Return of Military coups in Africa threatens Democratic gains achieved in past decades

The recent coups d’état in Africa threaten the political stability and democratization trends achieved in the past decade in the post-independence era. History has shown that military coups directly impact the human development and economic growth of a country. This article analyses the root causes of these coup, often masterminded by the military regimes.  Whereas the continent has achieved tremendous progress in building democratic institutions, in this blog I argue that the conditions for recurring coups have largely remained since the adoption of continental binding principles (Lome declarations, ACDEG). The African Union (AU) and regional economic communities (RECS) ought to be more pragmatic, bold and decisive in its approaches in promoting good governance agenda in Africa.

Guinea Military juntas led by Col.Mamady Doumbouya shortly overthrowing President Alpha Conde in Guinea. Source. Internet

Historically, the army has been a part and parcel in masterminding coup d’états in many African countries.  Over the years, the continent through its governing body (AU) has worked towards strengthening capacity to discourage unconstitutional change of governments. However, these trends are seen to be making a comeback. In Sudan, in October 2021, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan announced the dissolution of the civilian arm of a transitional government, set up just 2 years after we witnessed the coup d’état that overthrew the reign of long-serving leader Omar Al Bashir. Worrisome, that we witnessed similar events unfold on 5th September 2021 in Guinea, where Guinean special forces army officers led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya overthrew the government of Alpha Conde, 83, who had secured the third term in office after successfully extending the presidential term limits while in office. In the neighboring country Mali, the military in 2021 dissolved the government twice within the space of one year. In Niger, an attempted coup was staged in March 2021, just days before the presidential inauguration ceremony. Likewise, in Chad, the Military Council, headed by former President Idriss Deby’s son, took over power and installed a new government after the assassination of the then President in office. Furthermore, we have witnessed several failed coups attempts in Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Burkina Faso. Much as these coups are inspired by several different contextual factors, one similarity that spans across the countries is that the military juntas often ride on the popular support from the frustrated and unemployed civilian population against the long-serving authoritarian leaders, who are deemed responsible for bad governance and lack of opportunities.

The African continent has experienced several coups d’états during the post-independence struggles. According to a report published by Cambridge University in 2003, Sub-Saharan Africa experienced 80 successfully staged coups, and 108 failed coup attempts between 1951 and mid-2020. During that time, only 30 incumbents were able to relinquish power peacefully after losing an election to opposing politicians, while 28 heads of state voluntarily left office after serving the legally allowed number of terms as President. In the past years, the leaders of coup d’état often credit their actions for toppling governments to reasons such as corruption, mismanagement/failure of governance, and poverty.

The plotters of recent coups have also echoed similar claims. In an interview by Reuters, Col. Mamadou Doubouya of Guinea cited “poverty and endemic corruption” as the reasons for removing President Alpha Conde from office. Likewise, in previous coups in Sudan and Zimbabwe, the Generals who removed Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and Robert Mugabe in 2017 respectively, made similar claims.

 

The coups are a reflection of deeper governance issues in the continent

The justifications made by coup plotters resonate with the current realities in many African countries. There is increasing frustration among the unemployed and uneducated young population that is yearning for participation in the governance process and access to economic opportunities. A report released by Afrobarometer in 2021 found that several citizens in sub-Saharan Africa acknowledged that governments are not matching the promises on service delivery, job creation for the youth, and the fight against corruption. Instead, there has been a considerable shrinking of civic space to demand these rights. We have witnessed an outrageous crackdown on freedom of expression, killings, arrest, and forced disappearance of dissenting views. These have instilled fear and mistrust between the government and the civilian population. As a result, young Africans are falling onto the promises of “coupes” army generals, who are forcefully assuming power with false hope for radical change, economic progress, and freedom —  promises that often turn out to be short-lived.

