On Friday 30 September there were reports of gunfire in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. Within 24 hours it was announced that the country’s military leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba had been removed from power and Captain Ibrahim Traoré was now in charge.
This is the country’s second coup this year.
Together with Burkina Faso, fellow West African nations Mali and Guinea have also made headlines over the last two years following military coups d’états, the worst nightmare of many a leader.
In all three countries, announcements that their respective armies had taken control left their populations and regional and international authorities anxiously awaiting news of the whereabouts of the leaders that had been removed from power.
While many of us followed the news from abroad, awaiting updates while going about our daily business, for those in these countries the unfolding events were not just headlines; they were the lived reality.
So what is it really like when a coup unfolds in your country?
I spoke to people in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea about exactly what happened on the day of the coup and what life has been like since then.
On 18 August 2020, news emerged from Mali that soldiers had detained the country’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and Prime Minister Boubou Cissé.
This followed months of widespread protests that saw people take to the streets demanding Keïta’s resignation; critics blamed him and his administration for the country’s economic and security woes.
On 19 of August, Keita announced his resignation on television, adding, “I wish no blood to be shed to keep me in power.”
Bamako-based photographer and blogger Ousmane Traoré went out to take photographs on the day of the coup as well as on the following day. He says people were out cheering on the army, many ecstatic. “There was jubilation, people were happy, the blow to the president was expected, because the situation had been tense between those in power and the demonstrators who demanded the departure of the president.”
Like Traoré, business consultant Kalilou Malick was not surprised by the actions of the army. He was sitting in his home in Bamako when news of the coup came through, “Most Malian people were not surprised to see this coup happen after several months of social and political instability and protests across the country. Particularly in Bamako, we were convinced that the team of former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation then. People were not scared or angry at all. The coup happened as if to free Malians from a bad governance. I still remember that the Place de l’Indépendence (downtown Bamako) was crowded just a few hours after the coup—a way for people to manifest their support to the military,” he says.
The days following the coup saw international actors condemning the actions of the coup leaders and demanding that Keita be reinstated as president. ECOWAS suspended the country from all its decision-making bodies, closed borders with Mali and dispatched a delegation led by mediator Goodluck Jonathan.
While all this unfolded, Malick says, the atmosphere in the country was largely normal. “For many Malians, what happened should not even be considered a coup; it was a popular protest which pushed the military to intervene. Thus people were going about their usual business.”
While Traoré had found the majority of the population were happy about the coup, Malick says that, in the aftermath, people began wondering whether the military would organise elections and what the impact of the actions taken by the international community would be.
“For many Malians, what happened should not even been considered a coup, it was a popular protest which pushed the military to intervene.”
A month later, the country’s former defence minister Bah Ndaw was named president while Colonel Assimi Goïta, the leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) which had led the coup, was appointed vice president. This civilian-led caretaker government was to lead the country for up to 18 months, after which elections would be held.
While for people like Traoré and Malick life continued largely as usual, others noted that the military had installed its officers at senior levels in a range of public institutions, suggesting that while Ndaw was president, the military was actually running the show.
Nine months after the coup that removed IBK, President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane were taken to the Kati military camp following a cabinet reshuffle that Colonel Assimi Goïta said he had not been consulted about. Ndaw and Ouane resigned and Goïta declared himself the country’s president, ultimately carrying out what can best be described as “a coup within a coup”.
This move led to widespread condemnation from the international community and threw the planning of elections within 18 months off course.
In Bamako, hairdresser Amina Guindo was at work when reports of Ndaw’s arrest began streaming in: “It was not a shock to see Colonel Goïta takeover, the trust in politicians had been low for a long time, he was simply acting on this. However, many of us became concerned regarding whether ECOWAS would impose sanctions again and also, while we wanted this fresh new system in place to start our democratic process again, we have seen throughout history on this continent what can happen when people get into power and then do not leave.”
The back and forth about when the elections would be held continued between ECOWAS and Mali’s military junta. The regional bloc was keen for elections to be held in February 2022 while the government said it wanted to hold a national consultation before setting a date. In December 2021, it was announced that the transition period could last up to 5-years, to which ECOWAS responded with sanctions, including the closure of Mali’s land and air borders and the freezing of Malian state assets held in ECOWAS banks.
The urgency for elections was not felt by everyone. Both Traoré and Malick said rushing elections is not the solution, that problematic polls were what led to the popular protests in the first place. Thus, for many in Mali, the quality of the polls was of utmost importance, while at the same time concerns regarding when these would be held had begun to grow.
In terms of the ECOWAS sanctions, Malick says these created an even greater feeling of patriotism in the country as people felt that ECOWAS serves the interests of presidents and not the people.
Prior to the removal of IBK, protestors had demanded that French troops leave the country and such sentiments continued to be heard after the coup, while tensions between the junta and Paris led to Mali expelling the French ambassador.
Malick says that while dislike of France has always existed in the country, the perceived rise of such sentiments could actually be because many had felt unable to express anti-French sentiment under previous governments whereas under the military they now could.
On 3 July 2022, ECOWAS announced the lifting of sanctions on Mali. This came after the junta set an election deadline of February 2024.
