Traditionally, coups are considered the antithesis of democracy. However, a phenomenon that has emerged in the African continent in recent years calls this perception into question. The term "democratic coups" refers to popularly supported coups against "democratic regimes" that are elitist and do not reflect the will of the people. From both a regional and global perspective, this phenomenon calls into question the universality of democracy and the role of coups. Some democratic regimes claim to be democratic in name, but in reality are characterized by bribery, corruption and elitism. The existence of such regimes in Africa has led to the emergence of "democratic coups" in response to genuine democratic demands of the people. In this article, we will examine these situations from both a regional and global perspective, exploring in depth why democratic regimes are not based on the will of the people, the fundamental principle of true democracy, and how democratic coups fill this vacuum. Across Africa, there have been more than ten coups since 2018. Here, the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso will be used as examples. The main hypothesis of this analysis is the following: Democratic coups have emerged in response to popular expectations and therefore represent democracy in the true sense, based on the will of the people. By discussing the implications of this unique transformation in Africa for the regional and global understanding of democracy and governance models, we will question whether the continent is indeed moving towards a new model of governance.
Identifying the Right Problematic
Since 2018, significant developments have taken place, particularly in West Africa. These developments include uprisings, military revolutions, new alliances and new challenges. These developments, which have led to major changes, have led to a redefinition of the continent's geopolitics. This evolving geopolitical situation is prompting states, actors, media outlets, think tanks and, fundamentally, individuals on a global scale to watch carefully. Each group or individual assesses the situation from its own perspective. These assessments are so varied that it is sometimes difficult to connect the actual events with the interpretations. However, in the 21st century, when interests and expediency trump reason and logic, this is not surprising.
But how can we understand the essence of this complex situation? For a better understanding, we will focus on the period between the "Sudanese Revolution" that began in December 2018, followed by a military coup in May 2019, and the military revolution in Niger in July 2023. But before embarking on this analysis, an overview of African geopolitical dynamics would be useful.
The geopolitics of Africa is highly complex, with unique dynamics in each region of the continent. These dynamics can be summarized as the impact of geographical diversity on economic and political structures, the historical legacy of artificial borders from the colonial era, power struggles over natural resources, and the opportunities and challenges of regional organizations. It should also be taken into account that 80% of the continent's population of 1.4 billion is young. This is a decisive factor for Africa's political and economic future. This means that 80 out of 100 Africans are under the age of 35. This factor (the youth population) forms the basis of my analysis.
Between April 2019 and July 2023, 8 military revolutions took place in 6 Sub-Saharan African Countries: Sudan in April 2019, Mali in August 2020 and again in May 2021, Chad in April 2021, Guinea Conakry in September 2021, Burkina Faso in January 2022 and again in September 2022, Niger in July 2023 and finally Gabon in September 2023.
Of course, we should avoid over-complicating quite different situations: Soldiers took power in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso by overthrowing "democratically" elected presidents, in Chad they seized power by sabotaging the constitutional order after the President was killed in a shootout, and in Gabon's troops refused to accept the results of an election that was clearly fraudulent. What all these countries have in common, however, is that they are former French colonies, still ruled by soldiers and, most importantly, their leaders are very young. The average age of these leaders is 39, including the youngest leader in the world at 35. In 2018, however, the average age of the leaders of these countries is 71 years old, including the 2nd oldest leader in the world at 85 years old. We are facing a generational revolution. However, we will not examine the different situations of these countries, but the similar situations of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
So the question is: What is happening in this part of Africa? What is motivating these young people? What are their main demands? What are their approaches and relations to regional and global geopolitics?
Mali has a rich history but also a volatile political trajectory, rocked by two successive coups in 2020 and 2021. This exposed deep divisions in its socio-political structure and institutions.
The 2020 coup took place in a context of intense political tensions and growing popular discontent. A few months before the coup, the capital Bamako witnessed large demonstrations led by the June 5 Movement - Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP). These demonstrators complained about bad governance, widespread corruption, rising unemployment and were particularly angry about the results of the parliamentary elections in March and April, which they claimed were tainted by fraud. Mediation attempts by the Economic Community of West African States (CEDEAO) to find a peaceful solution to the crisis have failed. In this tense atmosphere, the military, dissatisfied with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's rule, seized power on the pretext of restoring stability and democracy. The most important reason for the military to take sides with the civilians and put an end to the Keita regime was the rise of separatist and terrorist groups in the north of the country after 2012 and the failure of the policies pursued against them. In addition, the deployment of French troops in the country with the help of several African countries under Operation Serval failed to find a solution to the existing security crisis.
