Documents to download

In the last three years, military coups have forcibly removed the elected presidents of Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger from office.

Rise in number of coups

There have been six successful and two attempted coups in West Africa since 2020. A study by two US researchers, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, shows there has been a decline in the number of coups across Africa since 2000, compared with the high numbers in the second half of the last century when many countries were gaining independence from colonial rulers. However, the number of coups in the last few years has increased.

Every coup is different and driven by each country’s own domestic circumstances. However, recent analysis from Saferworld, a non-governmental organisation focused on conflict prevention, suggests governance failures and ongoing insecurity are major contributing factors.

State of democracy

In 2020, Freedom House, a non-governmental organisation which tracks democracy worldwide, said the region with the fastest decline in political rights and civil liberties was West Africa.

The decline has led some commentators to question the underlying strength of democracy and democratic institutions in some countries on the continent. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has called on fellow West African leaders to “strengthen our democratic institutions and ensure the respect for human rights and the rule of law” to help prevent further coups.

Opinion polls show declining satisfaction with the way democracy is working across Africa. Joseph Asunka, the head of the Ghana-based research network Afrobarometer, says the failures of governments and elected leaders to meet popular democratic aspirations have “led to a decline in popular confidence in democratic governance and an increasing attraction to military rule and intervention”.

Concerns that insecurity could spread

The Sahel region is the “epicentre of terrorism” worldwide, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, which measures the impact of terrorism globally. The institute found that nearly half of deaths globally caused by terrorism were in the Sahel. The Sahel region stretches across Africa and includes the West African states of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

UK ministers and regional officials have been warning of the risk that insecurity in the Sahel could spread to West African coastal states. In 2022, James Heappey, the Armed Forces Minister, talked about the risk of “contagion” of insecurity in Mali into coastal states in West Africa, including Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. UK armed forces were deployed to Mali with the UN peacekeeping mission from 2020 to 2022.

The top UN official in the region has said “the southward expansion of insecurity [from the Sahel] remains a potent threat. Following the coup in Niger, Abdel-Fatau Musah, the commissioner for political affairs, peace and security for the Economic Community of West Africa States, said the bloc was concerned about “contagion” of coups to other countries in the region.

Regional and international response to the coups

The UK Government has condemned the forceful removal from office of leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger. The Government has endorsed an African and regionally led approach to helping these countries return to democratic and constitutional order.

ECOWAS has suspended all four countries and imposed sanctions, among other actions. ECOWAS has taken a notably stronger line in response to coups since Nigerian President Tinubu became its chair in early July 2023. At a meeting in August, ECOWAS heads of state agreed to activate its standby force, although so far it has not taken the step of intervening militarily.

The number of coups in Francophone countries in recent years, and the anti-French sentiment expressed by coup leaders and in public demonstrations, has also prompted a fresh look at the legacy of French colonial rule in West Africa.

About this paper

For the purposes of this paper, West Africa is defined as the fifteen members of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo. The paper briefly surveys recent political developments in these countries.

Documents to download

Related posts