Why are coups making a comeback in Africa?
In just over a year, Africa has experienced three successful coups (two in Mali and one more recently in Guinea), one unsuccessful coup attempt in Niger, and an arbitrary military transfer of power in Chad following the assassination of its president.
These power grabs threaten a reversal of the democratization process Africa has undergone in the past two decades and a return to the era of coups as the norm.
According to one study, sub-Saharan Africa experienced 80 successful coups and 108 failed coup attempts between 1956 and 2001, an average of four a year. This figure halved in the period from then till 2019 as most African nations turned to democracy, only for it to once again be on the ascendance. Why?
Different decade, same problems
In the early postcolonial decades when coups were rampant, Africa’s coup leaders virtually always offered the same reasons for toppling governments: corruption, mismanagement, poverty.
The leader of Guinea’s recent coup, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, echoed these justifications, citing “poverty and endemic corruption” as reasons for overthrowing 83 year old president Alpha Conde. The soldiers who led a coup in neighbouring Mali last year claimed “theft” and “bad governance” prompted their actions. Likewise, the Sudanese and Zimbabwean generals who toppled Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and Robert Mugabe in 2017 respectively, deployed similar arguments.
While well-worn, these justifications still resonate with many Africans today for the simple reason they continue to accurately depict the reality of their countries. Furthermore, in many countries, people feel these problems are worsening.
The research network Afrobarometer conducted surveys across 19 African countries which showed 6 in 10 respondents saying corruption is increasing in their country (the figure was 63% in Guinea) while 2 in 3 say their governments are doing a poor job fighting it.
Furthermore, 72% believe ordinary citizens “risk retaliation or other negative consequences” if they report corruption to authorities, a sign Africans believe their public institutions are not just partakers in, but active defenders of, corrupt systems.
When it comes to poverty, an already tragic situation has been worsened by the battering Africa’s fragile economies took from the coronavirus pandemic.
One in three people are now unemployed in Nigeria, West Africa’s largest economy. The same goes for South Africa, the most industrialized African nation. It is now estimated the number of extremely poor people in sub-Saharan Africa has crossed the 500 million mark, half the population.
This in the youngest continent in the world with a median age of 20 and a faster-growing population than anywhere else, further intensifying an already fierce competition for resources.
These conditions create fertile conditions for coups and for increasingly desperate young Africans who have lost patience with their corrupt leaders to welcome coupists promising radical change, as was witnessed on the streets of Guinea following the takeover, with some elated Guineans even kissing the soldiers.
But as with the coups of the 1970s these scenes of joy will likely be shortlived, says Joseph Sany, Vice President of the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. “The initial reaction of what you see on the streets will be of joy, but very soon, people will be demanding action… and I’m not sure the military will be able to deliver on the expectations, basic service delivery, more freedoms,” he says.
Threat to democratic gains
What is clear is that these coups pose a serious threat to the democratic gains African countries have made in recent decades. Worryingly, research shows that many Africans are increasingly ceasing to believe elections can deliver the leaders they want.
Surveys conducted across 19 African countries in 2019/20 showed just 4 in 10 respondents (42%) now believe elections work well to ensure “MPs reflect voters’ views” and to “enable voters remove non-performing leaders.”
In other words, less than half believe elections guarantee representativeness and accountability, key ingredients of functional democracies.
Across 11 countries polled regularly since 2008, the belief elections enable voters remove non-performing leaders has dropped by 11% points among citizens, according to the survey. It is not that Africans no longer want to choose their leaders via elections, it is simply that many now believe their political systems are gamed.
Leaders like the deposed Conde are part of the problem. The only reason he was still in power until the coup was because he engineered constitutional changes in 2020 to enable himself serve a third-term as president, a common practise by several leaders on the continent, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire.
The African Union is rightly condemning Guinea’s coup, but its response to such constitutional abuses has been muted.
These double standards and perceived elite conspiracies create the perfect environment for young swashbuckling officers like the 41-year-old Doumbouya to step in and promise to save the day.
“If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom,” said Guinea’s new leader, quoting the former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings who himself led two coups
It is perhaps no coincidence Doumbouya quoted the feisty Rawlings, who was very effective at expressing the anger Ghanaians felt towards their political elites when he led military juntas in the 1980s. Desperate citizens living in political systems they often rightly believe are fixed can easily be seduced by anti-elite, anti-corruption rhetoric coupled with the promise of the new.
We should, unfortunately, prepare ourselves for the eventuality of more coups in Africa in the coming years. They are not to be expected in richer countries with strong institutions such as South Africa, Ghana or Botswana but in the poorer more fragile states. As are Mali, Niger, Chad and now Guinea where coups and coup attempts have recently occurred.
Fifteen of the twenty countries topping the 2021 Fragile States Index are in Africa, including countries like Cameroon, Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan as well as larger nations like Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia (which has been experiencing violent internal conflict for close to a year now) and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
This increasing probability of coups will make Africa in general less predictable and stable, a negative for investors that could end up worsening the economic situation.
Can this undesirable trend be reversed? Yes, but while the international condemnations of coups in Guinea and elsewhere are crucial as deterrents to other would-be power grabbers, the only actors who truly have the power to reverse this worrying trend are African leaders themselves.
They are the ones in charge on the ground and it is their response to these recent events that will be the deciding factor. They need to reignite the belief democracy can deliver for Africans. But if the problems still being cited to justify coups continue to worsen in today’s African democracies, then the temptation to try something else will continue to be dangerously seductive, both for coupists and citizens alike.