation Barkhane, which ended with France’s withdrawal in 2022—the TSCTP has never been a real partnership with Africans that they could help to shape and direct. Rather, it follows the pattern of almost all Western assistance, treating the Africans it purports to help as passive recipients of foreign-designed programs.

This absence of Western-African partnership does not simply permit policies to miss their target; it guarantees it. The misplaced focus on military responses to governance-induced upheaval has coincided with an increase in violence. In 2007, in the early years of the TSCTP, the Sahel suffered one percent of the world’s terrorism-related deaths. Over 15 years, those fatalities surged tenfold to constitute 43 percent of the world’s total, according to the Global Terrorism Index. The military forces on which the West has showered training and equipment helped accelerate this collapse in security with abuses of civilians that human rights monitors say may amount to war crimes—and, since 2020, with coups d’état.

The risk of instability and military takeover extends beyond the Sahel to other African countries where the West has tolerated venal and autocratic rule. Many countries suffering from worsening security fall within France’s traditional sphere of influence, known as Françafrique. In September 2023, for example, a junta ousted President Ali Bongo of Gabon—whose family had ruled the country for 55 years with France’s support, hollowing out democratic institutions such as elections, parliament, the judiciary, and news media that help form a buffer against military coups. The coup in Gabon and turbulence in other countries that faced no extremist uprising, such as Gambia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, underscore that Africa’s true root of instability is not jihadism, but corrupt, authoritarian governments.

PARTNERS, NOT RECIPIENTS

To help end the continent’s coups, extremist movements, and other democratic erosions, Western policymakers must work with African partners to address each country’s specific failures of governance. But even as states will require different policy prescriptions, several principles will apply universally.

First, Western governments must collaborate as partners with their African counterparts. U.S. and European governments’ efforts to promote democracy in Africa are hampered by those governments’ remove from the continent and their long association with often brutal forms of authoritarian rule—as colonizers, patrons of dictators, or both. To help stabilize countries facing coups, the United States and its allies must build relationships with African peers and neighbors that can lead interventions with diplomacy, sanctions, and other steps to prevent coups. Western partners’ own diplomacy must amplify the peer influence of individual African states, regional blocs such as ECOWAS, and religious and cultural leaders.

Since 1990, ECOWAS has used mediation, political and economic sanctions, and even armed peacekeeping operations to calm or prevent violent conflicts, including insurgencies and coups. But its failure to prevent the recent spread of violence across the Sahel—and the recent announcement that Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger plan to withdraw from the bloc—underscores its current limitations. The West can bolster ECOWAS and other regional institutions that have a demonstrated interest in countering coups by helping them create standing capacities and processes for mediation and intervention. Strengthening ECOWAS would also help rebuild its credibility with citizens across West Africa.

Second, U.S. and European governments must offer a new type of pro-democracy security assistance that improves not just the kinetic capacities of security forces but also their governance and culture, to ensure that they protect human rights and adhere to the laws of war. The TSCTP’s monitoring and evaluation was inadequate and should be overhauled, in part by applying a full range of accountability tools now used in development aid, including public budget reviews, conditioning of aid delivery on prior performance, and phone apps to expand citizens’ ability to report abuses. Western donors must more rigorously condition their aid on the good governance of security forces. The African Union and the continent’s regional blocs must also lead in developing regional mechanisms to mutually reinforce good security governance, the protection of human rights, and efforts to combat corruption—even within military regimes. The European Union is in an especially strong position to support this effort, given its long experience in building regionwide civilian-military coordination.

Third, Western countries must boost their practical support for democratic institutions across Africa—legislatures, electoral systems, judiciaries, free media, and civil society—to make both the executive branches of government and the security forces more accountable. They should craft this support using models such as the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, which engages local counterparts as full co-designers of each project. Western governments could also enhance the role played by civil society leaders when Western officials convene with African partners by, for example, giving these leaders a platform in direct meetings and dialogues with their government officials. These types of symbolic gestures would indicate that Western allies are paying attention to the country as a whole, not only to people with government credentials.

Where failed governance has dissipated public trust or ignited violent conflict, Western partners should support sustained negotiations—formal national dialogues that involve all local communities—as a vital reset tool. Even if such dialogues are only partly successful, they can help push authoritarian regimes toward compromise. In Chad, for instance, the military-led government arrested and exiled political dissidents during the country’s 2022 dialogue, but it has since appointed an opposition leader as prime minister for its planned transition to elected rule. The United States and its partners should lend diplomatic and technical support to help African countries and regional communities facilitate these dialogues and mediation efforts.

Fourth, Western governments should offer African partners the prospect of greater Western investment as an incentive to embark on reforms toward more transparency and rule of law. This could powerfully accelerate democratization by expanding economic growth, employment, and human security. The U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act, a trade initiative enacted in 2000 aimed at bolstering growth and encouraging economic and political reform, has shown how investment can lift Africans, especially women and youth, out of poverty—but it expires next year. For Washington to credibly show Africans the commitment to partnership that it declared in its 2022 summit, it must frame new trade and investment vehicles before the AGOA expires. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation should bolster its lending in Africa and its engagement with potential partners in Africa. The European Union, for its part, should accelerate its Global Gateway program, which has made a start on its promise in 2022 to invest 150 billion Euros in African public and private infrastructures. The G-7 countries, with U.S. leadership, should make Africa a priority in their Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which plans to spend $600 billion on projects related to climate resilience, energy security, technology, and health by 2027. These efforts all must operate as partnerships with African governments and businesses as full co-designers.

COUP CRISIS MANAGEMENT

During a coup’s critical first hours, as armed juntas are scrambling to establish control, governments and international institutions frequently respond in confused, unhelpful ways. In August 2023, for instance, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, speaking as the chair of the West African bloc ECOWAS, issued a premature and ineffectual threat of military action against Niger's junta, while other governments were pursuing diplomatic strategies. To prevent such disorganized responses, Western partners should work with African governments and regional bodies such as ECOWAS in building capacities and systems for immediate, coordinated action against coups. These crisis interventions should identify and target a junta’s weaknesses and marshal immediate, unified warnings of the resistance it will face if it persists. Such a swift response could press juntas to stand down or concede a short-term transition back to elected civilian rule. Moreover, these coordination systems should work proactively to prevent coups by responding to events—such as stolen elections or rulers’ abrogations of constitutional term limits—that often trigger them.

Such interventions should maximize the scale and unity of opposition both within a country facing a coup and in the surrounding region. A large-scale unified response is essential in part because countercoup efforts may face obstacles including opportunistic terrorist groups, local militias, and foreign proxy forces such as Russia’s Wagner paramilitary company. African and Western governments must therefore be ready to engage not only a junta and its supporting forces but also local officials, civil society groups, and religious and community leaders. They should recruit support from the target country’s business community, which often is overlooked but is a natural ally, since coups frequently trigger economic setbacks.

Africa’s population growth, its vulnerability to climate degradation and mass migration, and its economic potential multiply the global stakes for the continent’s future. Its stability will be determined by Africans’ opportunities to build the democracies that opinion research consistently shows they strongly desire. For the foreseeable future, unresponsive governments, broken economies, and despairing, youthful populations suggest that many African nations will remain prone to coups, violence, and political instability. Yet a Western shift to full partnership with Africans, and an overdue pivot from military-led aid to promoting governance that meets Africans’ needs, can advance stability in a continent that will heavily determine the world’s prospects for peace and freedom in the coming century.

Joseph Sany is Vice President of the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. Kehinde Togun is Managing Director for Public Engagement at Humanity United.

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