Development Discourse with Amos Safo: Assessing the impact of military coups in West Africa 

Development Discourse with Amos Safo: Assessing the impact of military coups in West Africa

Once more West Africa is in the news; obviously, for the wrong reasons. This follows a military coup, or to put it better the ‘house arrest’ of Professor Alpha Conde by his own ‘loyal’ forces. After changing the constitution to give himself a third term, President Alpha Conde formed two military groups – the Republican Army and the Presidential Guard – and populated both strategic forces with his own ‘boys’ consolidate his power. Unfortunately for Prof. Conde, it was his own ‘boys’ who betrayed the trust he reposed in them by deposing him and dissolving the Constitution on September 5, 2021.

The Guinea coup comes against the background of an earlier coup in Mali during 2020. Amid intractable Islamist insurgencies in Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, West Africa goes into the record as the most unstable sub-region in Africa.


Experts say the current situation in West Africa is the combination of various social, political and economic factors which need urgent attention. Harsh economic and social conditions, widespread corruption, conflict and post-conflict scenarios, and a growing culture of impunity may be the impetus for the resurgence of criminal gangs in West Africa.

Small wonder that West Africa has been described as the most coup-ridden sub-region in the world, with piracy in the Gulf of Guinea emerging as the biggest threat to economic stability. Another reason for the rise of criminal gangs and, perhaps, military coups is that many West African leaderships have been reluctant to enact and implement legislation that promotes inclusive policies to address widening poverty.

According to the United Nations 2011 Report, the 16 ECOWAS states are among the poorest countries on the planet, and 13 of them are among the top-50 poorest countries of the world.  Foreign literature relating to military coups d’état in West Africa’s first three post-independence decades have been nothing short of disappointing.

Grinding poverty, military coups d’état, political autocracy, widespread corruption and foreign meddling have all turned the dreams of an economically integrated and politically united West Africa into a living nightmare for most of its citizens.

The negative impact of military coups on social-economic development of the sub-region cannot be quantified, much as the phenomenon is very disturbing. Several coups and counter-coups have fuelled civil wars in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and Guinea Bissau, devastating their weak economies in the process. I

n fact, the Mano-River enclave (covering Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone) is the most volatile and unstable part of West Africa – for which reason the international community should help resolve the crisis of leadership and worsening poverty.


In the immediate post-colonial period in Africa, coups d’état occurred in many parts of Africa from East to North, from West to South. This phenomenon in the post-independence phase was blamed on outside intervention during the Cold War. The unconstitutional regime changes seemed to have reduced at the end of the Cold War when many African states embraced democracy, organized elections and acceded to international human rights laws and other international norms and principles.

However, in the past two decades, unconstitutional regime changes and ‘constitutional crises’ have gradually crept back into the African political sphere, occurring in Madagascar, Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania. African regional and sub-regional organisations have been confounded by this renewed trend. Since unconstitutional regime change can no longer be blamed on external actors and external interests, what accounts for this recent surge in military coups?

To the extent that large segments of the population in Africa remain poor, and faith in the ability of democratic regimes to improve living standards and provide security weakens, military interventions are once more becoming a plausible alternative. This is where the danger is. Many regime changes in the past became successful because of the level of popular support, especially at the local level.

However, is public opinion and support enough justification for organising a coup? At least in Guinea we saw the impoverished people jubilating over the military takeover, as if the coup-makers were suddenly going to drop manna from heaven. In all coups across West Africa the military often promise butter and bread, but only offer ‘snakes’.

This raises questions about the options citizens have when they are unable to use democratic means to remove undemocratic leaders like Alpha Conde. The lack of options often results in both open and tacit support for unconstitutional changes. But this should not be the only solution for removing autocratic rulers.

The Role of ECOWAS

Recent coups in West Africa have been organised ostensibly with the intention of reforming a weakened democracy that has supposedly been corrupted by ruling civilian elites. This raises questions concerning the military’s interpretation of their role as protectors of the Constitution.

Commentary on the instability in Guinea generally accused Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leaders of failing to advise its own members to abide by constitutional provisions of two-terms for the countries. Some security analysts argue that AU and ECOWAS leaders tend to be more reactive to coups than being proactive and preventive.

Thus, ECOWAS and the AU protocols must be reviewed to address the symptoms and root cause of military coups, rather than imposing sanctions when coups occur. On the other hand, if ECOWAS leaders respect their constitutional processes, the military would be compelled to stay in their barracks.

In its Protocol Relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security of 1999, and the Supplementary Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy of 2001, EOCWAS reiterated its commitment to ensure that “every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections”. ECOWAS also asserted its “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”.

