Tag Archives Democracy

Is the legacy of the Arab Spring greater oppression? Twelve years after the Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s civil society has been all but nationalized

Is the legacy of the Arab Spring greater oppression? Twelve years after the Egyptian Revolution, Egypt’s civil society has been all but nationalized

The popular uprising that swept across Egypt exactly twelve years ago was supposed to herald a new era marked by greater political freedom and the end of state oppression. But ...

Brazilian democracy – an aberration or a challenge?

Brazilian democracy – an aberration or a challenge?

The invasion of government offices in Brasília on 8 January by mobs of protestors and vandals forces us to revisit a fundamental question: is Brazil’s relatively recent move to democracy ...

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.


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.


Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

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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The War in Ukraine: Is this the End of the Liberal International Order?

The War in Ukraine: Is this the End of the Liberal International Order?

By Posted on

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought war back to Europe. The international ramifications of the war are clear, for instance now that President Putin talks about nuclear deterrence and ...

COVID-19 | Another top priority in times of crisis: keep democratic life up and running by Isabelle Desportes

COVID-19 | Another top priority in times of crisis: keep democratic life up and running by Isabelle Desportes

The coronavirus crisis seems to have reduced societal functioning to the bare minimum as an increasing number of governments have limited freedom of movement in an attempt to halt the ...

In search of a new social contract in the Middle East and North Africa – what role for social policy? by Mahmood Messkoub

Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is in urgent need of reform. Critiques of current social policy models point out their deficiencies in terms of coverage of population, entitlement to services, fragmentation of support for different groups and inadequacy of services provided, and above all a wasteful generalized/untargeted subsidy structure. The answer to these shortcomings not only lies in the redirection of resources from generalized subsidies towards targeted sectors and populations, but also in a broad rethinking and democratic dialogue on a new social contract and social policy models in order to improve coverage, entitlement, and the quality of services.

In 2019, mass popular protests shook several countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as protesters demanded an end to authoritarian rule and corruption and called for democracy and a decent life. The call for a decent life was not just a protest against the failure of states to alleviate poverty and improve living conditions, but was also seen as an opportunity for a change in the social contract. The protests illuminated a desire to move away from patronage and clientelism that eroded post-independence universalist ideals and social policies.

Some of these protests were triggered by a sudden jump in the price of basic goods (e.g. of bread in Sudan or petrol in Iran) that released the pent-up frustration with repression, corruption, a lack of accountability and deep-seated economic and social problems that have simply been cracked over by the ruling elite. People all over the MENA could easily identify with the Sudanese slogan of ‘freedom, peace and justice’ used in the protests, which would eventually topple the dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir. Freedom, peace and justice are not only important for their own sake, but are also needed for a national debate on social policies that could meet people’s aspirations for better education, health, social protection, etc.

In MENA, social policies have been developed mainly as an integral part of the broad social and economic development agenda in the post-colonial period. Oil income provided resources to pay for healthcare, education, and extensive subsidies for the provision of food, fuel and energy to consumers. Non-oil producers also benefited from the oil income through labour remittances, foreign aid, and investment by the oil-rich countries. But in the 1980s, a low growth rate and the decline in oil revenues put the finances of the MENA countries to test. The region was ill equipped in terms of a skilled labour force and social insurance policies to compete internationally and diversify its economy. The existing social programmes mostly covered formal sector employees including those in the civil service. Large numbers of informal sector workers, rural residents, and agricultural workers had to rely on poor publicly provided services or fall back on meager family resources and charitable handouts of non-state providers in an informal security regime. The formal and informal social provisioning were based on a male-breadwinner household with negative implications for gender equality in law and in relation to entitlement to welfare and social support that was exacerbated by the low labour force participation rate of women.

In addition, state expenditures on social policy programmes are constrained by expenditures on generalized indirect subsidies, inter alia, to fuel, public utilities, water, and staple food sources.  According to one estimate, fuel subsidies account for nearly 75% of the total subsidy spending in MENA (Silva et al 2013). The higher income groups in general benefit most from these indirect subsidies except staple food, since the latter takes a larger share of consumption expenditure of lower income groups.

The existing social policy model of generalized indirect subsidies has failed to provide a solution to increasing poverty and vulnerability in the region, especially in periods of social and economic crisis. The reform of the subsidy structure should not only take note of differential impact of the indirect subsidies, but also has to be part of a broad social policy agenda.

