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The military coups d’etat in Niger in July and Gabon last week, only a month later, are the latest iteration of a series of nine government outings across the so-called “arc of instability” of Africa’s central belt over the past three years. 

Though Africa has by far the world’s worst record for coups, with about 108 successful and a weirdly identical number failed since 1950, they have actually been relatively rare in the post-Soviet era as Cold War contestation ground to a halt. So the current rash of military seizures of power has taken many observers by surprise. 

The new chain of collapses started in Chad with the April 20 2021 military palace coup, which shoehorned in Mahamat Déby Itno after his father, Idriss Déby, died of wounds sustained in a battle against rebels.

This was then swiftly followed by the May 20 overthrow of Mali’s coup-installed transitional government by a Gen Assimi Goita, then the September 5 toppling of Guinea’s Alpha Condé, and the October 25 axing of Sudan’s postcoup power-sharing government. All this led to exasperated UN secretary-general António Guterres calling the trend an “epidemic” in which military leaders felt they had “total impunity”.

But the vaudeville still wasn’t over: the January 23 2022 coup in Burkina Faso, and this year’s July 26 coup in Niger and the August 30 drama in Gabon put presidents Roch Kabore, Mohamed Bazoum, and Ali Bongo Ondimba, respectively, out to pasture. 

According to a study by US professors Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, the number of attempted coups last rose sharply in 1991 in the immediate strategic disorientation and patronage vacuum caused by the collapse of the USSR. Seven plots died on the vine, with successes only in Mali and Lesotho, which ousted leaders Moussa Traoré and Justin Lekhanya, respectively.

Yet with four of the failures in Togo alone, 1991 is less of a watershed than it might appear at first. It is overshadowed by the welter of coups that broke out across the continent in 1966, of which only two in Sudan and one in the Democratic Republic of Congo failed, while an unsurpassed seven were successful: Central African Republic, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Nigeria, Ghana, Burundi, Nigeria again, and Burundi again. 

Detailed evolution

The common thread in all the successful putsches was the support of the military. Typically, militaries are able to wrench the levers of power not only because they are obviously the most heavily armed and better-funded forces — it helps to be able to take a tank to a knife-fight — but their political and strategic yet highly mobile nature puts them ahead of potential competitors such as more sedentary and locally focused gendarmerie, paramilitaries or criminal gangs. 

Nigerian-American academic Ebenezer Obadare detailed the evolution of Africa’s military putschists for the liberal, multimillion-dollar US think-tank Council on Foreign Relations just two days before the Gabon coup, as consisting of “three, progressively deteriorating, generational lines”.

The first generation of coup leaders in the immediate postindependence era, he contends, “comprised ‘officer-gentlemen’ who, on the whole, were more educated, more polished, more articulate, and, for all intents and purposes, closer to the classic ideal of a military officer ... this family of putschists was drawn largely from the upper echelons of the military.” 

This was followed by coups initiated by a generation of “underprofessionalised” men, a “semi-organised, rugged, and semi-literate soldiery”, which formed a unique new African class, wittily termed the “lumpen militariat” by Kenya’s Ali Mazrui in an influential 1973 paper.

Obadare argues that the current crop of adventurists are cruder and even less accountable: he terms them the “gangsta militariat, all swagger, dark goggles, and combat gloves” — affecting an “American gangsta” aesthetic, the godfather of which, he suggests, was the Nigerian strongman Gen Sani Abacha with his perpetual Pinochet-like sunshades. These pretenders spout “the now standard denunciation of ‘Western neocolonialism’ and a promise to impose law and order amid chronic instability and lawlessness.”

He says that what links these three degenerating lines is “a delusional saviour complex whereby military intervention in politics is whitewashed as a nationalistic rescue effort, which is then used to sanction the illegitimate deployment of legitimate violence”.

Gangsta militariat

The central Sahel and Forest belts of Africa are now more coup-prone, it is argued, because they count among the world’s poorest countries, whose governments have signally failed to deal not only with gross inequalities and ethnic tensions, but with the new armed threat of Christian and Islamic fundamentalist insurgencies.

