- Brittany Mechéassistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College.
- Samar Al-Bulushianthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, fellow at the Quincy Institute and contributing editor for Africa Is a Country.
The African Union is condemning a wave of coups in Africa, where military forces have seized power over the past 18 months in Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan and, most recently, in January, Burkina Faso. Several were led by U.S.-trained officers as part of a growing U.S. military presence in the region under the guise of counterterrorism, which is a new imperial influence that supplements the history of French colonialism, says Brittany Meché, assistant professor at Williams College. Some coups have been met with celebration in the streets, signaling armed revolt has become the last resort for people dissatisfied with unresponsive governments. “Between the U.S.-led war on terror and the wider international community’s fixation on 'security,' this is a context that centers, if not privileges, military solutions to political problems,” adds Samar Al-Bulushi, contributing editor for Africa Is a Country.
AMY GOODMAN: On August 18th, 2020, soldiers in Mali toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, sparking a wave of military coups across Africa. Last April, a military council in Chad seized power following the death of Chad’s longtime President Idriss Déby. Then, on May 24th, 2021, Mali witnessed its second coup in a year. On September 5th, the armed forces of Guinea captured the nation’s president and dissolved Guinea’s government and constitution. Then, on October 25th, Sudan’s military seized power and put Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest, ending a push in Sudan toward civilian rule. And finally, two weeks ago, on January 23rd, Burkina Faso’s army leaders, led by a U.S.-trained commander, deposed the nation’s president, suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. That’s six coups in five African countries in just under a year and a half.
Over the weekend, the African Union condemned the recent wave of military coups. This is Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo.
PRESIDENT NANA AKUFO-ADDO: The resurgence of coup d’états in our region is in direct violation of our democratic tenets and represents a threat to peace, security and stability in West Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: The African Union has suspended four of the countries: Mali, Guinea, Sudan and, most recently, Burkina Faso. Many of the coups have been led by military officers who have received U.S. training, those U.S. [sic] officers. The Intercept recently reported U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups, and succeeded in at least eight, across five West African countries since 2008, including Burkina Faso three times; Guinea, Mali three times; Mauritania and the Gambia.
To talk more about this wave of coups across Africa, we’re joined by two guests. Samar Al-Bulushi is an anthropologist at University of California, Irvine, focusing on policing, militarism and the so-called war on terror in East Africa. Her forthcoming book is titled War-Making as World-Making. Brittany Meché is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College, where she focuses on conflict and environmental change in the West African Sahel.
Brittany, let’s begin with you, Professor Meché. If you can talk about this region of Africa and why you believe they are undergoing this number of coups or attempted coups?
BRITTANY MECHÉ: Thank you, Amy. It’s great to be here.
So, one of the first comments that I want to offer is that often when these kinds of things happen, it’s easy to sort of put a frame of inevitability on all of these coups. So, it’s easy to just say that West Africa, or the African continent writ large, is just a place where coups happen, as opposed to asking really complicated questions about both the internal dynamics but also the external dynamics that help contribute to these coups.
So, as far as internal dynamics, that can be things like populations losing faith in their governments to respond to basic needs, a kind of general disaffection and a sense that governments aren’t actually able to be responsive to communities, but also external forces. So, we’ve talked a little bit about the ways that commanders in some of these coups, especially thinking about Mali and Burkina Faso, were trained by the U.S., and in some cases also France. So, these kind of external investments in the security sector effectively hardened certain sectors of the state to the detriment of democratic governance.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Meché, you mentioned France, as well. Several of these countries were part of the old French colonial empire in Africa, and France has played a large role in recent decades in terms of their military in Africa. Could you talk about this impact, as the United States begins to exert more and more influence in Africa and as France pulls back, in terms of the stability or instability of a lot of these governments?
BRITTANY MECHÉ: Yeah, I think it’s really impossible to understand the contemporary African Sahel without understanding the disproportionate impact that France has had both as the former colonial power but also as a disproportionate economic powerhouse in the countries, basically exerting economic influence, resource extraction across the West African Sahel, but also in setting an agenda, especially over the last decade, which is really focused on strengthening militaries, strengthening police, strengthening counterterrorism operations across the region, and the ways that, again, this effectively hardens the security forces.
But I also think, especially thinking about the U.S. influence, that the U.S., in attempting to sort of carve out a kind of new theater for the war on terror in the West African Sahel, has also contributed to some of these negative impacts that we’ve seen across the region. And so the interplay of both the former colonial power and then also what has been described by activists on the ground as a kind of new imperial presence by the United States, I think both of these things are effectively destabilizing the region, under the kind of auspices of advancing security. But what we’ve seen is just increasing instability, increasing insecurity.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of this instability in the region, what about the issue, obviously, that has drawn the United States’ attention increasingly in the area, of the rise of Islamic insurgencies, whether from al-Qaeda or ISIS, in the region?
