Africa’s ‘Coup Epidemic’


Pres. Last week, Mohamed Bazoum and his ruling PNDS party in Niger, West Africa, became the latest victim of a military coup attempt on the continent.

A group of soldiers claimed on national television last Thursday that they had overthrown the government after an apparent coup – the latest of the more than 200 coup attempts that have plagued the continent since the 1950s.

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), in 2021 even described this problem as a coup epidemic.

Is there then a new era of coups in Africa? What exactly is behind this and why can’t it seem to be stopped?

Hundreds of coups

Research by Jonathan Powell, associate professor at the School of Politics, Security and International Relations at the University of Florida, Abigail Reynolds, researcher at the same university, and Mwita Chacha, assistant professor of political science at the University of Birmingham, showed last year that Africa between 1950 and 2022 was subject to no less than 200 coup attempts, with around 100 of these being successful.

Coups are defined as an illegal and open attempt by the military, or other civilian officials, to depose incumbent leaders. A coup is considered successful when it lasts longer than seven days.

According to this research, there was a substantial decrease in coup attempts after 2000. However, an increase can be detected since 2021 with six coup attempts that year – more than the previous five years combined – and five more attempts in 2022, two of which were successful.

Continental instability

However, Powell is not surprised by this “coup epidemic” in light of the great instability that African countries experience especially after independence.

“African countries have conditions common to coups, such as poverty and poor economic performance. When a country has one coup, it is often a harbinger of more coups.”

Circumstances that create a breeding ground for coups have been exacerbated by the destabilizing socio-economic decline due to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated global response to it.

The research further indicates that coups usually take place in the context of leadership vacuums, often in young and long-entrenched regimes. Countries moving towards and away from democracy are more likely to be susceptible to this.

The African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council also noted in their joint statement on unconstitutional change of government in Africa in 2014 that undemocratic or unconstitutional changes are rooted in contempt for government.

The council further emphasized that factors fueling these changes are greed, selfishness, mismanagement of diversity, mismanagement of opportunities, marginalization, abuse of human rights, refusal to accept electoral defeats, manipulation of constitutions, as well as unconstitutional revision of a constitution to narrow interests and corruption. to serve, include.

Framework for prevention

These hundreds of coup attempts took place despite this continent having established various frameworks over the past decades to try to stop non-democratic and unconstitutional change of government, which includes coups.

Already in 2000, the Organization for African Unity (OAU), as predecessor to the African Union (AU), adopted the Lomé Declaration on the framework for an OAU response to unconstitutional changes of government, in which they identified four forms of unconstitutional (non-democratic) recognized government change which includes military coups.

The statement also proposed an open condemnation together with diplomatic pressure as reactions against undemocratic change of government.

Furthermore, the AU’s comprehensive African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance entered into force in 2012 with 30 African countries ratifying it. The charter goes much further than the declaration with punitive measures such as sanctions and a ban on future democratic participation that can potentially be introduced against those who participate in undemocratic government changes.

This charter serves as an overarching framework within which the continent, in its collective disapproval of undemocratic change of government, attempts to act preventively and deterringly against coup attempts – in order to try to protect democracy in Africa against undemocratic tendencies.

Are these frameworks and maintenance of democracy in Africa failing?

Fragile democracy

In his book The Future of Africa describe dr. Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the conditions for stable democracy as it appears from historical experience.

“History (shows) that democracy is generally more resilient above certain minimum levels of income and education, when a solid web of institutions and the rule of law are able to limit the abuse of state institutions.

“In countries with low levels of income, democracy is often fragile, largely because the formal institutions, rules and norms on which it rests and depends for effective functioning are absent or insufficiently developed.”

With the coup epidemic, are we perhaps just dealing with a failure of democracy in Africa?

Ronak Gopaldas, consultant at the ISS, writes on this website that coups in Africa should not automatically be seen as a failure of democracy.

“The problem is not the government system itself, but weak leadership that opens the door for despots and coup plotters.”

“On the contrary (…) Africa is (according to Cilliers’ book) more democratic than other regions relative to its level of development. He argues that since democracy generally follows development, Africa’s early start means the continent must achieve both simultaneously, which is difficult without good leadership.

“The continent’s premature democratization is leading to instability as it is not accompanied by the institutions needed to move from personalization to institutionalization,” writes Gopaldas.

Is democracy possibly only wounded but still undefeated in Africa?

“Although the continent is not declining, there is certainly cause for concern in several countries and regions. In 2020, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s Index of African Governance reported the first ever drop in average governance since its inception. Freedom House also observed a decline in freedom in 22 African states in 2020,” warns Gopaldas.

Toothless Countermeasures

Apart from internal factors that contribute to the viability of coups in Africa, there is often, according to Powell, an absence of strong deterrent measures to ward off potential coups.

“(Recent) coups indicate two important challenges to the AU framework on unconstitutional changes of government (UCG). First, although the AU is said to be less tolerant of military coups, the organization has responded to the unconstitutional maintenance of power to a lesser extent. As the continent witnesses an increased willingness of leaders to disregard the institutions that allowed them to come to power, the accompanying loss of popular legitimacy has either directly motivated or provided superficial legitimacy for coups against what are seen as increasingly dictatorial incumbents. .

“Secondly, in recent years we have seen acquiescence to military coups that are sometimes more in line with the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Although post-coup reactions may be seen as having little to do with the cause of any particular coup, we argue that these reactions provide important clues to future conspirators.

“As the international community also shows an unwillingness or inability to visit sufficient costs on coup-born regimes, the international community will continue to lose its ability to deter coups.”

Simply put, the lack of deterrents, amid circumstances ripe for the emergence of coups d’état, reflects the increased likelihood of renewed or exacerbated lust for power and possible military rule. It’s a problem that the continent doesn’t seem to be getting rid of quickly.

Sources: Accord, ISS