The current debate on social policy in the region is about the reform and reduction of the indirect subsidy structure and moving away from a universal rights-based approach to social provisioning towards targeting poverty and improving social protection. Whilst cuts in indirect subsidies and strengthening of social protection are needed, it is essential that any targeting and social protection do not undermine the broad rights-based social policy agenda of public provisioning of health and education and rules governing the labour market to support employment that will improve the economic foundation of household economy.

There is also the all-important concern with the role of households and families to support themselves. In the absence of adequate family resources, there is a need for social policy measures that would supplement family resources and support the broad developmental agenda and ensure societal and macro-level inter-generational support. In this context, the most basic objective of any state intervention is to maintain and increase the resource base of households. This is particularly important if we take into account the changing demographics of the region: the lowering of fertility and ageing of the population. The MENA societies and families are ill prepared for an ageing population.

The Arab Spring and its counterparts in Turkey and Iran have been much more than a cry for freedom and democracy. It has also been a cry for social justice and against corruption that has aggravated capitalist inequality. The use of and access to public office for private accumulation, lack of accountability, and poor governance have all contributed to a sense of desperation and alienation of the population, especially the young. The region is in need of a new social contract. Social policy should play an important role in the design and implementation of this social contract.

What MENA needs is a return to the universalist social policy ideals of a developmental state but within a democratic political environment that promotes genuine popular engagement and participation, as well as transparency and accountability, in order to arrive at an inclusive and new social contract. The details and boundaries of this new social contract would be country specific and depend on the national political and economic developments.

This blog is based on the author’s recent publications:
Messkoub, M. (2017). ‘Population ageing and inter-generational relation in the MENA: what role for social policy?’ Population Horizons, 14(2): 61-72.
Jawad, R., Jones, N. and Messkoub, M. (eds) (2019) Social policy in the Middle East and North Africa: the new social protection paradigm and universal coverage. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar publishers.
Messkoub, M. (2020) ‘Social Policy in the MENA’ in Hakimian, H. (2020) Routledge Handbook on Middle East Economy. London: Routledge.
Silva, J., Levin, V. and M. Morgandi (2013) ‘Inclusion and Resilience: The Way Forward for Social Safety Nets in the Middle East and North Africa’. Washington DC: World Bank.

About the author:

Mahmoud Meskoub is senior lecturer at the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University of Rotterdam), teaching and researching in areas of social policy and population studies. As an economist he taught for many years in the UK (at the universities of Leeds and London). His current research interests are in the area of economics of social policy and population ageing, migration and universal approach to social provisioning. His recent publications on MENA are related to social policy, the impact of recent financial crisis on the region, poverty and employment policies. He has acted as a consultant to ESCWA, ILO, UNFPA and the World Bank.

Image Credit: AK Rockefeller on Flickr

EADI/ISS Series | Rethinking Empowerment and Accountability in ‘Difficult Settings’ by John Gaventa

EADI/ISS Series | Rethinking Empowerment and Accountability in ‘Difficult Settings’ by John Gaventa

Over the last two decades, development has been replete with theories and interventions focusing on ‘empowerment and accountability’, and how these could contribute to a range of outcomes, be they ...

Deglobalisation Series | Challenges to the liberal peace by Syed Mansoob Murshed

Deglobalisation Series | Challenges to the liberal peace by Syed Mansoob Murshed

We may have reached a stage where economic interactions have become so internationalised that further increases in globalisation cannot deliver greater prospects of peace. But the logic of the capitalist ...

The Age of Democratic Resilience by Mohamed Salih

About the author:
M_SalihMohamed Salih is PhD in Economics and Social Science, University of Manchester, UK, 1983) is Professor of Politics of Development at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague and the Department of Political Science, University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Regional research interests, fieldwork, academic and policy research interests: Africa and Middle East and shortly in the English-speaking Caribbean.

This posting is an excerpt of the valedictory lecture of Mohamed Salih at the occasion of his retirement from the Institute of Social Studies. The lecture was held on 12 October 2017

Current academic views, media reports and policy and development practitioners often claim that democracy and development are declining or even ending. Mohamed Salih maintains that democracy is not dying but expanding beyond its classic form of representative democracy. What has declined, however, is educated democracy and authentic development that sides with the poor and critically embraces solidarity against want, hunger and fear, resisting tyranny and authoritarianism or confronting discrimination in all its forms.  

