/ 3 February 2022

Coup season in the Sahel raises uncomfortable questions

Bfaso Unrest Politics
Commuters drive in the city centre of Ouagadougou on January 23, 2022. - Gunfire broke out at several army barracks in Burkina Faso on Sunday, prompting the government to deny that the military had seized control of the notoriously volatile Sahel state. "Since 1 am, gunfire has been heard here in Gounghin coming from the Sangoule Lamizana camp," a soldier in a district on the western suburbs of the capital Ouagadougou said. (Photo by Olympia DE MAISMONT / AFP)

The Sahel is what ecologists call a “realm of transition” – a vast, semi-arid landscape stretching from one coast of Africa to the other, separating the harsh desert of the north from the more fertile savanna and rainforests of the south.

After this week, political scientists might start using the term too.

Last week, Burkina Faso became the fourth country in this neighbourhood to experience a military coup in the past 18 months, after Mali, Chad, Mali again, and then Guinea.

Although each coup was prompted by different, country-specific political dynamics, the trend raises uncomfortable questions for the region as a whole.

Perhaps most uncomfortable of all is that in several cases the rise of military men was facilitated by widespread popular protests against civilian governments that had failed to deliver on basic governance responsibilities such as tackling corruption, increasing prosperity and keeping citizens safe. No wonder people celebrated: they want to try something – anything – different.

For all the generals’ bravado, the task ahead of them is daunting. Thanks to its harsh climate and vast distances, the Sahel is one of the world’s hardest places to govern. And it’s going to get harder.

The Sahel is home to the world’s fastest-growing population: a billion people will be living in the 23 countries of the Sahel and Equatorial Africa by 2050, according to the World Bank.

Because of its young population, it has the world’s highest dependency ratio, with 87% dependent on the remaining 13% to provide for their basic needs.

By 2050, temperatures will also have risen by between three and five degrees Celsius, more than 1.5 times the global average, in a place that already experiences monthly averages of 35 degrees.

“The region is a canary in the coal mine; a presage of what is to come in other vulnerable parts of the world,” said the World Economic Forum in 2019. “Rainfall is erratic, and wet seasons are shrinking. There are lean times ahead.”

These existential crises must be solved against the backdrop of chronic and worsening insecurity that even outside military intervention has been unable to stem. (In fact, the clumsy meddling of foreign powers has arguably made things worse.)

These are daunting, near-impossible challenges for whoever sits in the region’s various presidential palaces.

The junta leaders will have to have the imagination to come up with other solutions. But if the non-promise made by Burkina Faso’s new rulers this week is anything to go by, don’t hold your breath. They effectively said: we shall see once peace returns. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here