According to the protocol, ECOWAS has several options when confronted with unconstitutional changes of government. Key among these options are:

  • Imposition of sanctions, such as refusal to support the candidature presented by the member-state for elective posts
  • Suspension of the member-state from all ECOWAS decision-making bodies. For example, after the 12 April 2012 military coup in Guinea-Bissau ECOWAS imposed diplomatic, economic and financial sanctions on the country after talks on returning the country to constitutional rule within 12 months failed to reach an agreement. It has done the same to the military leaders of Mali, and now Guinea. But how productive are these sanctions, considering that it is the poor in those countries who mostly suffer.
  • (3) Similar sanctions were imposed on Mali after the military coup in March 2012 and the recent 2020 coup. In addition, ECOWAS is also mandated to support processes toward the restoration of political authority, and such support will include the preparation, organisation, monitoring and management of the electoral processes.
  • ECOWAS can also apply intense political and diplomatic pressure on member-states to ensure that any attempt at perpetuating unconstitutional rule by a sitting regime can be prevented. This was the case in Niger and Senegal when President Mamadou Tandja and President Abdoulaye Wade wanted to change the Constitution of their countries to allow themselves a third term in office.  Through intense regional diplomatic pressure, these presidents exited office after their two terms in power; thus averting potential crises.

The ECOWAS interventions in Niger and Senegal were in line with the AU’s principle of rejecting unconstitutional changes of government, as stipulated in Article 4(p) of the Constitutive Act of 2000. So, why did Alpha Conde of Guinea and Alassane Quattara of La Cote d’Ivoire succeed in changing their Constitutions to run for a third term?  We pray that Cote d’Ivoire will never return to its destructive past (2000-2010), and Allassane  Quattara will be prevailed on never to exceed his current  third term. AU and ECOWAS leaders must also keep a close eye on what is emerging as a dynasty in Togo. It is unacceptable for one family to claim the divine right to rule a country forever.

If what happened in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea is to be taken seriously, the agreed standard of rejecting unconstitutional changes of government faces even bigger challenges. The implication is that the rules for rejecting unconstitutional changes of government can be applied differently. If ECOWAS is inconsistent with application of the norm, the consequences of any member-state contravening this principle will become irrelevant, and therefore be ignored.

Having enjoyed power for long periods of time, the military in West Africa has found it a challenge to remain under civilian control.  A positive trend, however, is that in some states of West Africa, such as Ghana, the military have been disciplined and remained in their barracks since 1992. However, these recent events indicate that there is a re-emergence of the phenomenon – at least in Mali and Guinea.

Sustaining stability in Ghana

I have heard some politicians make misguided statements, like since there was a Ghana-Guinea-Mali union in the past and there is instability in the latter countries, Ghana must also be destabilised. This is a dangerous, disingenuous and unpatriotic suggestion for any Ghanaian to make. Ghana experienced coups in 1966, 1972, 1979 and 1981, and in all those interventions the ruling elites only succeeded in changing power from one set of hands to another – leaving the economy in a terrible condition to the detriment of the poor. Arguably, Ghana’s current economic backwardness is largely attributable to past military interventions.

The politicians who are dreaming of a military coup in Ghana should be reminded that the conditions in Guinea which warranted the intervention are non-existent in Ghana. Ghana has a functional political system (based on separation of powers), a strong economy (in spite of COVID-19) and a vibrant media that holds the government accountable.  Never again should Ghanaians allow a few self-seeking individuals or groups to influence the military to disrupt our enviable constitutional process.

The 1992 Constitution makes elaborate provisions for change of power through general elections every four years. Anyone who claims to have the ‘divine right’ to be president must succumb to the electoral process and be duly elected by universal adult suffrage. Anything short of this should be appropriately dealt with by our competent and professional security forces. We cannot afford to allow this country to slip into the abyss because of one person’s hunger for power.

Our children and the youth need a peaceful and thriving environment to enjoy the Free Senior Secondary School Policy in order to develop their vocational and professional competence and be enabled to contribute in family, societal and national development. While the political elites have their ill-gotten wealth to take their children abroad to attend the best schools, the rest of us have no option than to educate our children in Ghana.

Ghana cannot and will not be sacrificed on the altar of inordinate ambition by a group of politicians to undermine the due constitutional process that all of us subscribe to. Currently, only Ghana appears to be an oasis of peace in a volatile sub region. We owe our children and their generations the duty of sustaining the current political and economic stability.


Birikorang, E. 2013. Coup d’état in Africa – A Thing of the Past? Kofi Annan International Peace Keeping Centre.

Ziankahn, DD. JR. 2001. The Impact of Military Coups D’etat on West Africa’s Socio-Economic and Political Development. A.M.E Zion University College, Monrovia.


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