It is perplexing that the phenomenal expansion of democracy during recent decades has lately been greeted by suggestions in a considerable number of publications that it is in decline or has died. This, in spite of the fact that we live in an age in which democracy has flourished like never before. Democracy, and development, are flourishing in new spaces, institutional forms and practices. These capitalize on new freedoms democracy has unleashed and new technologies that have created millions of globally networked communities of interest, with a direct bearing on politics locally, nationally, regionally and globally.

I have lived over six decades of how development policy intertwines with African politics, living half of my age in the Sudan and the other half in Europe, as well as conducting research, teaching and offering policy advice for the larger part of my life.  A pessimist may argue that over five decades, during which fundamental social, economic and environmental problems have preoccupied academia, policy and practice, these problems are not only still lingering, but some have even been exacerbated, and new social problems have been piled upon the old. Moreover, the intensification of old and new threats to human survival and wellbeing such as poverty, persistent hunger and inequality, epitomized by the juxtaposition of foods that kill and famines that kill[1], climate change and biodiversity loss, are common features that unite the first and current decade of development. Rather than considering the glass empty, in my mind there remain reasons to stay optimistic, and find the glass is more than half-full.

Despite negative reporting on Africa’s recent democratic development, led both by the media and academics, data collected from the field show contrary results. In the case of Africa, the development and democracy trends between 1999 and 2016 are moderately positive. More importantly, critics fail to ask whether what is happening is a decline of democracy or the emergence of new spaces and forms of democracy. There are three developments that characterize the past two decades of democratic resurgence. Local and grassroots democracy have expanded in what can also be termed the fourth wave of democratization,[2] cyber democracy and electronic voting.

Firstly, citizens’ withdrawal from state-created political spaces to participate in local and indigenous forms of direct deliberation instead of representation is not new to Africa, but has taken immense proportions over the past decades. Youth, women, farmers, pastoralists, traders, and non-governmental and civil society organizations deliberate on local issues from water to health and from education to forestation. They also discuss soil and water conservation on their own or supported by like-minded transnational organizations. Those who declare the decline of democracy should go beyond national statistics to engage the emergent new forms of local level, community and grassroots deliberations practiced by the majority of the world.

Second, since the late 1990s, the rapid expansion and convergence of information and communication technologies has created new spaces for political engagement, which has expanded citizens’ freedom to exchange information, organize political action and social movements, and rediscover the growth of a new vocabulary of resistance. While democracy’s essential values have persisted, the forms and spaces of democratic practices have multiplied. Consider, for example, e-government, e-political parties, e-parliaments, e-civic networks and associations which have become prominent features of citizens’ vehicle not only for accessing information but also for using information to make government more responsive.

Third, already, during the 1960s, Western democracies started experimenting with electronic voting and achieved mixed results. Despite many disadvantages, e-voting creates huge possibilities for deliberation and influencing politics across the globe.

Democracy and development are the most cherished values defining the aspirations of every human society. Almost all political elites use democracy and development to bestow legitimacy on their system of governance. However, both democratic and authoritarian regimes often use democracy and development as instruments to legitimize their retention of power, which often imposes oppressive pathways for regulating and controlling the totality of citizens’ human affairs. In some developing countries, the state has even demanded that citizens should suspend their democratic rights and freedom in the wake of development until this cherished national project is accomplished. All too often, too, democratic majorities relish what is known in democratic theory as the “tyranny of the majority.” Absolute majority rule usurps political ideologies and practices that are an affront to democracy and human flourishing.

Democracy and development are about inclusion and ensuring that the rights of the minority are not forsaken by regimes that are discriminatory or in the business of widening the wedge between citizens according to their race, religion, sex, creed or region for short-term political gain. What has declined, in my mind, is not democracy but educated democracy; not development but authentic development that sides with the poor and critically addresses the main messages and meaning of development. For, if democracy is allowed to decline and development to die, there would be nothing left for humanity to celebrate by way of embracing solidarity against want, hunger and fear, resisting tyranny and authoritarianism or confronting discrimination in all its forms. In a nutshell, humanity is not complete without the pursuit of authentic democracy and inclusive and empowering development.

[1]I contrasted foods that kill as a metaphor for the rich over consumption of food, which causes obesity vis-a-vis famine that kills as a metaphor of severe food shortages among the poor, which causes hunger and famine (Mohamed Salih 2009).

[2] This characterization follows on Huntington 1990. The Third Wave of Democratization.