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Five African countries have suffered seven successful coups since 2020: Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Chad (April 2021), Sudan (October 2021), Burkina Faso (January and September 2022), and Guinea (September 2022). Four African countries also faced failed coup attempts: Niger (March 2021), Sudan (September 2021), Guinea-Bissau (February 2022), and São Tomé and Príncipe (November 2022), sparking fears of a coup contagion. When the U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, described, ‘an epidemic of coups’, it was in an African context and implied a scourge that is simultaneously contagious and uncontrollable.

Photo credit: BBC World News Africa

The risk of contagion requires careful consideration because indeed the nascent nature of many African democracies, which are simultaneously saddled with weak or fragile institutions coupled with porous borders makes them more prone to instability.  In addition, young militaries within these nations communicate with one another because they have trained at similar military academies, assimilated identical military ethos or ideologies and confront shared grievances.  Military training, which demands and reinforces loyalty as well as obedience to the chain of command also drives patriotism and nationalism- a natural response to the plight or injustice suffered by their fellow countrymen and women- particularly as a result of failure by politicians in discharging their duties.  These politicians may then depend upon the army to clean up or correct their errors. 

Care should be taken, however, to avoid sweeping generalisations since the term epidemic presumes an outbreak and ease of transmission due to similar conditions that promote a defined response.  Variation in the relationships between civilian authorities and military establishments as well as the management of military forces by civilian authorities from country to country, plus the issue of legitimacy contribute to the specific dynamic between those two arms- civilian and military. Generalizations can therefore be problematic; there must, in any case, be genuine concern for governments that have come into power through the democratic process. Research by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation shows that some leading indicators point to susceptibility to coups: rapid decline in participation, rights, and inclusion; corruption, typified by poor levels of transparency and accountability, with the lowest scoring countries tending to be those with the longest serving presidents; deterioration of security and rule of law, particularly in the context of fighting against insurgents.  Security forces, in this context, may be acting against their own civilians, hence deterioration of security which serves as catalyst for coups.

Additionally, a number of countries are experiencing active conflict, insurgencies, or delayed electoral processes that further challenge democratic governance. The COVID-19 pandemic on top of a decade of unprecedented volatility, from the fallout of the Arab Spring and the global financial crisis to Ebola and now rising commodity prices are adding even more pressure. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war since 2022 has compounded these challenges. There is also the question of whether certain preexisting conditions make countries more vulnerable, as well as what the African Union, regional economic communities like ECOWAS, other international partners, and African countries themselves can do to effectively address the situation.  Establishing state authority, state security and state stability are vital for civilian leadership to balance their own military apparatus. The whole question of legitimacy.

There is a fundamental question being asked by youth about whether the democratic model being applied to African countries is actually the one that Africans want for themselves. Is the Western-style democratic model where an election is held every 4 or 5 years fit for purpose for incipient African democracies with fragile institutions which do not possess the deep roots conferred through time and experience? It may be a difficult question, particularly for those in the international community to confront, but it warrants examination. The grounding of Western institutions upon the triumph of royal authority over centuries established a firm foundation for today’s institutions.  Furthermore, wholesale adoption of Western-style democracy may be culturally challenging when one considers the notion of loyal opposition for example. This concept does not exist in African cultures where opposition tends to mean enmity.

In some countries, for example the countries that have experienced coups recently, elections are not even on the table and citizens are not asking for elections. They are asking for jobs. They want better health infrastructure. They want education for their children, better lives and electricity. They are asking for basic goods. So, what countries need or citizens are asking for are democracies that really deliver. Elections do not a democracy make. Unfortunately, the narrative about democratization in Africa over the past two or three decades has missed the point about the substance, meaning and practice of democracy. That word has been misused to the extent that in many countries people experience a bad election, yet just because the electorate came out and cast ballots, that country is suddenly labelled democratic. There are several examples of leaders who were committed democrats, said the right things, and made the right promises when in opposition, and once elected proceeded to dismantle the institutions that ought to allow democracy to thrive.

Democracy MUST deliver. People have to see a marked difference in their wellbeing from what it used to be before their country has gone through a democratic transition. One reason for public jubilation in support of coup makers, is that people compare their lives five or ten years back when they participated with enthusiasm in an electoral process and elected officials, who declared their commitment to democracy. The reason those people are celebrating is that they look back and they see that their lives have not improved. In fact, things may have changed for the worse.