For people like Amina this was a welcome move: “The sanctions affected access to products and did not help the rise in the cost of living. We needed this.”
Despite the challenges the country has faced over the last two years, Malick and Traoré say most people look back at that day in August 2020 and believe that removing IBK was for the best: “What we need now is stability.”
On the night of Saturday 22 January 2022, finance officer Aïcha Sawadogo heard the sound of gunfire which seemed to come from one of the military barracks in the Burkinabé capital Ouagadougou.
“Despite the noise everyone was relatively calm. The next day rumours circulated that President Kaboré had been detained. Internet access was also patchy. On Monday morning it was business as usual for all of us at the office when it was confirmed that the military had taken over.”
What perhaps is most striking is that Sawadogo says that the coup did not come as a surprise: “Since November 2021 there had been whispers that the military were planning to take over.”
Demonstrations had been taking place for months demanding that Kaboré stepdown over an escalating security crisis that has enveloped the Sahel region. “We were unhappy with the Kaboré government over its failure to protect people from terrorists, and thus many were in support of the army. There were big celebrations.”
Despite the challenges the country has faced over the last two years, Malick and Traoré say most people look back at that day in August 2020 and believe removing IBK was for the best.
This was in stark contrast to the 2015 coup attempt in the country, which Sawadogo says had left people terrified. She says military presence on the streets was minimal this time round.
“The week of the coup felt surreal in that people were celebrating the Burkinabé football team progressing in the Africa Cup of Nations tournament while these big political changes took place around us. Once the army lifted the curfew it had put in place, you would find people out at night watching AFCON while discussing what would happen next. A popular sentiment was ‘perhaps the military will fix the security situation’”.
The following week, coup leader Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba was named interim president.
While ECOWAS pushed for the junta to name an election date, people in the country were initially in no rush, “In the entire Sahel region it’s like elections change nothing because the system is corrupt. Many Burkinabé felt that let’s clear up the democratic process first.”
While in agreement with this, Sawadogo had her own concerns, “The junta named a 15-person committee to plan for the elections but the lack of diversity in terms of gender was astonishing. This was a real red flag.”
The junta’s initial proposal for a three-year transition period also rang alarm bells. “People wondered if the military just wanted power; ultimately, a country is not like your father’s house that you can just come and take over.”
The last few months have seen the junta agree on a February 2025 election, while its relations with ECOWAS have somewhat thawed.
“Since November 2021 there had been whispers that the military were planning to take over.”
We speak again on the 2 October 2022 as she reflects upon the country’s second coup: “The same instability, the same confusion and the same frustrations have found their way to us again.”
Amid it all, Sawadogo says one issue remains: insecurity.
“Fifty people killed in a massacre in Madjoari in May, 86 dead in an attack in Seytenga in June, 22 people killed by armed men in Kossi Province in July, 50 civilians missing following an attack on a convoy in Gaskinde in September. What does it matter who is in power if people are still dying? And now a second coup, a second leader suggesting there is no unity in our army or government. So how are they to fix this situation?”
On 5 September 2021, journalist Aminata Sylla received a call from a military source saying that President Alpha Condé had been detained by the army.
Later that day Sylla watched a group of soldiers appear on state TV where coup leader Colonel Doumbouya announced that he was acting in Guinea’s best interests and that the state of the country suggested that it was “time to wake up”.
In the following days Sylla saw pockets of celebrations as members of the opposition and pro-democracy groups took to the streets. Meanwhile, a clip of an irate Condé sitting on a sofa surrounded by soldiers was circulating on social media.
“A lot of commentary which surrounded that video featured people making jokes. Very few were concerned that the army would mistreat him. The referendum he held to remove term limits had been the last straw for people,” says Sylla.
For Sylla, one question was at the forefront of everyone’s mind:
“What next? 11 years Condé had been in power, now he was gone. So, what next? That’s the most terrifying part of living in a system where leaders don’t step down and then are either removed or maybe die in office. They leave behind a trail of instability.”
A month after the coup, Colonel Doumbouya was sworn in as president.
In the eleven months since Condé’s removal, Sylla has noted a change in the public mood: “The FNDC [National Front for the Defence of the Constitution] opposition and civil society coalition have called for demonstrations against the junta. We saw three of its members brutally arrested during a press conference in July. This made us all wonder: are they any different from Condé?”
Meanwhile, ECOWAS has expressed dissatisfaction with the junta’s proposed 36-month transition to elections and has imposed targeted sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans. But while the people of Guinea are focused upon the return of democracy, they want something more: justice.
“Authorities have imposed charges against Condé and members of his government, and that needs to be seen through. We cannot look to the future without clearing the ills of the past,” says Sylla.
ECOWAS has expressed dissatisfaction with the junta’s proposed 36-month transition to elections and has imposed targeted sanctions including asset freezes and travel bans.
While many would argue that coups are at their core anti-democratic and thus there is no such thing as a “positive coup”, it is likely that the leaders in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea would choose to disagree.
Throughout history, coups have made headlines and captured the imagination, creating a sense of intrigue and drama. Yet behind it all, there are very real consequences for those directly affected by them—those that want peace, justice, freedom and security in their homelands. Whether these military strongmen will be the ones to deliver this remains to be seen.