Obadare claims the “gangsta militariat ... is the logical outcome of the African military’s involvement in politics, insofar as the latter has resulted in the militarisation of politics, the politicisation of the military, and subsequently the deprofessionalisation of the armed forces”.

Not all gun-barrel regime changes are created equal: the one in Niger ousted an incumbent who was a key French ally in the Sahel against the Salafist insurgency. He had done a plausibly decent job in adverse conditions. The one in Gabon cut down the scion of the world’s longest-ruling non-royal, the ardent Francophile Omar Bongo, who dominated the petrostate for almost 42 years until his death in 2009. This effectively ended a dynasty, though Ali Bongo had been democratically elected to succeed his father. 

Yet the question arises: who trained these military cadres and what principles were instilled in them? For the first generation in particular, one has to cast an eye on the French, for they left a dark legacy of intervening in their former colonies. Some coups were executed by former Foreign Legionnaires such as that in 1966 by Jean-Bédel Bokassa who went on to notorious levels of insanity as the self-proclaimed Central African “emperor”.

But in recent years, the Quai d’Orsay has attempted to modernise France’s paternalistic chasse privée (private hunting-ground) relationship with francophone Africa, returning stolen items of cultural heritage, ameliorating financial controls through ending the West African CFA franc in favour of an Ecowas “eco” currency by 2027, and reducing its military presence. 

The US has stepped into the military gap. This engagement is lead by the US department of defence’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), founded in Washington DC in 1999, which established regional offices in Addis Ababa and Dakar. In 2007 it began working with the US’s newly established Africa Command (Africom), one of six US macro-geographic combat commands. 

Nato doctrine

The layer of any military that is most likely to attempt to overthrow their own governments are in the field officer band — lieutenant-colonels to brigadiers — because they are most likely to have their hopes of advancement stymied by old-guard generals, and because they are able to mobilise forces at brigade level. And the types of soldiers most likely to seize the presidential palace are special forces operators, paratroopers, and presidential guards. 

This layer and those specialities are particularly targeted by an ACSS course called “The Next Generation of African Military Leaders”, in parallel to the Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance (Acota) programme of peacekeeper and offensive training, aimed at integrating African armed forces into Nato doctrine and US strategic objectives.

Among the 25 countries that have Acota chapters, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Gabon have recently fallen to military rule (SA quietly signed on in 2005, but its general stability and tradition of military loyalty make it a highly unlikely coup risk). 

Acota’s first operations director, Col Nestor Pino-Marina, who died in 2013, was a former special forces operator with combat experience in Vietnam, involved in the failed Bay of Pigs coup in Cuba in 1961 and with the Contras in Nicaragua. He sat on the Cuban-American Military Council, a shadowy yet legal outfit within the US military tasked with installing a military regime in Cuba. 

American investigative journal The Intercept revealed in 2020 that despite Africom’s claim that it had a “light footprint” in Africa, there was in fact an archipelago of 27 US military bases spread around, including “enduring” airbases 101 at Niamey and 201 at Agadez in Niger (the latter a 25km², $110m drone base), at Libreville in Gabon, and at Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and “contingency” bases at Arlit, Dirkou, Diffa, and Oullam in Niger, and at Bamako in Mali. 

US special forces fought alongside Niger’s 51st Special Intervention Brigade operating in the Lake Chad region out of Diffa and trained a counter-terrorism force in Arlit. Yet the concentrated presence in Niger, with about 1,000 US troops, 1,500 French troops — many of the French withdrawn from Burkina Faso and Mali after the coups there — and 63 military trainers from the EU, has created a unique situation, with the West “enlaagered” as the coup leaders denounce their presence. 

How Western counterterrorism initiatives in the Sahel resolve themselves, when they find themselves pitted against their own “gangsta militariat” trainees, remains to be seen.

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