Africa’s coup belt spans the continent: a line of six countries crossing 3,500 miles, from coast to coast, that has become the longest corridor of military rule on Earth.
This past week’s military takeover in the West African nation of Niger toppled the final domino in a band across the girth of Africa, from Guinea in the west to Sudan in the east, now controlled by juntas that came to power in a coup — all but one in the past two years.
The last leader to fall was Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum, a democratically elected American ally who disappeared on Wednesday when his own guards detained him at the presidential palace in the capital, Niamey. His security chief now claims to be running the country.
“We have decided to intervene,” Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, Niger’s new self-appointed ruler, said in a televised address on Friday.
The coup instantly reverberated far beyond Niger, a sprawling and impoverished country in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods. African leaders sounded the alarm over the latest blow to democracy on a continent where decades of hard-won advances are slipping away.
“Africa has suffered a serious setback,” Kenya’s president, William Ruto, said on Friday.
For the United States and its allies, the coup raised urgent questions about the fight against Islamist militants in the Sahel, the vast semiarid region where groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are gaining ground at an alarming pace, moving from the desert toward the sea. Much of the Sahel overlaps with Africa’s newly formed, coast-to-coast coup belt.
“I’m very worried that Sahelian Africa is going to melt down,” said Paul Collier, a professor of economics and public policy at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government.
The Sahel has surpassed the Middle East and South Asia to become the global epicenter of jihadist violence, accounting for 43 percent of 6,701 deaths in 2022, up from 1 percent in 2007, according to the Global Terrorism Index, an annual study by the Institute for Economics and Peace.
Until this past week, Niger was the cornerstone of the Pentagon’s regional strategy. At least 1,100 American troops are stationed in the country, where the U.S. military built drone bases in Niamey and the northern city of Agadez, one at a cost of $110 million. Now, all of that is in jeopardy.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, speaking at a news conference in Australia, warned on Saturday that the United States could end its financial support and security cooperation for Niger if Mr. Bazoum were not reinstated as president. Though officials say the United States would be reluctant to go that far, Mr. Blinken was unequivocal.
“The very significant assistance that we have in place — that is making a material difference in the lives of the people of Niger — is clearly in jeopardy,” he said. “And we’ve communicated that as clearly as we possibly can to those responsible for disrupting the constitutional order.”
Any American withdrawal could open a door to Russia.
The sight of Russian flags being waved by coup supporters in Niamey this past week echoed similar scenes after a coup in neighboring Burkina Faso last year. The flags do not mean the Kremlin was behind the coup, analysts say. But they do symbolize how Russia has positioned itself as the torch bearer of anti-Western, and especially anti-French, sentiment in a swath of Africa in recent years.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sought to exploit that gap at this past week’s Africa summit in St. Petersburg, where he proposed to liberate African countries from “colonialism and neocolonialism” — even as his country’s own Wagner mercenaries have exploited African gold and diamonds, and committed civilian atrocities.
For Wagner’s mercurial boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the run of coups is a business opportunity. His forces already operate openly in Mali and Sudan in the coup belt, as well as in the nearby Central African Republic and Libya. Hovering on the margins of the St. Petersburg summit this past week, Mr. Prigozhin praised the coup in Niger, then proposed sending his own armed fighters to help.
But if the coup belt has become a theater of geopolitical maneuvering, the coups themselves are rooted in an explosive mix of local factors, experts say.
In Guinea, the coup leaders justified their actions by citing public anger at widespread corruption; in Mali and Burkina Faso, they claimed to have an answer to the tide of Islamist militancy plaguing their countries.
In fact, insurgent violence has spread under the military juntas, accelerating the spiral of instability.
In Burkina Faso, attacks once confined to the north of the country have come closer to the capital in recent months. In Mali, where the military replaced 5,000 French troops with about 1,000 Wagner mercenaries, civilian deaths have soared, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tracks casualties.
Everywhere, weak states are a factor. The Sahel has some of the world’s poorest countries and the highest birthrates (Niger, where an average woman has seven children, tops the list). Their soaring populations of frustrated, jobless young people swell the ranks of the insurgents.
The youth bulge shows up among coup-makers, too. Most of the recent takeovers were led by men in their 30s or early 40s, on a continent where the average leader is in their 60s. Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, who was just 34 when he seized power in Burkina Faso last year, is the world’s youngest head of state.
African countries have experienced 98 successful coups since 1952, a recent United Nations report on coups in Africa found. Jonathan Powell, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, said the most coups had occurred in Sudan, where the latest takeover, in 2021, seeded an explosive military feud that recently grew into full-scale war.
The takeovers dipped to their lowest level in the decade up to 2017, a period that included the Arab Spring and the ouster of longtime autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Then the pendulum swung hard in the opposite direction.
In Chad, seizing power is a family tradition. The country’s ruler, Mahamat Idriss Déby, took over in 2021 after his father, who had come to power in a 1990 coup, was killed in a battle.
Niger seemed different.
Despite a long history of coups, the desert-dominated nation of 25 million people seemed to be on a path to stability under Mr. Bazoum, who was elected president in 2021.
He was making progress against the militants, appeared to enjoy the support of the armed forces and was celebrated by influential Westerners. Onstage with Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates at a talk last October, the smiling Mr. Bazoum was introduced as a “gender warrior” for promoting the education of girls and a reduction in the birthrate.
But then a personal factor struck: tensions with the head of the presidential guard, General Tchiani, that seem to have initiated this past week’s mutiny, said Dr. Issaka K. Souaré, the author of a book on coups in West Africa.
Sometimes, Dr. Souaré added, coups simply come like swallows.
“There’s a contagion effect,” he said. “You see your colleagues in neighboring countries have toppled the civilians, and now the red carpet is rolled under your feet. You want the same.”
Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt and Michael D. Shear from Washington, Paul Sonne from Berlin, and Damien Cave from Brisbane, Australia.