The recent military coup in Burkina Faso that toppled President Roch Kaboré highlights a disturbing trend in African politics: a resurgence of unconstitutional means to bring about regime change since the start of the pandemic. In the past two years, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan have all seen military takeovers. And Niger had an unsuccessful coup attempt.
In Sudan, a popular people-driven revolution led to the ouster of military dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. However, the military has undermined the power-sharing agreement between the military and civilians. It dissolved the government and declared a state of emergency in October 2021. The Sudanese people are protesting the military’s illegal power grab and have escalated their demands for a transition to civilian rule in recent weeks.
Plagued by al Qaeda- and ISIS-linked extremist violence, Mali has experienced two military coups in one year. France has sent thousands of troops to Mali to fight jihadists and armed insurgents and condemned the coups as “unacceptable.” Last month, France announced it would withdraw its troops from the country.
Meanwhile, foreign private military and security companies are taking advantage of instability and insecurity in countries such as Mali. This includes the controversial Russia-based Wagner Group. Its alleged links with the Kremlin suggest that Russia is eager to expand its military presence in Africa. In 2019, the United Nations warned of a “surge in mercenaries” in Western Africa. The UN said these groups are not only fighting wars, but also illegally exploiting natural resources in countries where organised crime and violent extremism is prevalent.
Russia is also the biggest supplier of arms to Africa, followed by France, the US, and China. Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Mali are among the biggest importers of Russian military equipment. African countries’ reliance on Russian weapons and military hardware could be a reason why 17 African countries abstained from the UN General Assembly vote to censure Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Eritrea was just one of five countries that voted against it.
In response to the rise in military takeovers, particularly in West Africa, the African Union issued a statement expressing “deep concern over the growing trend of military coups across the African continent that undermines peace and stability of countries in Africa.” The AU’s Peace and Security Council suspended Burkina Faso from the AU until normal constitutional order is restored in the country.
But regional blocs like the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have been unable to convince military leaders to re-establish civilian rule. Additionally, many citizens in countries with military rule don’t appear in a hurry to hold democratic elections – with the notable exception of Sudan. Some in Burkina Faso welcomes coup leaders promising radical change. Civilians were seen kissing the hands of soldiers loyal to coup leader Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henry Damiba, who they believe will be more effective than the ousted president in dealing with violent Islamic insurgents in the country. Insurgents have killed more than 2,000 people since 2015.
In Guinea, some citizens viewed the military takeover positively. They were frustrated by President Alpha Conde’s scrapping of the presidential two-term limit, which allowed him to run for a third term in 2020.
The new and old eras of military coups
Military coups in Africa were quite common between the 1960s and 1980s, when militaries often overthrew regimes perceived to be dictatorial, corrupt, or incompetent. Between 1956 and 2001, there were 80 successful coups and 108 failed coup attempts in Africa. Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan were among countries where military officers toppled governments.
Unfortunately, the coup leaders did not deliver a transition to democracy or good governance. Most of these countries were subsequently run as military dictatorships where constitutions were either ignored or trampled upon. The era of military dictatorships only subsided after a wave of democratisation swept the continent in the late 1990s.
While many of the earlier coups were triggered by bad leadership and poor governance, economic hardship and rising insecurity seem to be driving the recent wave of coups. Rising poverty and unemployment levels due to the pandemic and corrupt or incompetent leaders who have failed to address violent extremism and insecurity have tested the patience of Africa’s largely youthful population. This is especially true in poor or fragile states, says Remi Adekoya, a political analyst and associate lecturer at York University. “We should, unfortunately, prepare ourselves for more coups in Africa in coming years,” he warns.
Declining faith in electoral processes
While coups are often viewed as a way to remove bad leadership, they pose a serious threat to the recent democratic gains in Africa. Yet they may also be an indicator of democracy in many African countries that have failed to deliver transformative change.
Research shows that an increasing number of Africans have stopped believing that elections alone can install the leadership they deserve. Support for elections has weakened among Africans, according to a 2019/2020 survey. Many see elections as ineffective in holding leaders to account. Across the 18 African countries surveyed, only 4 in 10 respondents believed that elections enable voters to remove non-performing leaders. Although most respondents supported multiparty elections, only 43% said that their countries’ most recent elections had been completely free and fair.
“It is not that Africans no longer want to choose their leaders via elections,” explains Adekoya. “It is simply that many now believe that their political systems are gamed.”
Other analysts argue that despite increasing mistrust in elections, Africans still prefer democratic forms of government. “The poor performance of authoritarian governments in Africa and the universal desire to have a say in decisions that affect their lives explains why support for democracy remains high,” say Leonard Mbulle-Nziege and Nic Cheeseman, who have been following Africa’s democratisation process for several years. “Tellingly, coups have been unpopular where they are seen to usurp democratisation.”
A democratic recession
Declining democracy is evident in other parts of the world as well, including the US, where insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building following the election of President Joe Biden. A Freedom House report noted that 2020 was the worst year for democracy in recent history. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s population lived in a country that was experiencing what it calls a “democratic recession.”
Some argue that the international community’s failure to condemn military takeovers in countries such as Egypt has emboldened coup plotters to use non-democratic means, including military force, to remove unpopular leaders. “Since around 2000 when the AU went tough on coup plotters, there was a noticeable decline in military coup d’états,” says Chris Akor, a Nigerian writer and columnist. “However, soldiers across the continent took notice when the AU failed to act when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, in 2013, overthrew the government of Mohammed Morsi, just one year after his election.”
“The exemption given to el-Sisi and his subsequent ascension to the Chairmanship of the African Union in 2019 was all the encouragement ambitious soldiers needed to attempt government overthrows,” Akor explains. These soldiers knew that “if they played their cards well, they could get to keep power.”
Adekoya says that leadership that is more alert to citizens’ grievances and needs is necessary to reverse the recent spate of military coups in Africa. “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,” warns Adekoya.