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The return of Africa's strongmen

A new batch of military officers takes the reins of the continent by staging coup d'états
Coroneles golpistas

PHOTOS/REUTERS/FRANCIS KOKOROKO/REUTERS TV/AFP/JOHN WESSELS  -   The triad of coup colonels Assimi Goïta, Mamady Doumbouya and Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba

Colonels return to power six decades later to tackle West Africa's chronic crisis.

A pick-up truck drives down a long avenue in the capital, Conakry. In the back are perched a dozen soldiers armed with AK-47 rifles, wearing bulletproof vests, helmets and goggles. They wear the uniform of the Guinean Armed Forces. They are easy to identify, wearing the flag patch on their left sleeve. Behind them, they are followed by a kilometre-long column of vehicles, practically in the same position. Hundreds of people are crowded on either side of the trucks. As far as the eye can see, they are all men, young, very young. And even children. They run joyfully alongside the vehicles, trying to catch up. They smile, because they know that what is happening can change their lives.

It is 5 September 2021, and the country has dawned with the long-awaited news. The army has just staged a coup against President Alpha Condé. A group of officers, led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, stormed early in the morning into the residence of the head of state with little resistance from his personal escort, although reports are confusing and contradictory. The military are holding the president and are broadcasting a picture of him surrounded by four heavily armed soldiers. Condé poses calmly, barefoot, with one foot on the chair and leaning back slightly. He does not look surprised, but rather abstracted. It was only a matter of time.

Guinea golpe de Estado
AFP/ CELLOU BINANI  -   People celebrate in the streets with members of the Guinean armed forces after the arrest of Guinean President Alpha Conde in a coup in Conakry, 5 September 2021.

A coup epidemic is sweeping Africa. In less than two years, the continent has experienced as many as eight uprisings, six of which have been successful. In addition to Mali, which suffered two coups in the space of nine months, Chad, Guinea, Sudan and Burkina Faso, Niger and, more recently, Guinea Bissau have experienced coup attempts that remained just that, an attempt. No one knows who will be the next to fall. But in such a scenario, marked by instability, the putschist phenomenon is likely to spread, the epidemic is likely to expand.

The domino effect has provoked an intense déjà vu, an aroma of the sixties of the last century. The legacy of Sankara, Rawlings, Lumumba or Nkrumah seems more alive today than ever, but embodied in a new batch of pretentiously charismatic leaders. The comparison seems complicated, excessive perhaps, very excessive. The truth is that strongmen have returned to Africa. Of the coups that have gone ahead, all bear the stamp of the military, all have been imposed manu militari and all, except in Chad and Sudan, have overthrown civilian governments that were voted into power in democratic processes.

When international experts and observers analysed the 2015 coup led by General Diendéré in Burkina Faso, which went down in posterity as "the world's dumbest coup d'état" because of the bizarre way in which it was executed, they predicted the end of military interventionism in African politics. They said it was a thing of the past, that the people had opted for democracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. A new generation of officers has been able to capitalise on the weariness that has sprouted in recent years as a result of corruption, bad governance and insecurity, the result of the jihadist threat and inter- or intra-community violence.

"Long analysed in terms of the crisis of democracy in Africa, coups increasingly appear, paradoxically, as a form of democratic respite for a generation of young people disillusioned with an ageing political leadership," notes Bakary Sambe, regional director of the Timbuktu Institute.

"Indeed, the promise of economic development, peace and security during the democratisation processes since the 1990s has not been realised. The coups, in addition to pointing to institutional weakness, are a manifestation of disillusionment". But who is behind this avalanche of coups?

Assimi Goïta, a recidivist coup leader
Assimi Goita
AFP/MICHELE CATTANI  -   In this file photo taken on September 18, 2020, Colonel Assimi Goita (C), president of the CNSP (National Committee for the Salvation of the People).

The always serious and discreet leader of the Malian transition was a complete unknown when he led the 2020 coup d'état that toppled the unpopular President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, alias IBK. He would not even have held the reins of the clique of officers plotting to overthrow the government, but had been chosen from among his peers for his low profile and malleable appearance. In principle, Goïta was to put the face of the military junta during the 18-month transitional process from the background, the vice-presidency. But the direction that the acting executive, presided over by former military and Defence Minister Bah Ndaw and his civilian prime minister, Moctar Ouane, was beginning to take, soon raised hackles among the coup leaders.

Once again led by Goïta, the Malian armed forces kidnapped the visible heads of the transition in the early hours of 24 May 2021, only to announce their dismissal hours later after accusing them of trying to sabotage the process by failing to consult with the junta on the cabinet reshuffle. Goïta did not have the legal prerogatives to do so, but did so, proclaiming himself president on the spot. Barely nine months had passed since the last putsch, although this time the international community described it as "a coup d'état within a coup d'état". The transition counter was being reset to zero.

