On January 24th, 2022, the army of Burkina Faso successfully waged a coup against their government and took control of the country. Led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration deposed Burkina Faso’s democratically elected president, dissolved parliament, and suspended the country’s constitution. Burkina Faso has joined a growing list of countries in Africa, including other West African nations like Mali and Guinea, that have recently had their governments overthrown by a military coup. Although these coups represent a clear threat to stable democracy in the region, they also provide an opportunity to analyze how the shortcomings of government can erode public confidence in democratic institutions and help create the necessary conditions for a successful coup or revolution.
Coups are not a new phenomenon in Burkina Faso. Excluding last month’s coup, the military has taken control of Burkina Faso on seven different occasions since 1966. Indeed, military coups are so common in the country that, as Dr. Daniel Eizenga wrote, coups are “the most common way of transferring power in Burkina Faso.” Nonetheless, the most recent coup in Burkina Faso possesses distinct origins that seem to epitomize some of the claims made by Acemoglu and Robinson in Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. In the book, Acemoglu and Robinson explore why some democracies become consolidated after being established while others remain susceptible to coups and dictatorship. One of the most important findings made by Acemoglu and Robinson, in relation to the coup in Burkina Faso, is that in times of national crisis, the likelihood of either democratization or a coup occurring increases.
This claim can help us contextualize the most recent coup in Burkina Faso and understand what led to its occurrence and success. In Burkina Faso, the main grievance the military had against the government was that the government was failing to support it in its battle against terrorist groups, like ISIS and Al-Queda, that have killed thousands in the country since 2015. Although the military has been fighting these groups for years, in November 2021, a terrorist attack in the town of Inata killed 49 military police officers and four civilians, sparking national outrage. The military and citizens of Burkina Faso became further enraged at the government after learning that the officers in Inata had gone weeks without food supplies and adequate equipment before their demise. President Roch Marc Kabore, who, in 2015, became the first democratically elected president of Burkina Faso since 1987, came to be viewed as weak and ineffective by the military and a decent portion of the country’s civilians due to his inability to quell terrorist insurgencies, facilitating the coup in 2022.
As explored by Lipset in “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” certain social and economic conditions are crucial in sustaining a democracy. Besides creating specific economic developments, such as high educational standards and a steady increase in societal wealth (Burkina Faso possesses neither), a democratic government must be able to demonstrate both legitimacy and effectiveness if it seeks stability and wants to maintain public support in times of crisis. If a democracy cannot demonstrate that it is the best form of government to address society’s issues, secure peace, and create prosperity, the public may begin to favor a less democratic system of government that, they believe, may benefit them more and be more effective than a democracy. Because democracy was relatively novel in Burkina Faso and President Kabore’s administration seemed unable to address major issues like terrorism in the region, the democratic government of Burkina Faso became viewed as illegitimate and ineffective by a sizable amount of Burkina Faso’s citizens. One former police officer expressed his frustration with the government and support for the coup by saying, “If we wait until the next elections in 2025 to change leaders, our country will no longer exist.”
Following President Kabore’s deposition, many of Burkina Faso’s citizens took to the streets to protest in support of the coup and against the former government. The government had largely lost the public’s confidence because of its inability to eliminate terrorist organizations in the region that have worsened the lives of many in the country. Although it cannot be known for certain, it is plausible to believe that last month’s coup may not have occurred in the same manner if the government had been better able to support its military forces in their battle against terrorism. If Burkina Faso’s military forces were better equipped, trained, and organized by the government, and the effects of terrorism were, as a result, diminished, perhaps there would have been insufficient support from within the military, and even less from the public, for a coup to have transpired. Regardless, the coup in Burkina Faso, and the citizenry’s support of it, exemplifies how the failures of a democracy, especially those in their infancy, to improve living conditions and effectively address major issues in times of crisis can cause the public to become receptive towards the establishment of a non-democracy and increase the likelihood of a military takeover of the government.
This article examines an often ignored point; democratic erosion can come out of pure desperation, not simply malice on the part of would be autocrats. Leaders in democratic countries would do well to pay close attention to indications of wellbeing among their populace, such as life expectancy and suicide rates in order to gage their well being. Furthermore, the slow, institutional nature of many democratic regimes can greatly impact response times to crosses, leading to a loss of faith in democracy. As always, the ideal spot between reactivity and stability is hard to find.