By Conor Godfrey
Anyone who followed African news in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, would be forgiven for thinking that a coup d’état once every five to ten years was written into West African constitutions. Yet, like small cars and women’s boots, shooting your way into the presidential palace is back in style.
Last Thursday in Niger the Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy followed in the footsteps of neighboring Guinea and Mauritania by seizing democratically elected President Mamadou Tandja at gunpoint.
So why are West African governments falling like dominoes? Oil and drugs.
I do not mean to ignore the host of possible global and local factors that may also bear some responsibility (global downturn, commodity prices, localized disputes), but I think we are seeing the first bubbles of instability rising from a torrent of illicit cash derived from the drug trade and the prospect of mind-blowing oil profits.
Drugs first: For some time predominantly South American drug cartels have been using weak West African states as transit points for Europe-bound product. Guinea-Bissau has the honor of being labeled Africa’s first “Narco-State,” but its southern neighbor, Guinea-Conakry, is in contention for that dubious distinction.
In 2009 the Guinean government exposed “drug labs” in Guinea used to facilitate this narcotics trade. That same year a smuggling ring involving former President Conte’s son was shut down in the southern city of Boke.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, drug cargoes make the trip from coastal countries by convoy through Mauritania to Niger and beyond.
Notice that every country along that route has experienced a coup in the last two years. The revenue streaming in from cartels to corrupt officials dramatically alters the calculus of those in power and those who would see them ousted.
Let me put the problem in its appropriate financial context: when I worked in Guinea as a teacher I made $220 per month. This dwarfed the official salary of my Guinean principal and roughly equaled the official salary of his boss the superintendent. Imagine what a South American drug cartel could do with several thousand dollars, or several tens of thousands? It would be a tag sale of epic and disastrous proportions.
Oil: Experts predict that the Gulf of Guinea will soon account for 7% of the world’s total oil reserves. Exploration is underway in all but two West African countries (Burkina Faso and Cape Verde), and Ghana will become an oil producer as early as the last quarter of this year. Oil money, much like drug money, lends itself to secrecy and corruption.
Could the prospect of such easy-to-pocket money underlie the recent decisions by several West African leaders to stage ‘constitutional coups’ by amending their countries’ constitutions in order to serve additional terms? Nobody wants to leave office the year before money literally starts exploding out of the ground.
There is blood in the water, and the sharks will not be denied. The coup d’etat is back in vogue, and investors and policy makers should expect this fad to last through the season.
This instability map of Africa also shows the location of significant mineral extraction points. The correlation between mineral wealth and instability jumps out immediately. Imagine what might happen when oil-producing icons start to pop up all over West Africa? If you are more of a concrete thinker, just look at Nigeria.