Expert Speak India with Africa
Published on Nov 01, 2021
Successive coups in Africa will only further destabilise the region; African regional groupings need to resort to active intervention to curtail it.
Coups are making a comeback in Africa, but what’s driving them?

Power grabs, unconstitutional military takeovers, or coup d'état are back in Africa. In the past few years, there has been a rise in the spate of successful or attempted coups across the continent. These coups are threatening to overturn the democratic gains African countries have made in recent decades. Simply by demonstrating how easily power can be wrested by brandishing a gun and undermining the constitution, these coups are weakening existing political institutions, encouraging political violence, and increasing the prospects of civil wars.

It all began in November 2017, when the erstwhile Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was placed under house arrest, impeached, and eventually removed as President and Party Leader of Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) by some elements of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF). This was followed by two successful coup d'états in Mali in 2020 and in May 2021. The Malian army, led by Vice President Colonel Assimi Goïta captured interim President Bah Ndaw and the Acting Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. This military takeover eventually led to the suspension of Mali from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) in June 2021. France too halted its joint military operations with the Malian army over the coup, but resumed operations a month later in July 2021. An unsuccessful coup attempt also took place in Niger, just two days before the swearing-in of President-elect Mohamed Bazoum.

The two most recent successful attempts took place in Guinea and Sudan. In September 2021, the Guinean government, led by erstwhile President Alpha Conde, was dissolved and replaced by a military junta led by Mamady Doumbouya, the current interim President of Guinea. The reasons for the coup were familiar: allegations of corruption, unviability of the massive resource-for-infrastructure deals, and President Conde’s controversial constitutional referendum to allow himself to run for President for the third term.

An unsuccessful coup attempt also took place in Niger, just two days before the swearing-in of President-elect Mohamed Bazoum.

In Sudan, a fragile power-sharing agreement between Sudanese civilian and military leaders that was in place for the past two years, came to an abrupt end when the military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, seized power and dissolved the civilian government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 25th October, 2021. General Burhan’s reasoning for needing the coup to avoid “civil war” has been widely rejected and condemned by the international community. The World Bank has suspended its aid to Sudan, and the AU has suspended Sudan’s membership, until the civilian government is reinstated.

Why are coups making a comeback in Africa?

In the early post-colonial decades, coups were rampant and common across Africa. The coup leaders often tended to offer the same reasons for toppling governments–corruption, poverty, mismanagement, restoring rule of law, and promise to restore democracy. Coups tended to be ‘successful’ due to the level of popular support they enjoyed, especially at the local level. Allegations of endemic corruption and poverty were the principle justifications given for organising coups. Such justifications resonated with Africans as they accurately depicted the on-ground realities of their respective countries. But the irony of promising to strengthen rule of law, by taking power forcefully and breaking those same rule of law is self-defeating in nature.

The wave of democracy and the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the decade of 1990s and 2000s provided a glimmer of hope for civilian rule. This was supplemented by the promise of the African Union and other African regional bodies to out rightly reject unconstitutional changes of government, in the context of the Lomé Declaration, adopted in 2000, and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance of 2007. However, democratic principles of free and transparent elections, freedom of speech, human rights, are not being adhered to. A major concern has been that African elections are becoming increasingly contentious and marked by fear. Worryingly, Afrobarometer’s surveys have indicated that only a minority of Africans believe elections help produce representative, accountable leadership.

Despite this, organising coups with the intention of breaking with the constitutional order to reform a democracy is an unviable justification. Coups, with all their anti-corruption rhetoric, have not been the vehicle for social revolution. Neither is there any such phenomenon of a “good coup”. In almost all instances, coup leaders in Africa have often proved to be just as corrupt as the regimes they had replaced and failed in their attempt to better the life of ordinary citizens.

Coups tended to be ‘successful’ due to the level of popular support they enjoyed, especially at the local level.

Overview of African Coups from 2010-2021

Country Capital City Region Date of Coup Overthrown Leader Colonial Master Official Language
Sudan Khartoum East Africa October, 2021 Abdalla Hamdok Great Britain Arabic-English
Guinea Conakry West Africa September, 2021 Alpha Conde France French
Mali Bamako West Africa August, 2020 Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta France French
Sudan Khartoum East Africa April, 2019 Omar al-Bashir Great Britain Arabic-English
Zimbabwe Harare Southern Africa November, 2017 Robert Mugabe Great Britain English + 15 languages
Burkina Faso Ouagadougou West Africa September, 2015 Michel Kafando France French
Burkina Faso Ouagadougou West Africa October, 2014 Blaise Compaoré France French
Egypt Cairo North-eastern Africa July, 2013 Mohamed Morsi Great Britain Arabic
CAR Bangui Central Africa March, 2013 Francois Bozizé France French and Sangho
Guinea Bissau Bissau West Africa April, 2012 Carlos Gomes Júnior Portugal Portuguese
Mali Bamako West Africa March, 2012 Amadou Toumani Touré France French
Niger Niamey West Africa February, 2010 Mamadou Tandja France French

Source: Compiled by author with inputs from OpSour

What is the way forward?

It is important to acknowledge that the phenomenon of recurring coups in Africa must be assessed against the prevailing conditions on the international system and its shifting global orders. The structures, motivations, and conditions that incite coups in Africa, whether on the national/domestic front or on the global front, have not changed much. On the one hand, democracy across Africa has not made satisfactory progress in national politics as to prevent a return to authoritarianism on the continent. Citizen debate on governance and democracy in Africa has evolved over the last two decades, with a particular focus on the quality of electoral process and the legitimacy, accountability and performance of its leaders. However, in practice, the African regional organisations, including the African Union, have reduced democracy to the holding of elections and selective respect for term limits.

On the other hand, the possible evidence of external involvement or sponsorship of coups cannot be ignored. Russia, particularly has been notorious in this regard and its mercenary groups appear to play a deeper role in countries such as Mali, Libya, and the Central African Republic. Even the role of the United States (US) has been questioned as reports of the Malian coup plotters receiving training and assistance in the US emerged. Video evidences which showed American forces celebrating the fall of erstwhile Chadian President Alpha Conde also circumstantially implicated the US in Chad’s coup.

These developments are taking place in parallel to three broad trends: The surge of foreign interest in Africa, dubbed as the ‘New Scramble’ for resources and influence in the continent; a democratic recession in Sub-Saharan Africa with weakening of democratic institutions and civil society; and the emergence of new and subtle methods of overturning constitutionally mandated presidential term limits and subsequently winning rigged or managed elections.

Video evidences which showed American forces celebrating the fall of erstwhile Chadian President Alpha Conde also circumstantially implicated the US in Chad’s coup.

To reverse this trend of growing coups in Africa, both African leaders and its external partners would have to play a crucial role. On its part, as Muhammad Dan Suleiman argues, African countries need to quantitatively democratise and truly decolonise. African regional organisations must engage effectively with the civil society. Only paying lip service to core values like accountability, transparency, and civic responsibility, would not suffice to forestall future coups. Major powers, on the other hand, must rethink and reassess its old tradition of shaping engagement with Africa. It is vital to recognise and partner with African states to generate productive and viable medium and long-term benefits. Viewing and engaging with African states simply as a destination for short-term returns would be counterproductive. Africa is not a supplicant actor anymore. In fact, African states have been able to exert assertive agency in its external engagement.

It is imperative that the African Union and the African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) use their power of sanctioning “unconstitutional preservation of power”, in a pre-active, rather than a reactive manner. Or else, if military leaders in African countries continue to seize power with impunity, this would enable a vicious cycle of proliferation of further coups.

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Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA). His research focuses on India and China’s engagement ...

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