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We assess that the governments in Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya, Somalia and Sudan are currently the most vulnerable to extra-constitutional power transfers like coups

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 15 September 2023.

  • There have been eight successful military coups in Africa since 2020, most recently in Gabon in August
  • The main impacts on business operations from such power grabs are likely to stem from border closures and international sanctions

In light of several coups across Africa in recent years, clients have asked us which African countries we assess are vulnerable to regime instability risks. They have specifically asked about the possibility of a military coup in Nigeria or whether protests in Kenya could acutely destabilise the government. We currently assess that Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya, Somalia and Sudan are the most vulnerable to regime instability risks. And in Cameroon, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, the Republic of Congo and Uganda there are signs that regimes will become less stable over the coming years.

The main short-term business impact from any extra-constitutional power transfers would probably stem from border closures, and trade and internet restrictions. Such events have – and will certainly continue to – be viewed as highly consequential and exert significant internal and external pressures on security teams. This is even though they have rarely resulted in significant armed conflict in recent years. Still, successive coups are likely to hamper investor confidence and impact trade across Africa more broadly.

Recent wave of coups driven by insecurity among other reasons

There have been eight successful military coups in Africa since 2020, and 15 since 2010 (see map). While significant, this is much fewer than in the 1960s and 1990s. Several short-term drivers in the eight most recent coups have contributed to regime vulnerabilities and extra-constitutional power grabs. A combination of those factors is highly likely to generate more acute instability:

  • The government appears to be struggling to curb insecurity and has lost control over parts of its territory (e.g. Mali and Burkina Faso)
  • Elected leaders are attempting to extend their stay in power through fraudulent elections or constitutional changes (e.g. Guinea, Gabon and Sudan)
  • There is a wave of sustained popular protests and violent unrest against the authorities (e.g. Sudan, Guinea and Mali)
  • There are signs of discontent or mutiny among the security forces (e.g. Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso)
  • Failure of regional bodies to restore civilian rule after recent coups (e.g. Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea)

Insecurity seems to be one of the more prominent short-term drivers behind recent attempts to contest government legitimacy. For instance, Captain Ibrahim Traore deposed the previous Burkinabe military leader in 2022 (the second coup that year) and said it was ‘driven by a single ideal: the restoration of security’. But incumbent officials have previously overstated insecurity to justify their intervention. Military officers in Niger cited the ‘deteriorating security situation’ after deposing President Mohamed Bazoum. This is even though our data suggests the pace of jihadist attacks there has decreased in 2023 since a peak in 2019.

Military divisions or mutinies also appear to be a powerful near-term indicator of regime instability risks. These, along with less tangible factors like personalities (and clashes of those) are not always possible to outwardly discern. But they appear to come to the fore when influential officers perceive their interests to be under threat. The coup in Niger in August reportedly followed rumours that Bazoum was planning on replacing General Abdourahamane Tchiani (now in power) as commander of the presidential guard. Similarly, Assimi Goita effectively took power in Mali in 2021 after the transitional leader enacted a cabinet reshuffle that removed officers who had taken part in the 2020 coup alongside Goita.

Assessing vulnerability using structural indicators

Those near-term indicators are most likely to be consequential when a country is already structurally vulnerable. Signs of that include:

  • A (recent) history of coups
  • The political system is largely authoritarian and lacks popular legitimacy
  • There are high levels of corruption and patronage
  • The political system is in a state of transition towards or away from democratisation
  • Civil society is suppressed, as are freedoms of expression and association

Using a combination of these structural and short-term indicators, we assess the following countries as currently being the most vulnerable to crises where the government is unable to maintain control: Burkina Faso, Mali, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan.

There are several other countries that are likely in our assessment to become more vulnerable to unconstitutional challenges. In Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo and Uganda there are ageing leaders with either contentious succession plans or no clearly apparent successor raising the likelihood of a period of protracted political turmoil. In Chad and Guinea, there are comparatively young military leaders but both will remain highly reliant on their ability to maintain broad support within the military. Economic stresses on Egypt and Tunisia will probably increase pressures on what we assess are relatively stable regimes for now.

Business as usual despite coups?

Recent interactions with our clients suggest they treat coups as very consequential and impactful incidents. This seems to be because such events typically require significant stakeholder management and tend to draw in multiple teams. For instance, following the coup in Gabon, we were separately asked about internet restrictions, maritime border closures, the future of international agreements and the potential for this to inspire further coups in neighbouring countries.

For security-focused teams, the most immediate impact of unconstitutional power transfers often involves movement, trade and internet restrictions. Military juntas typically enforce border closures (including to air traffic) and internet outages, in a bid to control the spread of information around the coup. These are usually enforced for several days at least. But border closures and trade restrictions have also previously lasted several months when these were imposed by regional bodies such as ECOWAS.

Recent unconstitutional power grabs in Africa have rarely led to widespread armed fighting. This is especially true for successful coups that have faced little domestic opposition, thereby limiting risks to bystanders. This is also because some of these (e.g. Sudan in 2021 and Gabon) were seemingly aimed at removing a leader rather than offering a break in policies which may have threatened the elite’s interest and sparked armed opposition. Even in instances where fighting was reported, such as in Guinea in 2021, armed confrontations were largely contained to the presidential palace and lasted a few hours at most.

Beyond the days following coups, clients are likely to be exposed to further political volatility and uncertainty around policy direction. Based on the trajectory of recent power grabs, incumbent regimes typically enforce greater levels of state control, characterised by more extensive military involvement in domestic politics. We have also seen in some instances, like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, such regimes promote anti-Western, particularly anti-French rhetoric. Although this remains largely focused on diplomatic assets rather than businesses.

Image: Military chiefs for the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) hold a two-day summit in Accra, Ghana, to discuss potential military intervention in Niger on 17 August 2023. Photo by Ernest Ankomah via Getty Images.