The following year, while Mali was in a transition period with the aim of restoring a democratic order, a new coup erupted in 2021. Colonel Assimi Goita, the man behind the seizure of power in 2020, was back on the scene, this time due to disagreements with the interim government. He was particularly concerned about the formation of a new government in which key decisions were made without his consultation. Goita stated that this new coup was necessary to protect the country's interests and guarantee stability.
Situation in Burkina Faso
On January 24, 2022, Burkina Faso was shaken by a military coup d'état led by Paul Sandaogo Damiba, who was united under the Patriotic Movement for Protection and Restoration (MPSR). Since 2015, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, who had led the country, was deposed. The day before the coup, many military garrisons across the nation faced mutinies. Soldiers have asked the government for increased resources, additional personnel and a restructuring of the General Staff in order to fight terrorism more effectively.
In 2020, President Kaboré, who was re-elected on a pledge that the fight against terrorism would be his priority, came under increasing public criticism for what was perceived as an inadequate response to the terrorist attacks. The country is known to be facing a severe security crisis that has led citizens to flee their homes, causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. In addition, high unemployment rates and the cost of living are a problem, affecting the population living below the poverty line. These challenges contributed significantly to the fall of Kaboré's administration and increased the number of supporters of military rule. The January coup was precipitated by the tragic incident in the Inata region of Burkina Faso gendarmes who were attacked by terrorists and left unarmed and without food for fifteen days. This incident, and the clear lack of capacity of the authorities to manage the crisis, led to the January coup gaining broad popular support.
On September 30, 2022, Burkina Faso faced a second coup in just eight months. Captain Ibrahim Traoré was put in charge of the country, replacing Paul-Henri Damiba. This officer cited the country's difficult security situation as the main reason for the coup d'état and defined the path to be followed to quickly reclaim the national territory. Recognized by his colleagues as an honest and dedicated officer, the young Traoré is also a member of the MPSR movement. The second blow occurred when Damiba deviated from the main objectives set by the MPSR: the fight against terrorism and bad governance. In this context, a group within the MPSR terminated Damiba's presidency and replaced him with Captain Ibrahim Traoré.
Democracy is not a Universal Formula
The definition and practice of democracy around the world varies depending on geographical, cultural and historical factors. The African continent in particular has been rocked by a series of military coups in recent years. While at first glance these coups may appear to be the opposite of democracy, in some cases they may reflect the will of the people. In this critical approach, we will examine the question of whether coups are also democratic by examining the cases where a coup is supported by the people and meets their expectations.
Democracy is based on the will of the people. This will is usually expressed through free and fair elections. However, if the democratic legitimacy of elected governments is weakened and they fail to meet the basic demands of the people, the people may resort to other means. In particular, when a government begins to show authoritarian tendencies and fails to meet popular expectations, a military coup may become a popularly supported alternative.
It is recognized that democracy is not limited to elections. Just because a government is democratically elected does not mean that it will consistently abide by democratic principles. When an elected government restricts the freedoms of the people, weakens institutions or engages in corruption, its democratic legitimacy is undermined. In such cases, it is natural for the people to give up hope in the current administration and demand change.
In assessing whether a coup is democratic or not, not only the reasons for its occurrence but also its consequences should be taken into account. If a coup is followed by the establishment of a government that reflects the demands of the people, adopts democratic principles and acts in line with these principles, this may indicate that the coup served a democratic purpose. However, there are also cases where a coup only leads to the establishment of a new authoritarian regime.
Africa is facing a series of political revolutions reminiscent of the 1980s, when military regimes dominated. Democratically elected governments have been overthrown by military forces in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Mali, Niger and Gabon. Each time a new country is added to this list, skeptics argue that democracy is not suited to Africa. Indeed, in some countries, the streets were filled with citizens celebrating the departure of elected leaders. But it would be rash to see this series of revolutions as the end of democracy in Africa. In many of these countries, the people are in favor of a democratic system and against authoritarianism. Africa can and indeed does benefit from democratic advantages. However, problems arise when democratically elected leaders resort to undemocratic methods to maintain their power against the will of the people. In Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea and Mali, for example, leaders have lost popularity not because their democracies do not fit African realities, but because they have corrupted them in the context of growing instability and the rise of terrorism.
