In July and August of 2023 alone, two coups occurred in Africa, one in Niger and another in Gabon. The unfolding weakening of the global order and the escalation of global rivalries are providing fertile ground for political instability on the continent, which is once again becoming the arena for the ambitions of new great and middle powers. The grounds for African coups lies in the weakness of political institutions and economic development. However, perhaps equally important is the international context. In the 1990s and 2000s, the number of attempts at violent regime change was decreasing, partly due to the influence of the African Union. However, in the 2010s, it began to rise again, coinciding with the growing influence of China and Russia on the continent. While China has emphasised economic cooperation, Russia has succeeded in its paramilitary presence, increasing the potential for unconstitutional and violent practices.
Recent events have led observers to talk of the emergence of a 'coup belt' across a vast area stretching from Sudan to Niger, where eight violent power takeovers have occurred in the last three years. According to The Economist, this trend reflects a global pattern: in 2021, the world witnessed more coups than in the previous five years combined. 2021 saw the highest number of successful coups in Africa since 1999, while the total number of attempts at unconstitutional regime change reached its highest level since 1991, according to the non-profit organisation, the African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD).
Researchers have traditionally cited a wide range of typically African problems as causes of instability: weak economic development and fragile governance institutions. However, until recently, these issues had not led to such a high number of coups, notes Theodore Murphy, the head of the African program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). What has changed? Murphy believes that the recent weakening of the global order, partly driven by Russia's actions, is contributing to the decline in political stability in the region.
Meanwhile, the US, preoccupied with its strategic rivalry with China, is dedicating less time and resources to values-based foreign policy. As a consequence, the maintenance of democracy in Africa has fallen off their list of priorities. Changes have also affected the regional integration organisation, the African Union (AU), which has begun to deviate from its own rules of requiring the unequivocal condemnation of coups and the imposition of sanctions, including the exclusion of regimes that come to power through violence. All coups in AU countries between 2004 and 2012 led to the suspension of the participation of new regimes in the organisation's work, and in half of cases, this eventually resulted in the removal of the junta from power. Researchers from ACCORD note that during the same period, the number of coup attempts on the continent decreased by almost 60%.
Recently, however, the organisation has become weaker in responding to cases of unconstitutional seizure or retention of power. For example, in 2009, they recognised General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz as the democratically elected leader of Mauritania, despite his involvement in the 2008 coup. In 2013, the AU labelled Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's ascent to power in Egypt as a coup and suspended the country from the organisation, but in 2014, they recognised him as the legitimate president, and Egypt rejoined the AU. A more recent example is Chad, where in 2021, after the longtime ruler Idriss Deby's death, his son seized power, leading the Transitional Military Council. The AU refused to classify this event as a coup, despite similar events in Togo in 2005, which resulted in the suspension of the country's membership in the AU. According to the researchers at ACCORD, this is a vivid illustration of the 'breakdown of consensus within the AU regarding unconstitutional changes of government.'
Against the backdrop of the erosion of the principles of the international order, reduced US attention to democracy in the region, and the inconsistent positions of regional players, the region is becoming an arena for middle powers (countries that are not superpowers but possess sufficient influence and international recognition). They present themselves as partners to coup leaders, notes Theodore Murphy. For the middle powers of the Middle East, including Egypt and Turkey, their ambitions are expressed in the fact that the countries of the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti) are seen as their immediate neighbours. Russia generally shares the motives of other middle powers in projecting and strengthening its influence, but it has an additional goal: to undermine the West’s positions on the continent. Coups, in this sense, create additional opportunities and define areas for Russia's most successful intervention. Murphy interprets Russia's actions in the Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad) through the lens of its confrontation with the West, as they challenge the strongest European influence in the region — French influence.
At present, Russia plays a significant role in the Horn of Africa and in the Sahel coup belt. Its presence is most noticeable in Mali and Burkina Faso, where Moscow, through its proxy forces, primarily the Wagner Group, provides security assistance and diplomatic and informational support to military regimes. For example Russian military 'advisors' arrived in Mali in late 2021 following the country's second military coup. Moscow provided the new regime with a contingent of 400 mercenaries to combat jihadist groups, and in mid-2022, it began to supply weapons. However, according to Carnegie, the security situation in Mali has continued to deteriorate, and the insurgent movement is spreading. In the spring of 2022, the Wagner Group and local armed forces conducted an 'anti-terrorism operation' in the country, resulting in the deaths of about 400 civilians. Civilian casualties in the country have disproportionately increased since the arrival of Russian mercenaries. However, Russian paramilitary structures do not prioritise human rights, as they have entirely different objectives, including supporting military juntas that allow Moscow to gain a foothold on the continent.
Thus, as Murphy concludes, Russia and other middle powers, which are taking advantage of the weakening foundations of the current world order, are creating a favourable environment for African autocrats, making their international and even regional isolation impossible. Destabilisation in the region will continue to intensify.