In the course of time citizens begin to realise that the military is unable to deliver on security and that serious atrocities, including human rights violations have become rife, while macroeconomic indicators highlight mismanagement of the economy due to poor judgement calls made by the military. They then acknowledge that the military is not going to be able to deliver on security or any other public goods, realize that their countries are getting isolated on the continental and global stage and begin to reconsider their support. This can set the stage for countercoups if the present coup leaders do not construct mechanisms to return their countries to democratic civilian rule where legitimacy really emanates from the people, through meaningful, credible, fair and inclusive elections.

The credibility of elections is a key factor in the threat against democracy. When citizens lose confidence in their capacity to participate in those elections, when they continue to think that elections are fraudulent, that is a major contributor to the deterioration of the legitimacy of a regime. Safeguarding civil society space against shrinkage, bolstering legal and civic societies create a less vulnerable environment for military action against civilian authority.

The capture of democratic political systems by private power networks is another grave threat to functioning democracy, civil liberties and inclusive development in Africa. Democracy capture is the subversion of democratic institutions in relatively more democratic states like Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Nigeria where ruling parties can ‘hijack’ democracy and appropriate its benefits by subduing the institutions of democracy. These include electoral commissions, judiciaries, legislatures and even the media and civil society. According to a report by Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, democracy capture occurs when: a few individuals or sections of a supposedly democratic polity are able to systematically appropriate to themselves the institutions and processes as well as dividends of democratic governance. Consequently, transparency and accountability are undermined, the will (and need) of the people is ignored or suppressed facilitating the abuse of power.

The emergence of ‘shadow states’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe show that networks of unelected businessmen, civil servants, political fixers and members of the presidents’ families can wield more power than legislators. These unelected individuals enjoy privileged access to the inner sanctum of power to make decisions without any accountability to the citizens, thus infiltrating and subverting state structures. In extreme cases, real power shifts from official state institutions, such as the legislature to these powerful individuals and networks. Democracy capture thus expands state capture to encompass all political institutions and democratic systems.

Because Africa is not a country, the nature of democracy capture varies between states. It is lower in states like Ghana, which has a history of successful political transitions, press freedom and a strong civil society. It is much higher in a state such as Zimbabwe, where a single party has dominated politics since its independence in 1980.  The Zimbabwean government has been progressively militarised, permeating areas of the state and the economy and  raising questions about whether President Emmerson Mnangagwa – or army leaders – holds real power.

The nature and resilience of unelected power networks also varies in significant ways. In Uganda, the shadow state is run by a network of President Yoweri Museveni’s family, a military aristocracy and co-conspirators in the business community.  Democracy capture in Nigeria manifests through failure of so-called ‘captive institutions’.  These systems operate in a manner inconsistent with democratic principles of transparency, fairness and accountability espoused by their founding documents. Their operations are characterised by unilateral decision making, impunity and corruption.

Shadow states damage democracy and accountability by undermining inclusive development. They promote a culture of impunity, facilitate corruption, suppress the will of the people by limiting the effectiveness of institutions and divert resources from citizen-centred productive investments.

The Covid-19 pandemic was an exacerbating factor as democratic countries employed non-democratic tactics through imposition of states of emergency, spread of disinformation and fake news as well as restrictions on freedom of expression to manage the health crisis.

The wind of authoritarianism is the air, with the Fragile States Index concluding in 2022 that there has been, ‘an erosion in public confidence in democratic institutions and an increase in social and political polarization in both rich and poor countries across the globe, which has contributed to a rise in authoritarianism’.  It underscores the point that while Africa is the subject of this article, having experienced a surge of military takeovers, many of the pressures on democratic governance are more global.

Whether or not one agrees with the UN Secretary General’s statement about an African ‘coup contagion’, there ought to be introspection about what can only be described as a spate of coups and attempted coups in the fourth year of the current decade.  It raises concerns of regression to military rule in a region that has made progress towards democratic governance over previous decades. The rise in unconstitutional changes of government only four years into the current decade with successful coups in Chad, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso point to a dangerous trend in the Sahel.  This is against a backdrop of profound security challenges, unbridled Islamist insurgency, popular disaffection, economic stagnation and slow pace of economic reforms, political corruption and grievances with leadership and governance deficit leading to military agitation and serving as a catalyst for purported attempts to ‘rescue’ their countries.  It is notable that these coups have been conducted by a  younger contingent.  These coup leaders, who all received their military training in the West, share an exposure to similar understanding of the political process, strategic philosophies and political ideologies.  Whether they possess the experience and training required to govern is questionable.