BRITTANY MECHÉ: Yeah, so, even as kind of global terrorism networks are active in the West African Sahel, so al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb but also offshoots of ISIL, I think it’s important to think of the violence that’s happening across the Sahel as really localized conflicts. So, even as they tap into some of these more global networks, they are localized conflicts, where local communities are really feeling that both the kind of state governments are not able to respond to their needs but also increasing both competition over a sense of governance and accountability mechanisms, but also a kind of general disaffection in the ways that people perhaps see armed revolts, armed opposition, as one of the few avenues left to stage claims, make claims on governments that they see to be really absent and nonresponsive.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Meché, in a moment we want to ask you about the particular countries, but I wanted to turn to professor Samar Al-Bulushi, anthropologist at University of California, Irvine, who focuses on policing, militarism and the so-called war on terror in East Africa, contributing editor for the publication Africa Is a Country and a fellow at the Quincy Institute. If you can give us the overall picture of this area when it comes to militarism, and particularly the U.S. involvement in terms of training the officers involved in these coups? I mean, it really is astounding. In the last 18 months, what, we have seen this number of coups. In no time in the last 20 years have we seen this number of coups across Africa in this amount of time.
SAMAR AL-BULUSHI: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be with you on the show this morning.
I think you’re absolutely right: We do need to ask about the broader geopolitical context that has emboldened these military officers to take such brash actions. Between the U.S.-led war on terror and the wider international community’s fixation with, quote-unquote, “security,” this is a context that centers, if not privileges, military solutions to political problems. I think there’s a tendency in the mainstream news outlets reporting about the recent coups to place external players outside the frame of analysis, but when you factor in the growing role of the U.S. military command for Africa, which is otherwise known as AFRICOM, it becomes clear that it would be a mistake to interpret the events in these countries as the product of internal political tensions alone.
For listeners who are not familiar, AFRICOM was established in 2007. It now has approximately 29 known military facilities in 15 states across the continent. And many of the countries, as you mentioned, that have experienced coups or coup attempts are key allies of the U.S. in the war on terror, and many of the leaders of these coups have received training from the U.S. military.
Now, the combination of training and financial assistance, coupled with the fact that many of these, quote-unquote, “partner states” allow the U.S. military to operate on their soil, has meant that these African states have been able to vastly expand their own security infrastructures. For example, military spending on armored police vehicles, attack helicopters, drones and missiles have skyrocketed. And whereas the militarism of the Cold War era prioritized order and stability, today’s militarism is defined by a constant readiness for war. Up until 20 years ago, few African states had external enemies, but the war on terror has fundamentally reoriented regional calculations about security, and years of training by AFRICOM has produced a new generation of security actors that are both ideologically oriented and materially equipped for war.
And we can think about the ways in which this turns inward, right? Even if they’re trained for potential combat outside, we might interpret these coups as — you know, as a turning inward of this kind of framework and orientation towards war. Because the U.S. and its allies rely so heavily on many of these states for security operations on the continent, many of these leaders are often able to consolidate their own power in a way that’s largely immune from external scrutiny, let alone critique.
And I’d even go a step further to suggest that partner states like Kenya, joining — for Kenya, joining the war on terror has actually played an instrumental role in boosting its diplomatic profile. It seems counterintuitive, but Kenya has been able to position itself as a, quote-unquote, “leader” in the war on terror in East Africa. And in some ways, championing the project of counterterrorism is not simply about access to foreign aid, but equally about how African states can ensure their relevance as global players on the world stage today.
The last point that I want to make is that I think it’s incredibly crucial that we don’t reduce these developments purely to the effects of imperial designs, because the national and regional dynamics absolutely matter and warrant our attention, particularly in the case of Sudan, where the Gulf states may currently have more influence than the United States. So we just need to recognize the risks that come, of course, with broad, sweeping analysis, like what I’m offering you here, when we’re talking about often vastly different political contexts.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Bulushi, in terms of the — you mentioned the vast amount of military aid that has gone from the United States to these countries. Some of these are some of the poorest countries on the planet. So, could you talk about the impact that that has in terms of nation-building and in terms of the outsize role that the military plays in these countries, even as a source of employment or income to the sectors of those populations that are part of or allied with the militaries?
SAMAR AL-BULUSHI: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. And I think it’s important to keep in mind here that the kind of aid that has been channeled into the continent is not limited to militaries and to the military domain. And what we see when we start to look more closely is that a securitized approach and a militarized approach to all social and political problems has effectively taken over much of the entire donor industry in Africa in general. Now, this means that it becomes very difficult for a civil society organization, for example, to obtain a grant for anything other than something related to security. And there’s been some documentation in recent years that shows the effects of this kind of colonization of the aid sector on populations across the continent, in the sense that they’re not able to get funding for much-needed issues, you know, whether it’s healthcare, whether it’s education, and that type of thing.