Assimi Goita
AFP/MALIK KONATE  -   Colonel Assimi Goita speaks to the press at the Malian Ministry of Defence in Bamako, 19 August 2020.

Assimi Goïta was born in 1983 and grew up in the capital, Bamako. The son of a military man, he dreamed from an early age of following in his father's footsteps. And so he did. In 2008, he rose to the rank of major and fought for the next 15 years in the most dangerous areas of the country. He went to Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu, where he fought against the jihadist insurgency in close cooperation with French and international forces. But he was also present in Sudan's Darfur region in the midst of the umpteenth outbreak of inter-ethnic violence. Before the overthrow of IBK, the colonel was a member of the Special Forces.

Goïta now lives in Koulouba, the presidential residence, from where he commands with an iron fist a country considered to be the heart of the Sahel. Sources close to the colonel told Jeune Afrique that the transition leader is disciplined. He listens and tries to be rigorous. He is in the process of learning, but this has not exempted him from taking strong decisions, far from the line taken by his predecessors. For the time being, Goïta has broken off relations with the Elysée and has whipped up anti-French sentiment in order to modify security alliances. As French troops leave Mali, more and more Wagner Group mercenaries are landing. A drift that has set off alarm bells at ECOWAS and African Union (AU) headquarters.

"Everything seems compromised by Wagner's presence," warns the regional director of the Timbuktu Institute. "This private security group has neither the vocation nor the capacity to defeat terrorism or to secure Mali. However, the Malian authorities can easily understand that one does not become freer by changing dominators".

Mamady Doumbouya, the man who held the president's umbrella
Mamady Doumbouya
PHOTO/GUINEAN GOVERNMENT  -   Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, leader of the coup that deposed President Alpha Condé in September, presents his proposal for a political transition in Guinea-Conakry.

The 83-year-old former Guinean president, Alpha Condé, forced to return to Guinea by the military junta that removed him from power to stand trial for the deadly repression carried out during his mandate, praised Mamady Doumbouya until recently. During an interview in 2018, Condé was full of praise for the distinguished young officer, a member of his praetorian guard and head of the Special Forces Group. Indeed, Doumbouya was a protégé of the then president, a close ally and fellow member of the Malinké tribe. In short, he was one of the strong men of his administration.

A very poor quality image is circulating on social networks and in the African media. In it, the then President Condé can be seen, not without difficulty, during an institutional visit and, one step behind, Colonel Doumbouya holding an umbrella. He prevents the president from getting wet. It is difficult to know whether the image is real or not, but it perfectly describes his relationship with the former head of state. The colonel kept his battered leadership alive, trying to keep it from getting soaked, until he realised that the situation was untenable and that he had to step forward. He dropped the umbrella.

Mamady Doumbouya
AFP PHOTO / FUENTE MILITAR  -   Guinean Colonel Doumbouya speaking to his troops.

Doumbouya, a decorated soldier with extensive experience in field missions, was born 41 years ago in the Kankan region in the east of the country. Before settling in Sékhoutouréya Palace as de facto leader of Guinea after the coup d'état, the colonel had been part of several French army operations in destinations such as Israel, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan. He had also served in the Foreign Legion, where he graduated with the rank of captain. From there, he joined the ranks of the Guinean Army's elite unit, the spearhead of the fight against jihadism in the region.

Trained at the Paris War College, where he obtained a diploma in Higher Military Studies, a master's degree in Defence from the University of Panthéon-Assas, acquired French nationality and met his wife, a military policeman. Doumbouya took part in several joint exercises with Burkina Faso and Mauritania in the framework of the G5 Sahel. These were supervised by the US, a fact that raised theories about Washington's alleged involvement in the overthrow of Condé. It was there that he met Colonel Assimi Goïta, with whom he struck up a good friendship.

With a rugged physique and dressed in his now characteristic attire, a military uniform with a red beret and smoked sunglasses, Doumbouya arrogated to himself the presidency, assuming omnipotent power from minute one and becoming the second youngest leader of an African state in the process. Days after laying the groundwork for the expectedly lengthy transitional process, he was sworn in with honours. A few months have passed since then, but for the time being, the colonel's figure still holds many unknowns and many more doubts. No one knows where the country is headed.

Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the moderate coup leader
Paul Henri Damiba
PHOTO/PRÉSIDENCE DU FASO  -   Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Damiba is sworn in as President of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, 2 March 2022.

Night falls in Ouagadougou. It is Monday, but not just another Monday. A couple of days earlier, on Saturday 22 January 2022, a dozen fractious soldiers had mutinied in several barracks to demand more resources from the government in the fight against jihadism, sparking an avalanche of protests against President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Hundreds of Burkinabe had taken to the streets to demonstrate their support for the rebels when, suddenly, up to 14 soldiers burst into the main studio of Burkinabe state television RTB. Some decide to cover their faces, others do not. They are about to make an important announcement.