Post-independence African history is replete with young generations of African military men seizing power on the back of promises of swift economic turnaround and an even quicker return to democracy. From Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who was a young forty-two when he seized power in 1986 to Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in office since 1979 when he seized power as a lieutenant-colonel aged thirty-seven and Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, who seized power in the first of two coups at the age of thirty-two.  Apparent popular support for these coups originates from frustration of young people confronting bleak futures, poverty, insecurity, unemployment, corruption and political fossilization and not to any unconditional approval of military rule.  History has repeatedly demonstrated the failure of the army to deliver on any of these fronts. The young age of today’s coup leaders denotes a negative tendency towards an attempt to stay in power for a long time. 

While regional bodies, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), have been loud and unequivocal in their condemnation of these coups, they have been criticized for perceived double standards, ignoring unconstitutional regime extensions and authoritarian abuses by incumbent leaders while condemning coups. There has also been criticism that regional and continental responses to these coups lack nuance and pragmatism, resulting in a broad brush approach to the situations in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso.  The response of ECOWAS following Mali’s August 2020 coup, was to begin talks with the interim government about election timelines, swift return to democracy and civilian rule. However, the bloc’s focus on election timelines, missed meaningful discussions on the equally important need for reforms.  This ECOWAS pressure resulted in a short-lived agreement. In May 2021, the military junta seized power from the civilian-led interim government, and in January 2022 proposed extending the deadline for elections by up to five years. ECOWAS responded with more severe sanctions that have damaged not only Mali’s economy, but that of neighbouring countries such as Senegal, Mali’s main trading partner. Those sanctions ended up generating popular support for the transitional government instead of isolating them. The Institute for Security Studies stated that, ‘a complex situation requires careful analysis which avoids sweeping assumptions and one-size-fits-all conclusions.  If a country requires reforms before elections, then the best way to support these reforms must be seriously considered, even if the protagonists include military coup leaders.’  It advocates careful analysis that takes account of economic, political, cultural dynamics and specific national factors.   Emphasis and unwavering focus on economic, social and political reforms must be the absolute priority.

Partnership and collaboration of the international community with regional and continental organisations in stemming democratic backsliding in Africa cannot be overemphasised. The role of the AU in delegitimizing coups through the threat and imposition of sanctions, particularly on states dependent on Western in-flows of aid was credited with coup deterrence in Africa for many years. The United States, Britain, and the EU must go beyond condemnation and cooperate with the AU, ECOWAS, and regional leaders, especially Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal, to ensure that Russia does not worm its way into the gap. The leader of the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, enthusiastically welcomed the coup in Burkina Faso, lauding Traore as ‘a truly worthy and courageous son of his Motherland’.  Among other African countries, the mercenaries already have operations in Central African Republic (CAR), where they have been accused of systemic and grave human rights abuses as well as in Mali and  Sudan.  Financially motivated groups like Wagner exploit client states who pay for their heavy-handed services with gold, diamonds, timber and other natural resources and have no interest in cessation of conflict.  They are more interested in the enterprise of war and in prolonging conflict. Their presence also increases the risk of war crimes.

Considerable civilian sympathy for Russia, ostensibly symbolized by images of Traore’s supporters waving Russian flags, belies a real frustration at chronic insecurity rather than a genuine belief in Russian allyship or altruism.

Photo credit: BBC News

While preventing Russia from gaining ground in Burkina Faso should be of serious concern, the crisis in the country and the broader Sahel is a historic opportunity for Western countries, in collaboration with regional leaders, to think about the broader implications of state failure in Burkina Faso. State collapse or even protracted fragility and associated consequences such as displacement, involuntary movement of populations and rise of insurgency threaten regional stability; Burkina Faso is a microcosm, archetypical of the deep-rooted problems of governability and state cohesion that recur across West Africa and the Central Sahel.

Many countries in the Sahel are anxious about Russia’s nefarious activities and malign influence. There is an opportunity for those states and their neighbours as well as Africa as a bloc to work with leaders in Ouagadougou, Bamako, Khartoum etc.  to jointly serve as a rampart against foreign powers looking to advance their own interests above Africans’. Too long have foreign interests overshadowed and undermined Africa’s progress, with international actors jostling for influence and dominance on the continent, motivated by self-interest, the enterprise of conflict, access to Africa’s resources and its vast market. We have an opportunity to realise the AU’s vision of ‘An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena’.