Why Are There So Many Coups in West Africa?

It isn't polite to generalize but let's face it: West Africa has a coup problem.

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It isn't polite to generalize but let's face it: West Africa has a coup problem. Today, in the latest development in Guinea-Bissau's coup, the military said it wouldn't release the country's interim president until "conditions allow." Reuters also reports that the African Union has suspended the country's membership. Last month, another coup rocked neighboring Mali and the junta continues to cling to power.

More broadly, in the last 60 years, the region has seen more than 40 coups. Is there a reason West Africa has so many coups?

It's complicated Most scholars are reluctant to draw broad conclusions about the region's instability issues. “We must be careful of making sweeping generalizations, each coup is a product of a particular circumstance and it is risky to generalize,” John Campbell, an African specialist at the Council of Foreign Relations said recently. Especially, in the case of Mali's and Guinea-Bissau's recent coups. "Although Mali and Guinea-Bissau are very close to each other geographically and they had coups within weeks of each other, their two upheavals are very different," writes Global Post's Andrew Meldrum. "In Mali, some mid-ranking military officers overturned an established democracy that had been functioning for 20 years. Guinea-Bissau, on the other hand, has had so many coups that no one of its presidents has completed a full term in office since the country became independent in 1974."

A tolerance of military coups Today, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene tackles the issue of military coups for the BBC and says Ecowas, a West African regional group that works toward civility, bears some blame for the legacy of coups in the region. "When Ecowas was formed in 1975, the majority of its members states had military heads of state - and a new coup leader was therefore warmly welcomed at meetings, without anybody batting an eyelid," she writes. "I recollect only one occasion when a coup-maker was told he was not welcome. That was when Nigeria's then-President Shehu Shagari would not tolerate the presence at an Ecowas meeting in Togo's capital, Lome, of Liberia's Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe - who had arrived with the blood of his putsch fresh on his hands." Still, Ecowas has changed a lot since then, she notes, and recently has come out strong against the coups in the region.

Instability can breed instability While not remarking on the root cause of West African coups, author Felicity Duncan at Money Web notes that instability can be contagious and spread across borders. "Mali and Guinea-Bissau are almost neighbors, and both are also close to the ever-roiling Côte d'Ivoire (Mali and Côte d'Ivoire share a border), which experienced a spasm of violence last year when incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo lost to Alassane Ouattara and refused to step down," she writes. "The last thing that Africa needs is for chaos to spread through that region again; fresh violence in Côte d'Ivoire could destabilise Chad (it’s happened before), and could spread into the always-volatile region around the Congo and the Sudan – especially since Sudan is still dealing with the secession of South Sudan. So, although there’s no statistical reason to be anxious, there’re practical reasons to worry about volatility in West Africa." On the upside, she examines a database of West African coups since the 1990s and finds that the phenomenon is at least trending downward. "According to the trend line in the chart, the number of coups and attempted coups in the region has been heading slowly downward over this period – I ran a quick statistical test to confirm this, and found that, indeed, the overall trend has been for the number of in Africa coups to decline slightly every year," she writes.

Mosquitoes? Half joking, half serious, Ohene throws her hands up offering one more hypothesis: "I have tried - without success - to work out why the region provided such fertile ground for coups," she writes. "I wondered if the mosquito and malaria had anything to do with it. Remember, this part of Africa was supposed to have been the white man's grave - and it certainly saved us from a certain type of colonial experience." Still, she says the region is working toward a more hostile outlook toward coups, as evidenced by the strong backlash to Mali's coup. "Ecowas now issues a statement condemning a coup even before the troop movements have settled. As Captain Sanogo in Mali has learnt, this neighbourhood has developed zero tolerance for coups," she writes. "The chaps in Bissau will also learn, eventually."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.