A young officer in a blue beret, with the spotlight on him, announces that the constitution is suspended and parliament dissolved. But he is not the important one, only the spokesman. The man pulling the strings of the coup sits to his left, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. Very few know him, but with this move he has become the third "strongman" in discord to join the select club of coup leaders, following in the footsteps of his Malian and Guinean counterparts. Hours earlier, his henchmen had arrested President Kaboré, forcing him to sign his resignation. He has been under house arrest since then.

A native of the Burkinabe capital, Damiba was born in 1981 into a family belonging to the Catholic minority and trained as an infantry officer at two renowned academies in the country when it was still called Upper Volta, finishing his training at the Paris War College, where he may have coincided with Doumbouya. Once in uniform, Damiba would have been part of the feared Presidential Security Regiment, the Praetorian Guard of the long-lived President Blaise Compaoré, which carried out numerous human rights violations and persecuted all political dissidence.

Golpe de Estado Burkina Faso
AP/SOPHIE GARCIA  -  A man holds a portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who has taken the reins of the country, in Ouagadougou, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

After the unexpected fall of the president 27 years later during the 2014 uprisings, Damiba played an essential role during the transitional period that ended a year later with the electoral victory of Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, thus distancing himself from the hardliners of the previous regime and taking a stand against the "world's dumbest" coup perpetrated a few weeks before the vote by General Diendéré. With this move, Damiba amassed a great deal of influence in the Kosyam Palace.

The synchronous rise to power of the Goïta, Doumbouya and Damiba cannot be understood as a mere coincidence, but as a large-scale phenomenon that responds to the multiple problems that have been accumulating for years in the Sahel countries, especially in West Africa. Fragile states, jihadist insurgency, inter-communal violence and the struggle for resources. An ideal breeding ground for the proliferation of messianic figures capable, at least in appearance, of guaranteeing the minimum necessary security to promote development.

The triad of coup leaders share a series of traits that allow us to establish a more or less defined pattern. Goïta, Doumbouya and Damiba are of the same generation, children of the 1980s. They are barely three years apart. They are in their forties, which does not seem to have been an impediment to them gaining absolute power in their respective countries, where gerontocracy is still in vogue. Together with Chad's Mahamat Déby, the three are the youngest heads of state on the continent.

They come from the same social stratum and have been nurtured in military life since childhood. All three have had similar experiences, having served in the army at all times, witnessing first-hand the internalities of the armed forces and, above all, the evolution of the various security threats that have hindered the development of their respective countries. As if that were not enough, all three have received military training abroad, with Paris as a meeting place. However, their perception of reality cannot be very different, it is impossible

Thomas Sankara
AFP/ISSOUF SANOGO  -  Students take a photo next to a picture of Thomas Sankara, a pan-Africanist icon who ruled Burkina Faso for four years.

Goïta, Doumbouya and Damiba have made a quasi-identical diagnosis of the crises that are relentlessly hitting the Sahel region, and are committed to similar recipes for overcoming this scenario. The three use a rhetoric that coincides with that made fashionable by the illustrious pan-Africanists of the sixties. They speak, with varying degrees of eloquence, of patriotism, sovereignty, refounding of the state, the fight against corruption, and returning decision-making power to the people. So far, however, none of them have taken any steps in this direction.

"Populist discourses have never solved the structural problems, despite the need of the current authorities in Bamako to build political legitimacy on contestation," says Bakary Sambe.

The colonels also agree on their demands to the international community. The transition periods announced are long, with the challenges that this entails for restoring some normality to the Sahel. The Malian military junta postponed elections for another two years in April; the transition in Guinea will presumably last three years after the parliament elected by Doumbouya, appointed six months after taking power, reduced the period proposed by the new leader by three months; and the Burkinabe transition led by Damiba is expected to last another three years, until 2025, despite accusations of internal weakness. 

Sambe believes that there is "a trivialisation of coups de force that will lead to the desacralisation of political power". "It started with Mali and has spread to Guinea and Burkina Faso. The credibility of sub-regional organisations, such as ECOWAS, is now very weakened in a context where the terrorist threat is aggravated by the phenomenon of spillover from the epicentres in the Sahel and, increasingly, by displacement to coastal countries," he explains.

By their actions, IBK, Condé and Kaboré lost all credit. They amended the constitution to perpetuate themselves in power, failed to take the lead in combating the jihadist threat, or became embroiled in serious corruption and nepotism. None delivered on their promises, and this inexorably eroded both their legitimacy and that of the system. The colonels now want to earn theirs, but it will not be easy to hide their authoritarian impulses. Many thought that, with their rise to power, the problems would fade away. It has not, but the strongmen are back in Africa.