Now, I do want to mention here that in the case of Somalia, we can see there are — the African Union has deployed a peacekeeping force to Somalia in the wake of the Ethiopian intervention, the U.S.-backed Ethiopian intervention in Somalia in 2006. And we can start to see — if we track the funding that has been used to support the peacekeeping operation in Somalia, we see the degree to which a growing number of African states are increasingly reliant on military funding. In addition to the funding that comes directly to their military governments for training purposes, they’re increasingly reliant — their troops are increasingly reliant on funds from entities like the European Union, for example, to pay their salaries. And what’s really striking here is that the peacekeeping troops in Somalia receive salaries that are often up to 10 times what they earn in their home countries when they’re just, you know, deployed in kind of standard form back home. And so we can begin to see how many of these countries — and in Somalia, it’s Burundi, Djibouti, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia — that have become increasingly reliant on a political economy that is structured by war. Right? We see an emergent form of migrant military labor that has had the effect of protecting and offsetting public scrutiny and liability for governments like the United States — right? — which would otherwise be deploying its own troops to the frontlines.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Brittany Meché, I was wondering — you are a specialist in the Sahel, and we’re going to show a map of the Sahel region of Africa. If you can you talk about just its significance, and then focus particularly on Burkina Faso? I mean, the facts there, you, in 2013, met with U.S. special forces who were training soldiers in Burkina Faso. It is just the latest in a coup where the coup leader was trained by the U.S., the U.S. pouring more than a billion dollars in so-called security assistance. Can you talk about the situation there and what you found in talking to these forces?
BRITTANY MECHÉ: Sure. So, I want to sort of offer a kind of general framing comment about the Sahel, which is oftentimes written off as one of the poorest regions in the world but actually has played both an integral role in kind of global history, sort of thinking about the mid-20th century and the emergence of international humanitarian assistance, but also continues to play a really key role as a key supplier of uranium, but also becoming a kind of target of ongoing military operations.
But to speak a little bit more about Burkina Faso, I think it’s really interesting to sort of return to the moment of 2014, where then-leader Blaise Compaoré was ousted in a popular revolution as he attempted to extend his rule by rewriting the Constitution. And that moment was really a kind of moment of possibility, a moment of a kind of revolutionary sort of idea about what Burkina Faso could be after the end of Compaoré’s 27-year rule.
And so, in 2015, I met with a group of U.S. special forces who were conducting these kinds of counterterrorism and security trainings in the country. And I asked very pointedly if they thought that, given this moment of democratic transition, if these kinds of investments in the security sector would actually undermine this process of democratization. And I was offered all kinds of assurances that part of what the U.S. military was in the Sahel to do was professionalize the security forces. And I think, in looking back on that interview and seeing what has subsequently happened, both the attempted coups that happened less than a year after I conducted that interview and now the successful coup that has happened, I think this is less a question about professionalizing and more a question of what happens when war-making becomes world-making, to take up Samar’s book title, but when you sort of harden a specific sector of the state, undermining other aspects of that state, rerouting money away from things like the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health, to the Ministry of Defense. It’s no wonder that a kind of strongman in a uniform becomes the kind of most likely outcome of that kind of hardening.
I also do want to mention some of the reports that we’ve seen of people celebrating these coups that have happened. So, we saw it in Burkina Faso, in Mali. We also saw it in Guinea. And I don’t want this — I would sort of offer this not as a kind of anti-democratic sentiment that sort of infuses these communities, but, again, this kind of idea that if civilian governments have not been able to respond to grievances of communities, then a leader, a kind of strong leader, who says, “I will protect you,” becomes a kind of attractive solution. But I would sort of end by saying there is a robust tradition, both across the Sahel but in Burkina Faso in particular, of revolutionary action, of revolutionary thinking, of agitating for better political lives, for better social and community lives. And so, I think that’s what I’m hoping, that this coup does not sort of tamp down on that, and that there is a kind of return to something amounting to democratic rule in that country.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both so much for being with us. It’s a conversation we will continue to have. Brittany Meché is a professor at Williams College, and Samar Al-Bulushi is a professor at University of California, Irvine.
Next up, we go to Minneapolis, where protesters have taken to the streets since last Wednesday, after police fatally shot 22-year-old Amir Locke. He was sleeping on a couch as they conducted an early-morning no-knock raid. His parents say he was executed. Activists say police are trying to cover up what really happened. Stay with us.
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