The Sahel Insurgency is Shaking West Africa’s Democratic Foundations

For the third year in a row, a country in the Sahel has experienced a coup.

Last week’s in Burkina Faso followed the same depressing trajectory as others – a weak government unable to get a grip on jihadist violence, a population sick of sons and daughters dying in remote villages, popular protests, and, finally, a military promising to do more than the civilian government.

Taken together, it means that all four of the most populous countries of the Sahel have either experienced or averted coups – just in the past 18 months. Add in Guinea, which shares a border with Mali, and had a coup in the autumn, and it is clear the problem is spreading. This week, there was an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau, another small state just below the Sahel.

The Sahel’s Islamist insurgency is shaking West Africa’s democratic foundations and making publics clamor for soldiers to try to end the bloodshed. That is a political cocktail that will fuel further insurgency, but it seems to be a cocktail other countries in the region are itching to swallow. The belt of countries just below the Sahara have been plagued by instability for years. Since the mid-2010s, militants linked to ISIS and Al Qaeda have carried out attacks across the region.

In Burkina Faso, the problem has become particularly acute. In remote northern towns, militants have killed both civilians and soldiers. In one particularly deadly attack last summer, more than 100 people were killed in the village of Solhan. Since then, confidence in the civilian government has been falling. When, in November, a military base in the north was attacked and two dozen soldiers killed, public anger reached fever pitch. It was little wonder that, when president Roch Kabore was removed, some people in the capital Ouagadougou celebrated.

The Islamist insurgency is rolling through the countries of the Sahel like the aftershock of an earthquake, breaking apart already weak institutions.

The links between governments and the people are cracking; those between former colonial powers like France and the public are too, as are relations between countries within Ecowas, the regional grouping.

The shockwaves from this insurgency are spreading outward, shattering much on their – seemingly unstoppable – path to the population centers of the coast.

Such is the security risk that vast numbers of people have simply fled remote villages; last month, the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR estimated a staggering 2.5 million people had fled their homes across the countries of the Sahel.

The internal displacement of these people creates an enormous strain on societies, and it is a strain often felt in the least developed parts of those countries.

The result of this vast displacement and continuing danger is that publics believe they must choose between politics and the military – a false choice, but one that, in a moment of crisis, seems reasonable. The allure of soldiers solving political problems has risen.

Certainly, soldiers with guns facing off against insurgents with guns appears to be a fairer fight, but behind them lies a hinterland of failed politics, which usually guarantees more coups and more instability. Coup-plotters are usually politically untested and spend so much energy seeking to retain their political power that they practically guarantee the success of insurgents – which creates the conditions for another coup.

Mali provides an illustrative example. The 2020 coup was meant to create a government more able to fight the Islamist insurgency. Instead, it led to months of political uncertainty, which led to a second coup a year later. Meanwhile, insurgent attacks continued. Mali is still staggering towards fresh elections, scheduled for this year.

Nor does the wave of attacks show any sign of slowing. A major part of the difficulty in grappling with the insurgency is the sheer size of these countries and how sparsely populated they are.

The majority of West Africa’s population is concentrated towards the coasts, giving jihadists room for maneuver; they can slip easily in the spaces between villages and across borders.

Below the string of Sahel countries is another grouping of small states along the coast. In these, jihadist activity is increasing.

In Ivory Coast, to the south of Mali and Burkina Faso, there have been jihadist attacks since 2016. In Senegal, with a border with Mauritania, others have been thwarted.

Guinea-Bissau, one of the smallest of the West African states, has long been considered a target for such attacks and has arrested several suspected terrorists.

The latest coup attempt in the country is evidence that politics is failing, not merely on a national-level but on a regional level. Ecowas, the regional economic and political union, has responded erratically to the coups spreading around the region, sanctioning Mali and suspending Burkina Faso from the group – but ultimately unable to do much to stop the soldiers taking over.

With few left to defend democratic institutions, it is little wonder that soldiers in neighboring countries begin to eye up the seats of power, and that publics appear relieved when they do take over. As the Sahel insurgency spreads across West Africa, a wave of coups is following in its wake.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.