Africa: One putsch too many

Is Africa experiencing a coup culture resurgence? No less than 220 coups – attempted and successful – had been perpetrated in Africa since the 1950s, exceeding records from any other continent in the world. It is estimated that three of every four coups in the world take place in Africa, and the situation is even worse if you narrow it down to West Africa. From 1956 to 2001, there were a total of 80 successful coups in Africa, 108 attempted coups, and 139 reported coup plots, with about 50% of all successful and attempted coups were perpetrated in West Africa.
The past 20 years suggested that coups were going out of fashion in Africa and the tradition of coup d’états in Africa seemed all but a distant memory. Around ten years ago, the annual average number of coups in Africa fell by half following the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s which sparked optimism that a new democratic clime would bring an end to military takeovers. But incidences from the past decade, suggest that the third wave of coups is underway, and the last few months are a confirmation.


West Africa’s post-colonial history has been apostrophized by military takeovers. But after regional heavyweight – Nigeria – transitioned to civilian rule in 1999, there was a strong perception that the days of military takeovers had come to an end. Despite the democratic progress recorded in recent years, it is dispiriting to see West Africa backslide to the era of military coups. From Mali to Guinea, to Niger, and Chad in Central Africa, these power grabs pose a threat to the democratization process Africa has undergone in the past two decades and a return to the era of coups as the norm as many Africans are increasingly ceasing to believe elections can deliver the leaders they want.


Africa’s coup perpetrators always give the same reasons for deposing governments: poverty, mismanagement, and corruption. Although cliche, these excuses still depict the reality of many African countries. In many countries, people believe these problems are getting worse. The already tragic poverty situation, for instance, has been worsened by the pandemic-induced recession that took its toll on Africa’s fragile economies. About a third of the population in Africa’s largest economy -Nigeria-are unemployed, same with the continent’s most industrialized economy, South Africa.
Unsurprisingly, experiences under various military governments since the 2000s show that, with a few exceptions, insurrections are no longer staged by generals. Contemporary coup leaders have emerged from the lower military cadres. With Africa’s young and fast-growing population, and over 500 million people estimated to be extremely poor, inequality and competition for scarce resources are fierce. The situation creates a fertile environment for military takeovers and for increasingly desperate young Africans – who have become impatient with their corrupt leaders – to welcome coup plotters promising radical change.


But do military interventions deliver better governance or leaps in economic development? Unfortunately, taking a cue from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, or Zimbabwe, coups do not deliver what citizens want. Although they may be welcome initially, coups often spawn more coups, not economic growth, and not democracy. This means that most coups do not serve to draw a line in the sand and usher in a new period of stability and prosperity, as many would anticipate. This is because coup leaders are just as irresponsible, selfish, and corrupt as the regimes they had toppled.


While we are speaking against these military takeovers, we must also investigate what is triggering these unconstitutional takeovers. Decades of exhaustion or absolute fatigue with governments in power have created conditions for military coups in Africa. While military leadership is clearly not a desirable outcome, the status quo in many countries is also a far cry from democracy nor conducive for good governance. General elections, so obviously flawed and emphatically not free and fair, are regularly held, contributing to the building of public frustration. The state, feeling insecure, clamps down on the media, civil society, and political opposition, deepening public frustration even more and in certain instances, culminating in a coup or coup attempt. The corruption, the incompetence and break-up, and the breakdowns of public institutions are the obvious manifestations.


With the current state of governance on the continent, we should, unfortunately, prepare ourselves for the eventuality of more coups in the coming years – be it in currently fragile states like the DRC, Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Nigeria, or in states that have a history of military intervention such as Guinea and Sudan. By subverting the constitution and demonstrating how easily power can be toppled through the barrel of a gun, coups undermine existing political institutions and encourage political violence. They may also trigger a series of countercoups and conflicts that can increase the prospects of civil war, as in the DRC and Nigeria. The recent coup incidents may embolden military officers in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroon, Togo, and Gabon, where governments have staved off major opposition movements, coup attempts, and army mutinies in recent years.


Given the chance, many African are likely to embrace the uncertainty that comes with coups over the marginalization and impoverishment that currently exists because of years of misrule. While only less than 10% of African countries have experienced a coup recently and have suffered coups before, the increasing likelihood of coups will make Africa a more volatile terrain, a negative for investors that could end up worsening the economic situation. In Guinea, for instance, the political upheaval could cause further delays to the country’s biggest iron-ore mining project, Simandou. African leaders and regional bodies need to echo the chorus of condemnation when coups occur and enforce penalties for coup leaders, to discourage coup tolerance. Asset freezes, economic sanctions, travel bans are some of the penalties that should unhesitant be meted out to coup leaders.