Four coups in West Africa leave doubts over return to democracy

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Army officers have seized power in the West African states of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso since 2020, in a sharp setback for democracy in the region.

The ruling juntas in all three countries have announced transition periods during which they aim to complete reforms before staging democratic elections.

However, there are doubts about their true willingness to cede power.

The 15-nation ECOWAS bloc — of which Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso are members — has responded to the coups with a light touch in some cases, and severe sanctions in others.

Four coups
The first of the four military coups in the ECOWAS bloc occurred in August 2020, when army officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita deposed elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, after months of growing popular discontent with his rule.

Goita installed an interim government led by civilians. But in May 2021, he deposed those civilian leaders — in a second coup. He was later sworn in as interim president himself.

The next coup came in neighbouring Guinea in September 2021, when Colonel Mamady Doumbouya ousted elected president Alpha Conde, who had provoked mass protests by seeking a controversial third term in office.

Then in January 2022, Burkina Faso’s Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba seized power after two days of army mutinies amid frustration with the jihadist conflict, deposing elected president Roch Marc Christian Kabore. Damiba was sworn in as interim president on February 16.

Ceding power
The new military leaders of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have all promised to hand power back to civilians.

In a script common to all three countries, their militaries have also drawn up a “transition charter” intended as a founding act for the period before elections are held.

Ruling army officers in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have also installed prime ministers and unelected parliaments — which remain tightly controlled.

In Mali and Guinea, the juntas have both promised to hand control over to civilians after staging elections.

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Under pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mali pledged to hold a vote in February 2022. But it reneged on that promise, suggesting a transition period of up to five years.

In Guinea, Doumbouya has so far refused to commit to an election timetable. He says the National Council — the unelected interim legislature — will set the date.

Burkina Faso’s Damiba has established a transition period of three years before pledging to restore the “constitutional order”.

ECOWAS response
The response from ECOWAS to the wave of coups has varied, influenced by the interests of its members and the international context, among other factors.

The United States and European Union have backed ECOWAS in its moves. As has France, the former colonial power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

With Mali, ECOWAS first slapped sanctions on leading junta members. Then in January, it shut its borders with the country, froze its assets at the Central Bank of West African States and imposed a trade embargo.

The tough sanctions came in response to the Malian junta’s broken promise on holding swift elections.

Guinea has been suspended from ECOWAS, leading junta members have been sanctioned and are subject to a travel ban within the bloc.

So far, Burkina Faso has just been suspended from ECOWAS, without further punishment.

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