Rising social and economic stresses have eroded public confidence in institutions of democratic governance around the world.  In many countries, this has led to an increase in riots and protests.  In some countries, this has galvanized populist or autocratic movements.  In West and Central Africa, this has translated into a spate of coups d’états, at a rate unseen since before the adoption of the Lomé Declaration in July 2000, which banned coups and adopted sanctions against regimes that had taken power through a coup.[1]  Since the beginning of 2021, there have been military seizures of power in Chad, Guinea, Mali (twice), Sudan and (in early 2022) Burkina Faso.  In March 2021, a coup attempt was reportedly foiled in Niger, days before the inauguration of the President.  The cases of Guinea and Mali are illustrative of this broader trend.

In Guinea, a year of violent protests was triggered by a constitutional referendum which allowed Alpha Condé to run for a third term in office, and contested legislative elections in which Condé’s party, the Rally of the Guinean People (RPG), won a majority of seats.  As demonstrations spread rapidly across the country,[2] on September 5, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya appeared on state television to announce that President Alpha Condé had been detained and the constitution dissolved.

On May 24, 2021, only a few months prior to Guinea’s coup, neighboring Mali also experienced a military takeover, its second in 9 months. On that occasion, Malian soldiers arrested transitional President Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane on charges that they were preparing a government reshuffle without informing Vice-President Colonel Assimi Goïta.[3]  Colonel Goïta had only just come into power on August 18, 2020, after overthrowing then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, commonly referred to as IBK. The May coup in Mali followed three months of protests led by the June 5 Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP), which disputed the legislative elections that took place in April without opposition leader Soumaila Cissé who had been kidnapped by armed groups.[4]  When IBK’s party won 51 out of 147 seats, there was immediate contestation of the results with charges that they were fabricated.[5]

This occurred in the context of a long and growing security crisis since the early 2012 with the rebellion of a Tuareg separatist group, taking over territory in the north and the rise of Islamist militant groups. In 2013, the French military intervened under what was named Operation Barkhane to stop those Islamist groups from reaching the center of the country, and the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was created to combat extremism in the region. However, despite international involvement the spread of militancy continued.[6]

According to Afrobarometer, most Guineans and Malians, in theory, prefer democracy to other systems of government.[7]  However public confidence in democratic institutions is low, with the majority of Malians, 82%, trusting the military, while only 47% express trust in the President.[8]  Consequently, popular expressions of support for the coups were effusive in both countries.

Both countries had been at a point in time, considered to be success stories for democratic governance in Africa.  When Alpha Condé was first elected in 2010, Guinea had experienced 50 years of repressive authoritarian rule, was impoverished and economically isolated. Condé’s election was widely regarded as Guinea’s first democratic presidential election, and it sparked hope that the country was on its path towards democratic consolidation.  Before the Tuareg rebellion in 2012, Mali had been seen as a shining light for democracy in an unstable region since 1991, when students successfully marched for an end to one-party rule.

However, pressure has been rising for the last 15 years. According to the FSI, the indicators for State Legitimacy and Group Grievance have both been steadily worsening in Guinea and Mali since 2005.  An expanding security crisis in Mali and a crisis of legitimacy in Guinea combined with rising challenges in 2020 and a contagion effect of coups in the wider region, tipped the scales in 2021.

Guinea’s coup was immediately condemned by regional actors and the entire international community, including the United States, the United Nations, and the African Union. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) showed its strong disapproval towards the military coup, suspended Guinea’s membership from the regional bloc, and imposed sanctions on the junta regime.[9]  Following Mali’s first coup, the African Union suspended the country’s membership to the union while ECOWAS suspended Mali from its internal decision-making bodies. The coup was also largely condemned by the international community, including the United States and the United Nations.[10]

As important as sweeping condemnations of coups may be to reinforce international norms and standards, statements and sanctions do little to address the stresses and pressures that contribute to a breakdown in public confidence and cause people to lose hope in democratic governance in the first place.  In addition to condemnation, there is much work to be done.

In Guinea, the ‘Conseil National de Transition’ (CNT), or transition party, is in place and in charge of the organization of the general elections and the constitution building process. In addition, civilian Prime Minister Mohamed Béavogui was appointed on October 6, 2021. Finally, positive efforts from Guinean authorities to rebuild relationships with ECOWAS and the international community have been observed, such as the creation of a court to prosecute economic and financial crimes, and a vetting of lists of civil servants and senior military officers, among others.[11]  However, at the time of writing, Guinea has not yet held elections within 6 months of the coup as mandated ECOWAS.

In Mali, the head of the transition government, Colonel Goïta, announced that he will provide ECOWAS with an election timetable by the end of January and will meet the 27 February deadline for elections in the country.[12] However, on February 21, 2022, Mali’s interim Parliament Council voted to allow the military government to govern for up to five years. On 14 December, French forces left the city of Timbuktu after nine years of military intervention aiming to push back armed groups.[13] In an effort to diversify their national security partners, the Malian government is in talks with, among others, the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, which some have observed may have fewer democratic scruples, themselves.

Looking ahead, many difficult decisions will need to be made that will take political courage on the part of leadership at all levels of society.  But perhaps Mali can look back to its own history to a time when it, however improbably, succeeded in breaking the vicious cycle in 1991. Otherwise, if the established consensus becomes that the promise of inclusive and representative governance is too good to be true, then the only currency left is power and subjugation.


[1] Souaré, I. (2014). The African Union as a norm entrepreneur on military coups d’état in Africa (1952–2012): An empirical assessment. The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 52(1), pp. 69-94. https://doi:10.1017/S0022278X13000785

[2] AlJazeera News (2021) ECOWAS suspends Guinea after coup, says it will send mediators. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/8/west-african-bloc-suspends-guineas-membership-following-coup

[3] European Parliament (2021) Mali: yet another coup. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2021/690671/EPRS_ATA(2021)690671_EN.pdf

[4] USIP (2020) Five Things to Know About Mali’s Coup. https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/08/five-things-know-about-malis-coup

[5] SIPRI (2020) Mali’s transition: High expectations and little time. https://www.sipri.org/commentary/blog/2020/malis-transition-high-expectations-and-little-time

[6] Center for Preventive Action (2022) Instability in Mali. Accessed at: https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/destabilization-mali

[7] Afro Barometer (2021) Guineans strongly prefer democracy to any other regime but want

the president limited to two terms. Accessed at: https://www.afrobarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/migrated/files/press-release/Guinea/news_release-guineans_prefer_democracy-7sept21.pdf

[8] Afro Barometer (2020) Malians, though eager for change from failing

state and economy, still demand democracy. Accessed at: https://www.afrobarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/migrated/files/publications/Dispatches/ad386-malians_eager_for_change_still_look_to_democracy-afrobarometer_dispatch-25aug20.pdf

[9] Al Jazeera News (2021) Uncertainty in Guinea after military coup removes Alpha Conde. Accessed at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/11/uncertainty-in-guinea-after-military-coup-topples-alpha-conde

[10] Al Jazeera News (2020) Mali military coup: How the world reacted. Accessed at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/8/19/mali-military-coup-how-the-world-reacted

[11] https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/12/guineas-lesson-strengthening-democracy-use-peer-power

[12] Al Jazeera News (2021) Mali’s leader promises election timetable by New Year. Accessed at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/12/malis-leader-promises-election-timetable-by-new-year

[13] Al Jazeera News (2021) French forces leave Mali’s Timbuktu after nearly nine years. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/15/french-forces-leave-malis-timbuktu-after-nearly-9-years

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