A Guinea-Bissau soldier stands guard in a street near the National Assembly on April 13, 2012 in the capital, Bissau.
Credit: Alfa Balde

BOSTON, Mass. — West Africa and coups. The region produces an abundance of coups, as evidenced by the recent military overthrows of the governments in Mali and Guinea-Bissau.

West Africa and coups are inextricably linked. Or are they?

Although Africa's west has seen more than 40 coups in past 60 years, their frequency is declining. 

Although Mali and Guinea-Bissau are very close to each other geographically and they had coups within weeks of each other, their two upheavals are very different. In Mali, some mid-ranking military officers overturned an established democracy that had been functioning for 20 years. Guinea-Bissau, on the other hand, has had so many coups that no one of its presidents has completed a full term in office since the country became independent in 1974.

Mali was within weeks of presidential elections when army officers protested the weak support they received in the fight against Tuareg rebels in the north from President Amadou Toumani Toure’s government. They complained that money was siphoned off and troops were being sent to the harsh northern desert without adequate food or equipment.

On March 22 the angry officers fired guns at government officials, who fled. The officers went to the state broadcasters, who fled, too, and then to the house of the president. He fled.

They found themselves in charge, without a vision or a plan of what they wanted to achieve. Call it an accidental coup.

Mali's military grabbed power quickly, but it was the Tuareg rebels in the north who seized the advantage. As the military tried to figure out what to do in the southern capital of Bamako, the Tuaregs took control of major northern cities, including Gao and Timbuktu, almost without firing a shot.

Under pressure from the 15-nation regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mali's military junta turned power back over to the government, not Toure, but to the speaker of parliament. Mali is again planning elections to determine who will run the country.

More from GlobalPost: Touareg versus Tuareg: What's in a name?

The more vexing problem is what to do about the Tuareg rebels. A military defeat of the rebels, spread out across the vast desert area, is virtually impossible, according to experts, so some form of negotiated settlement must be reached.

In contrast, Guinea-Bissau’s coup surprised no one. The weak government was also headed toward elections, after the death of President Malam Bacai Sanha in Paris in January. Guinea-Bissau’s military is widely viewed as bloated and corrupt, especially because of its alleged involvement in the international drug trade.

Some 35 tons of cocaine moved through Guinea Bissau in 2009, almost all of it facilitated by the military, according to a recent UN report. So when frontrunning candidate Carlos Gomes Junior campaigned on cleaning up corruption and the drug trade, the military decided to take action.

The military junta has been denounced by ECOWAS, the African Union and the UN which all urged a return to civilian rule.

“Guinea-Bissau’s coup was unsurprising. Mali’s was a complete surprise, nobody predicted it,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. “But what we can see in both is that ECOWAS has been more robust in dealing with both these unconstitutional changes of government. Both juntas are moving toward elections, rather than trying to establish military rule.”

Vines cautions that few parallels can be drawn between the two coups.

Related: West Africa coup update: ECOWAS to the rescue

“The catalyst for Mali was the blowback from the fall of Gaddafi in Libya,” he said. “Several hundred Tuaregs who had fought for Gaddafi returned to Mali with lots of arms. Those trained, dedicated fighters changed the equation in northern Mali.” In addition northern Mali is part of “a corridor of instability in the Sahel” which includes Mauretania, Niger and Chad.

Adding to the danger, there is the threat of Islamic extremism, particularly from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

“There is no quick solution to the Tuaregs’ revolt in northern Mali. It cannot be a military solution,” said Vines. “Who could fund the troops across that vast territory? It must be negotiated process. It is important for the entire region.”

In contrast Vines said that Guinea-Bissau is “consistently unstable” and is a problem that is “contained.”

Does West Africa breed coups? Not necessarily. There are some signs of strong democracies.

Senegal last month teetered on the verge of instability when it seemed possible that incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade would not respect his defeat at the polls. But Wade was told by ECOWAS and others that they would not recognize his government if he attempted to extend his rule.

Last year Ivory Coast deteriorated into ethnic division and conflict when President Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept his defeat at the polls. But at the last moment the intervention of UN and French forces pulled the country back from full-scale conflict.

Ghana held successful elections in 2009, which saw a peaceful change of government. Liberia’s recent elections, in which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won a second term, helped strengthen that country’s democratic ascent from civil war. Sierra Leone and Togo are also looking stable.

The role of ECOWAS in supporting democracy is critical. The group quickly denounces coups, sends in high-level delegations and applies diplomatic and military pressure for countries to return to civilian rule.

However, many weak links remain in West Africa, the largest being Nigeria, which is threatened by the growth of Islamic extremist violence from Boko Haram, continued corruption and ineffective governance.

“We must be careful of making sweeping generalizations, each coup is a product of a particular circumstance and it is risky to generalize,” said John Campbell, an African specialist at the Council of Foreign Relations.

The causes of the West Africa’s two recent coups — the surprise coup in Mali and the more expected military seizure of power in Guinea-Bissau — may be different, but each military junta has moved swiftly, under regional pressure, to return to democratic rule.

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