Between 2020 and 2023, a concerning trend emerged in West and Central Africa, marked by eight coups d’état. In each of these instances, the leaders orchestrating these coups defended their actions as being in the best interests of their respective nations.
Following these tumultuous events, both the Central Africa Regional Block and the Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS), a 15-nation regional coalition, initially condemned the takeovers and subsequently announced their commitment to restoring constitutional order through various measures.
Unfortunately, their collective efforts have met with limited success. This begs the question: why has West Africa experienced a higher susceptibility to coups?
The answer lies in a combination of economic hardships and weak governance that have generated heightened frustration among the civilian population, particularly among the youth, ultimately contributing to these takeovers.
The demographic factor
The median age of a country serves as a pivotal demographic indicator, representing the age at which half of the population is older, and half is younger. It essentially splits the population into two equal parts, with as many individuals above the median age as there are below it.
This metric holds significant importance in understanding a nation’s demographic profile. Criminal psychologists contend that the majority of crimes tend to be committed or garner significant support from individuals aged 15 to 24. Criminal activity typically decreases or ceases altogether between the ages of 25 and 40.
Interestingly, a similar pattern emerges in the context of coups, where a predominant proportion of supporters belong to this same age group, often taking to the streets in admiration of the coup’s instigators. The transition of a country’s median age from a youthful to an intermediate or matured age structure occurs when concerted efforts are made to target and reduce higher-risk pregnancies, alongside a decline in fertility rates.
This shift is indicative of significant changes in the demographic composition of a nation and sustainable development.
Africa’s median age, at 18 years, reflects its youthful population—a demographic picture that falls squarely within the crime-prone age range of 15 to 24 years. This makes it susceptible to supporting coup leaders or engaging in various vices when governments fail to meet their needs for employment, education, and social services.
Notably, countries recently affected by coups have median ages ranging from 14.5 in Niger to 21.7 in Gabon, all within the crime-prone age bracket, creating ideal conditions for coup-related unrest.
It’s well-documented that nations with youthful populations struggle with effective governance, corruption control, rule of law enforcement, and political and economic stability. A 2021 UNDP report labeled sub-Saharan Africa as the global epicenter of violent extremism, responsible for almost half of worldwide terrorism-related suffering and deaths.
The report found that 25% of recruits cited a lack of job opportunities, and 40% joined extremist groups for livelihood reasons. Unfortunately, coups, when they occur, tend to exacerbate problems rather than solve them.
Can West Africa effectively eliminate coups if population dynamics are ignored in the sustainable development agenda? Neglecting population-influencing initiatives only amplifies the consequences of coups and their disruptions. Understanding the root causes of coups is the first step in building sustainable communities based on positive peace—a crucial approach to breaking the coup cycle in West Africa.
While coups are complex, preventing them remains a challenge. However, leaders must heed the golden rule of political demography: avoid policies that perpetuate persistently youthful populations demographically young, as their consequences continually plague societies.
To transition from a youthful to a mature median age, politicians within ECOWAS should prioritize programs aimed at improving the median age in West Africa, rather than solely focusing on long-term political stability. Specifically, they must champion initiatives that enhance access to high-quality family planning and reproductive health services, eliminate child marriage, and enhance girls’ education.
These measures can bring about sustainable changes in economic and social conditions. Our current circumstances are, in part, a result of how we have historically prioritized (or failed to prioritize) demographic indicators. The quality of life in the future will hinge on the demographic decisions we make today, irrespective of our natural resource endowments.
If our democratic practices solely revolve around procedural elections and political competition, coup d’états—actions that often exacerbate problems—may unfortunately persist. Therefore, it is imperative that we broaden our approach to address the underlying demographic factors contributing to these issues.
The writer is the Executive Director of the National Population Council (NPC).