Civilians took to the streets of Guinea capital Conakry after the overthrow of Alpha Conde. Source: BBC News

Even if assumed that there is a positive side to these coups, the important question is, whether popular support is enough to justify these coups? This has been a subject of contentious debate over the years, raising the uncomfortable dilemma of whether citizens can pursue undemocratic means to remove political leaders who entrench themselves in power through irregular methods and subversive use of the military. History shows that these military rulers govern no better than democratically elected leaders in Africa, and such interventions often come with great risks.  The world has not forgotten the iron fist rule of army generals like Idi Amin, Babangida, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and Sani Abacha who brought hope and excitement initially when they overthrew regimes, but with time, turned out to be monsters against their people. (McGowan: 2003:340).

Therefore, by condoning such an approach, Africa risks falling back to its darkest times in the post-colonial era characterized by lawlessness, instabilities, dictatorships, and relentless coups. Much as most of these coups have been met with popular jubilations on the streets by the disenchanted youth celebrating the fall of leaders who use unconstitutional methods to cling to power, this unconstitutional approach for transfer of power does not provide a better antidote.

Col.Mamody Doumbouya addressing the media after the Juntas took charge. Source; Aljazeera news

What can the African Union and RECs do?

The biggest continental body (The African Union) has been subject to criticism by its lack of teeth to bite when it comes to the enforcement of continental agreements. The existing framework drawback from 2000 when the propensity for staging coups had drastically increased, then, the Organization for African Unity (OAU), which was not known for getting involved in “internal affairs” of member states made an exception to toughen its measures to discourage unconstitutional change of government. The Union adopted a decree (Lome Declaration of 2000), which stipulates the suspension of any member states involved in unconstitutional change in government. This was followed by the adoption of The African Charter on Democracy, Election and Governance (ACDEG) framework to guide member states, regional economic communities (RECs) in building stable democratic institutions, rule of law, promoting good governance, and ensuring peace and security. To oversee the implementation of these ambitions, a secretariate was created, called The African Governance Architecture secretariate within the department of political affairs, to promote engagement and dialogue of member states on the adoption of better approaches to promote rule of law, consolidation of democratic institutions, ensuring good governance, and addressing the aspects of unconstitutional change of government in the continent.

However, for such a continent framework to achieve results, members states must work towards the commitments. Up to now, about 35 member states out of 55 have ratified the agreement. About 15 have shown interest through signing but have yet to ratify according to the primer published by the ECDPM think tank  in 2022. Similarly, the greater task has been on enforcement by the governing body. Over the year, the African Union has been criticized for its inconsistency in responding to these coups. For example, David Zounmenou, the researcher at Institute for Security Studies (ISS) pointed out how the Union suspended Mali from AU and ECOWAS after the 2020 and 2021 coups, while Chad was allowed to remain in the AU, pending transition to civilian rule in the election. He argued that such inconsistency appears biased and perpetuates deliberate regime changes on the continent.

Another critique posited by Atta-Asamoah at a recent seminar on peace and security in Africa stated that the framework is only reactive, not preventative. Therefore, there is a need to uncover the root causes of these coups by asking questions as to why they happen and dismantling the breeding factors that encourage them.

African Union must strengthen its response mechanism to predict these coups. It must show that it can bite by punishing bad governance on the continent by toughening and applying sanctions indiscriminately on presidents who manipulate and extend constitutional term limits against the will of the people and calling out flawed elections which often leave citizens yearning for regime changes. These approaches will not only deter leaders from clinging to power, but will also reignite citizens’ trust towards using democratic means for seeking regime changes. Democracy can work for Africa, but its leaders ought to prioritise and practice good governance, adopt democratic principles, and hold free and fair elections to affirm and renew the faith of its citizens towards democratic transfer of power.


References

McGowan, Patrick J. “African Military Coups d’état, 1956-2001: Frequency, Trends, and Distribution.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 339–70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3876235.

Downing, J. (2008) “Social Movement Theories and Alternative Media: An Evaluation and Critique,” Communication, Culture & Critique, 1(1), pp. 40–50. DOI: 10.1111/j.1753-9137.2007.00005.x.


 

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About the author:

Robert Okello is an ISS alumnus who attended the Human rights, Gender, and Conflict class of 2020-2021. He currently works as Policy Researcher with European Centre for Development Policy Management under the governance and accountability, working to build inclusive and sustainable development policy and cooperation between Europe and Africa.

 

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