Why are coups making a comeback in Africa?

These power grabs threaten a reversal of the democratization process that Africa has undergone over the past two decades and a return to the coup d’état era as the norm.

According to a studyBetween 1956 and 2001, sub-Saharan Africa experienced 80 successful coups and 108 failed coups, an average of four per year. That number has halved in the period from then to 2019, when most African nations turned to democracy only for it to gain ground again. Why?

In the early post-colonial decades, when coups d’état were rampant, Africa’s putschists almost always cited the same reasons for overthrowing governments: corruption, misgovernment, poverty.

The leader of Guinea’s latest coupColonel Mamady Doumbouya, reiterated these justifications, citing “poverty and endemic corruption” as reasons for the fall of 83-year-old President Alpha Conde. The soldiers who led a coup in neighboring Mali last year claimed “theft” and “bad governance‘ prompted their actions. Similarly, the Sudanese and Zimbabwean generals who overthrew Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and Robert Mugabe in 2017, respectively, made similar arguments.
Guinean military officer says President Alpha Conde has been arrested as an apparent coup unfolds

These justifications, while old-fashioned, still resonate with many Africans today for the simple reason that they continue to accurately reflect the reality of their countries. In addition, people in many countries feel that these problems are getting worse.

The research network Afrobarometer conducted surveys in 19 African countries, where 6 in 10 respondents said corruption is increasing in their country (in Guinea it was 63%), while 2 in 3 said their governments are doing a poor job of fighting it.

Additionally, 72% believe that ordinary citizens “risk retaliation or other negative consequences” for reporting corruption to the authorities, a sign that Africans believe their public institutions are not only participants in corrupt systems but actively defend them.

When it comes to poverty, an already tragic situation has been made worse by the struggling African economies hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

One in three In Nigeria, the largest economy in West Africa, people are unemployed today. The same applies to South Africa, the most industrialized African nation. It is now estimated that the number of extremely poor people in sub-Saharan Africa has passed 500 million, half the population.
this in youngest continent in the world with an average age of 20 years and a faster growing population than elsewhere, adding to the 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 coup plotters promising radical change, as seen on the streets of Guinea after the takeover, with some enthusiastically Guineans even kissed the soldiers.

But like the coups of the 1970s, those scenes of joy will likely be short-lived, says Joseph Sany, vice president of the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. “The first reaction to what you see on the streets will be joy, but very soon people will be demanding action… and I’m not sure the military will be able to meet expectations, providing more basic ones.” services and more freedom,” he says.

threat to democratic achievements

What is clear is that these coups pose a serious threat to the democratic gains that African countries have made in recent decades. Disturbingly, research shows that many Africans are increasingly losing faith that elections can produce the leaders they want.

Surveys conducted in 19 African countries In 2019/20, just 4 in 10 respondents (42%) indicated that elections work well in ensuring that “MPs reflect voters’ views” and “allow voters to remove underperforming leaders”.

In other words, less than half believe that elections guarantee representativeness and accountability, key elements of functioning democracies.

According to the poll, belief in elections that allow voters to remove underperforming leaders has fallen by 11 percentage points among citizens in 11 countries surveyed regularly since 2008. It’s not that Africans no longer want to elect their leaders through elections, it’s just that many now believe their political systems are a game.

Leaders like the deposed Conde are part of the problem. The only reason he was still in power until the coup was that he made constitutional changes in 2020 to allow for a third term as president. a common practice of several leaders on the continentfrom Yoweri Museveni in Uganda to Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire.
Mali's president resigns after being arrested in a military coup

The African Union rightly condemned Guinea’s coup, but its response to such constitutional violations has been muted.

These double standards and supposed elite conspiracies create the perfect environment for young daring officers like 41-year-old Doumbouya to step in and promise to save the day.

“When the people are being crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom.” said Guinea’s new leaderquotes former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings who himself led two coups d’etat

It is perhaps no coincidence that Doumbouya quoted the feisty Rawlings, who was very effective in 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 deadlocked can easily be seduced by anti-elite and anti-corruption rhetoric coupled with promises of the new.

Unfortunately, we should brace ourselves for the possibility 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 poorer, more fragile states. So has Mali, Niger, Chad and now Guinea, which have seen coups and attempted coups of late.

Fifteen of the twenty countries at the top 2021 Fragile States Index are located in Africa, including countries like Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan, as well as larger nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia (which has been experiencing violent internal conflict for almost a year) and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
Men are marched out of prison camps. Then bodies float down the river

This increasing likelihood of coups will make Africa generally less predictable and less stable, a disadvantage for investors that could worsen the economic situation.

Can this undesirable trend be reversed? Yes, but while international condemnation of coups in Guinea and elsewhere is crucial as a deterrent to other potential rulers, the only actors with real power to reverse this worrying trend are the African leaders themselves.

They are the leaders on the ground and their response to these recent events will be the deciding factor. They must rekindle the belief that democracy can offer Africans. But if the problems still invoked to justify coups continue to worsen in today’s African democracies, then the temptation to try something different will continue to be dangerously tempting, both for coup plotters and citizens. Why are coups making a comeback in Africa?

Charles Jones

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