Within the past 18 months, Africa has experienced six coups, with the most recent in Burkina Faso on 24 January, rekindling the debate regarding the resurgence of military rules in many African nations.
While it is worrisome that there have been so many coups within such a short period, of a greater concern is the celebratory mood with which many of the nationals of those countries welcome the juntas who toppled their elected civilian governments.
A timeline of coups from 2020 to date
It all started in Mali in August 2020. Just as the dust was settling on that, in March 2021, a failed coup occurred in Niger. At this point, analysts warned that coups are contagious and could spread to other nations – and they indeed have.
By April 2021, an unusual coup occurred in Chad after the killing of President Idris Deby, who had ruled for three decades on the battlefield and was hurriedly replaced by his son – a total disregard for the country’s constitution.
Again, in Mali, on 24 May, 2021, there was what can best be described as “a coup within a coup” after the transitional president Bah Ndaw and his prime minister, Moctar Ouanne, were arrested and toppled by the military.
By September 2021, Guinea had its own experience following the overthrowing of President Alpha Conde by a top military officer. And in October, it was Sudan’s turn as the military officers led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan deposed Prime Abdalla Hamdok.
Then a few days ago, Burkina Faso joined the list after the junta led by Paul-Henri Sandogo Damiba deposed the Roch Marc Christina Kabore led government. This latest event heightens the concern that the year 2022 could be even more dramatic.
A study shows that between 1956 and 2001, sub-Saharan Africa witnessed 80 successful coups and 108 failed coup attempts, representing an average of four in a year. However, the past two decades witnessed a great reduction as more countries embraced democracy.
But with the surge in the past few months, this viral epidemic of coup d’états could spread to many more countries if African leaders don’t do the needful and re-examine their leadership style.
Why are there so many coups, and why now?
The answer can be found in ‘pseudo democracy’ practiced in most African countries. Pseudo democracy is a term for a political system that parades itself as democratic but offers no true elements of democracy for the citizens. This has been the true reflection of most African countries.
A recent survey shows that many Africans have lost confidence in their countries’ electoral systems, indicating that functional democracies aren’t in place in many of these countries. Less than half of the respondents believe that elections guarantee accountability and representation, which are key elements of a true democracy.
It is common for African leaders to dubiously extend term limits in office and rig elections to hold on to power. Muzzling opposition figures conniving with security officials to intimidate the electorates and members of the press are some of their regular election-rigging tactics.
Despite claiming to be democratic, the rule of law is hardly regarded by many African leaders, and some have the judiciary in their pockets.
Many more leaders have become authoritarian and are alienated from the masses. They (the leaders) drive about in expensive convoys, send their children to elite foreign schools, fly abroad to access the best healthcare while the living conditions of their people deteriorate by the day. This explains the surge in political instability in many countries on the continent. Clear examples include Ethiopia, where there has been civil war since November 2020, Nigeria, where the current government has battled with separatist movements, insurgency, and banditry for the most part of its term, and many other countries with similar interests experiences.
The turmoil has left the continent in heightened security threats and displacements. The past few years have witnessed more Africans seeking asylum and refugee status in foreign countries like UK and US. Millions are also internally displaced in their home countries. Economically, it has significantly reduced foreign direct investments in many of those countries and worsened the already high unemployment rate and poor living standards. According to African Union Commission, “about 600 million young people in the continent are unemployed, uneducated or in insecure employment,” a situation worth describing as a recipe for disastrous security threats.
People’s Reactions to coups and why?
But while foreign governments and regional blocs, such as ECOWAS, condemned the coups and have been working to restore civilian rules in those countries, the feelings among the masses are surprisingly different.
In Mali, for instance, hundreds of people took to the street to celebrate with soldiers who overthrew and imprisoned their president. They even rebuked ECOWAS for sanctioning the military leaders whom they believe are serving their interests. The story is the same in Guinea, and Burkina Faso as some people came out to celebrate the takeovers.
The reason for such reactions is not farfetched. People are fed up with their so-called democratic leaders whose rules seem to have worsened their living standards.
Some decades ago, Africa was basking in the euphoria of the third wave of democratisation, and those who were old enough to understand the benefits of a democratic rule were full of hope of a new dawn. Never could they have thought that an era like this would come when people would be celebrating military takeovers.
Sadly, a look back into the past will show that military coups, while they may appear rosy at the beginning, hardly deliver what the masses truly want. But the governance style of most of the present crop of African leaders is so discouraging and daily increases their citizen’s carvings for just any form of alternative. This presents an opportunity for power-seeking soldiers to rise to the helms in the guise of ‘rescuing the day’ with so many promises. But for how long can they maintain a cordial relationship with the civilian populace?
Another worrisome aspect of military rules is their antecedent for sit-tightism. Though they usually promise to restore democratic rules within the shortest possible time, that promise is hardly fulfilled without extending their grip on power for much longer. For instance, the current Malian junta has recently requested for five years more to remain in power before returning to democratic rule, which is against its earlier promise to hold elections this February.
Military rules are also known for coups upon coups, which automatically delay a return to civilian rules. The 1963 coup in the Benin Republic is a perfect example. After the initial takeover, the West African country experienced four more coups before 1972. Burkina Faso also had coups upon coups between 1966 to 1983. Instances like these might justify the notion: ‘the worst democratic rule is better than the best military rule.’ Unfortunately, many African citizenries have found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The international community may have to review its priority
In July 2000, African leaders met in Lome Togo and came up with a declaration to reject unconstitutional changes of government in the continent. The African Union and regional bodies like ECOWAS have been true to this by voicing their displeasure against the recent coups and even imposing heavy sanctions on some juntas. But they have failed to address the root cause of these frequent political instabilities, which are inherent in bad governance.
There brings to fore the strong argument that the international community should be more concerned about key ingredients of democracy – such as freedom of the press, equity, and accountability from officer holders – rather than just periodic organised elections, which are in many cases rigged. Only then can the civilians trust in their elected officers and stop considering military junta as an alternative to democratic rules.
Olusegun Akinfenwa is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, a UK based law firm that offers immigration services globally, including the US Citizenship and Immigration Process. Most of his works raise awareness about the harsh socio-political realities confronting African society, with a view to bringing lasting solutions to them.