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The Danger of Semi-Democracy

Updated: Mar 15

Coups are endemic to West Africa. Why?

Over the last few years, coup attempts across the Sahel region of Africa have sparked global debate. While many have been quick to call these coups contagious, one military takeover inciting another, there is a larger piece being ignored: the unique vulnerability of ‘semi-democracy.’

Between 1958 and 2008, West Africa had the highest percentage of coups on the entire continent. Since 2010, over 50% of coups occurred in West Africa and the Sahel region alone.

The challenges faced by countries in this region are similar: government deficits, growing insecurity, weak civil society, lack of opportunity for the younger population and corruption. International factors, like external influence and global alienation to punish countries that do not live up to neoliberal democratic standards, also fuel military coups.

Transitions to democracy in West Africa are superficial. Often, elections are held without informed citizens, active participation or respect for the rule of law.

Recently, a survey of voting intentions in 16 African countries found that, “voters preferred certain parties not because they support the policies of the parties, but because the voters are afraid of being punished by elected officials after the elections.” Further, many presidents, such as former president Alpha Condé from Guinea, change constitutional term limits to stay in power longer.

The coups endemic to West Africa each have unique causes, but almost all of them have similar underlying factors. It’s not that coups are contagious per se. It’s that there’s danger inherent in semi-democracies: military leaders can easily exploit unstable democratic institutions. Numerous studies show that semi-democratic countries have the highest risk of civil unrest and political violence compared to authoritarian states and full democracies. 

These vulnerabilities also draw foreign manipulation. While the details of coups are different now than they were in the post-independence era of the 1960s and 1970s, the intervention of foreign powers has remained largely the same. Strategic competition coming from China, Russia, the US, the EU and the Gulf States has surfaced in many of the coups in the past three years.

For instance, Russia and America left fingerprints on the 2020 and 2021 coups in Mali in the form of foreign assistance and training. From Russia with Burkina Faso to France with Chad and China with Guinea, foreign powers take advantage of instability in order to exercise global influence or extract natural resources.

In order to break the cycle of endless coups, there has to be a fundamental change from regional and global partners. Instead of relying on sanctions that only serve to hurt the already disadvantaged populations in these countries, the root cause of instability, poverty and conflict must be addressed. Building stronger institutions in civil society and partnering with regional groups to encourage cooperation could help reduce the risk of undemocratic takeovers.

These countries cannot do it alone. The international community has a responsibility to protect civilians from further political violence and despair. 

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author.


Ioanes, Ellen. “How to Understand the Recent Coups in Africa.” Vox, 5 Feb. 2022,

Onapajo, Hakeem, and Muhammad Dan Suleiman. “Why West Africa Has Had so Many Coups and How to Prevent More.” The Conversation, 15 Feb. 2022,

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