This is particularly evident when we analyze the reasons why some revolutions were well received by the population. In Guinea, former president Alpha Condé controversially changed the constitution so that he could run for a third term in 2020, which caused popular discontent, believing that the referendum and subsequent elections were unfair. In Mali, former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was accused of electoral fraud in 2020. Together with growing corruption and insecurity, this undermined his legitimacy. In these contexts, the declining popularity of leaders is associated with their distance from democratic principles and not with a general distrust of democracy.
While coups in Africa may at first glance seem incompatible with democracy, a deeper analysis may show that some coups reflect the will of the people. However, it is essential to evaluate each coup in its own context and without generalizations. There may not be a universal formula for democracy; what matters is whether governance reflects the will and expectations of the people.
National and Regional Reading
From a national perspective, Africans are fighting their own demons, so to speak. In fact, this is the most important dimension of what is happening in the Sahel. It is about eliminating unpatriotic leaders who put their own interests ahead of the national interest. In this context, the main actors in the process, the population, and especially the youth, have consented, supported or called for the replacement of bad leaders by legitimate means, believing that any means to an end is permissible. It will take time to conclude whether this path was good or not.
The new generation of coup leaders, who have enjoyed great popular support, have in fact created a bigger problem for themselves. It is well known that unemployment and mismanagement of resources are among the biggest reasons why the countries concerned are in crisis. Therefore, as long as these leaders do not solve the crisis at its root in a reasonable time or do not implement permanent plans to solve it, the people and youth who support them today will be against them tomorrow.
The countries where coups have occurred are mostly former French colonies and therefore use the CFA franc. This is, in fact, the center of all problems. Because this currency is not suitable for development and there is no doubt that no development can take place without a sound monetary and financial system. The struggle of these countries in this regard requires more than ten examples of their efforts to oust the old regimes and keep themselves in power.
Especially the similar situation of the Sahel countries makes their work even easier. In this context, the creation of the Niger-Mali-Burkina Alliance is promising. It is of great importance to cooperate economically and socially as well as in the field of security.
From a global perspective, it can be said that geopolitics in the Sahel is in the process of re-formation. In this context, it is impossible to miss the emergence of new dynamics, the development of new perspectives and new alliances. It can be safely said that the Sahel region, and Francophone Africa as a whole, is in favor of multipolarity. In short, we are watching a transition from a Sahel that is oriented towards the West to a Sahel that prioritizes its own interests and is open to everyone.
This point needs to be underlined in particular: The issue in the Sahel is not as the western media and those who misunderstand and misrepresent events envision it. It is not a question of expelling one (France) and filling the vacuum with another (Russia). It is a matter of cutting neocolonial ties and pursuing a policy of prioritizing national interests and cooperating with anyone who respects this. In this context, cooperation with Turkey as well as with Russia, and with China, Brazil and India. This is also the reason why Turkey, for example, has increased its presence on the continent (arms supplies, military and security agreements, diplomatic representation...), at least that is how I read it, unless I see otherwise.
The issue is one of "deconcentration", a concept developed by Prof. Samir Amin, an economist who has been very critical of the concept of "development". Deconversion means re-prioritizing in every field without losing touch with the rest of the world.
It is possible to illustrate the point with practical examples: The largest airport in Senegal, which is dominated by French transnational corporations, and also one of the largest airports in West Africa, was built and operated by a Turkish company; China is the leading importer of imports to the country and the trade volume with Russia has increased many times over; a country like Chad, where the French base has been continuously maintained since the 60s, has been cooperating with Turkey in the field of security (military vehicles, weapons and ammunition). Similarly, Turkish Sikhs and drones are being used effectively in the fight against terrorism in Guinea and Burkina Faso, while Russian and Chinese vehicles are of indispensable importance.
However, some of the policies pursued and some of the issues ignored in national, regional and global contexts pose serious threats and risk undermining the efforts made. These include: the gradual reduction of policies based on external partnerships, especially in the field of security, and the failure to develop alternative solutions by considering policies based on internal dynamics as permanent; and the slow pace of developing effective policies to solve socio-economic problems, which are the main source of the security problem.
The first quarter of the 21st century will go down in history as the period when resistance in Africa became vertical and rebirth began. In that period, from Dakar, through Bamako, Conakry and Vagadugu to Niamey, the cry of "Free Africa" was raised with one voice on different fronts: "Free Africa" with one voice. A brand new sun of independence is rising. Will its rays gradually be seen all over the continent, especially in Francophone Africa? The coming years or months will tell. But there is no doubt that those who are paternalistic under it, those who exist through neo-colonial means and those who covet natural wealth will not be able to stand. However, the question of whether this sun will be a new sun of independence or whether it will put the continent back into a different order of exploitation continues to occupy our minds.