Coup resurgence in Africa: The pitfalls of a regional response

Prior to the coups, the continent had already witnessed 7 popular uprisings within the last decade that brought about changes in government. The actions, and inactions, of the military were critical to the outcome of these uprisings.

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Photo: Michele CattanI/AFP via Getty Images

In less than 2 years, Africa witnessed three successful coups – a coup in Guinea and two coups in Mali. The recent developments, including the failed coup attempt in Sudan, have heightened global fears of democratic regression in Africa where coups were once adjudged “a thing of the past”.

Uprisings are reflective of a new trend of democratic re-negotiation where ordinary populations are resolute against governance systems that fail to provide socio-economic dividends to its citizens.

Prior to the coups, the continent had already witnessed 7 popular uprisings within the last decade that brought about changes in government, including in Libya (2011), Egypt (2011), Tunisia (2011), Burkina Faso (2014), Zimbabwe (2017), Sudan (2019) and Algeria (2019). The actions, and inactions, of the military were critical to the outcome of these uprisings.

These coups and uprisings are not merely reflective of military adventurism. Rather, they are reflective of a new trend of democratic re-negotiation where ordinary populations are resolute against governance systems that fail to provide socio-economic dividends to its citizens. This is different from discussions about democratic consolidation that focuses on achieving a set of democratic processes and checklists that are often manipulated by political elites.

The ongoing trend shows significant correlations between autocratic regimes with ambitions for a long-term stay in power and protracted economic hardships.  Most importantly, long-term stays in power are not necessarily the cause of coups and uprising in Africa. Rather, they are motivated by lack of public goods and economic hardships which have become a common phenomenon in states run by long-serving regimes where citizens have limited opportunity to effect change democratically. For instance, Sudan’s successful popular uprising in 2019 was inspired by a cascade of mass grievances over President Omar Al-Bashir’s 30-year autocratic regime that was marred by rising costs of living and economic hardships. 

Constitutional and Electoral coups in Africa

Elections are commonplace in Africa, but the credibility of these elections are the subject of controversies. Some regimes use their patronage networks to manipulate elections and/or constitutional amendments in order to retain power and legitimise their leadership claims in a world where democratic elections is the foundational benchmark for legitimacy. 

The removal of term and age limits in constitutions is one of the most popular means for regimes to remain in power while seemingly adhering to formal democratic processes. Such changes have been witnessed in Rwanda, Uganda, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Chad, Djibouti and Equatorial Guinea, thereby paving the way for the re-election of incumbent strongmen.

In the case of Guinea, the constitutional amendment in March 2020 was used to reset the term of office of the incumbent, thereby allowing President Conde to contest for elections in October 2020 as if it were his first time running for office. Indeed, the constitutional amendment made some progressive reforms such as banning female genital mutilation and underage marriage. However, it is evident that the quest to elongate his tenure in office was the core motivation for pursuing the constitutional amendment. This sparked months of protests in Guinea before and after the flawed constitutional referendum and election.

The Pitfalls of Regional Response

The African Union (AU) and sub-regional organisations like the Economic community of West African States (ECOWAS) have consistently rejected military coups and have barred such regimes from participating in its activities in line with its norms against unconstitutional changes of government, that have been in place since the formation of the AU in 2001. The regional posture against coups has played a significant role in preventing blatant military coups until recently. In 2017 for instance, the Zimbabwean military were aware of the AU and SADC norms against military coups when they opted to pressurise President Robert Mugabe to tender his resignation while quickly rallying behind a civilian leadership. The situation, coupled with the people-led protests, created a dilemma for regional actors in determining whether the situation was a coup or not.

However, while the AU and ECOWAS are consistent in condemning unconstitutional changes of government, similar effort has not been made to condemn and sanction the practices of constitutional amendments. In fact, as long as countries follow their own constitutional and legal processes, there is little the AU or other regional bodies can do, beyond protest on the basis of AU treaties and decisions, as they cannot overrule national parliaments or national court decisions. 

In Guinea for instance, the AU and ECOWAS failed to condemn and act against President Conde when he changed the constitution in 2020 to remain in power. Yet, Article 23(5) of the African Union’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) prohibits “Any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government”. 

Although the AU and sub-regions often provide warnings about the dangers of non-credible electoral and constitutional processes, they have not reviewed any constitutional amendments that affect democratic change nor have they applied relevant sanctions on recalcitrant regimes. Moreover, during protests against subversions of democracy, little is being done by these institutions to prevent government crackdowns or resolve the cascade of mass grievances by ordinary citizens.

Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear in Africa that people-led demand for change is often possible based on the action or inaction of the military. For instance, in Tunisia (2011) and Algeria (2019), the military did not crackdown heavily on protesters resulting in persistent protests that led to the resignation of the presidents. In Egypt (2011), Burkina Faso (2014) and Sudan (2019) however, the military usurped power following mass protests, while the Zimbabwean military forced President Robert Mugabe to resign in 2017. 

The Short-lived solutions of Coups

Nevertheless, radical transitions do not guarantee good governance and better livelihood in the future. Most of the deposed autocratic regimes in Africa came to power themselves via military action in response to perceived grievances from the population. Yet, they turned out to be corrupt oppressors. 

Prior to President Conde’s regime, Guinea had experienced 3 military coups based on political grievances. Yet these coups only resulted in further repressive regimes. When Conde came to power following years of democratic activism, his regime failed to deliver on political freedom and economic growth. 

Additionally, countries that experienced political change after popular uprisings are still facing challenges. Countries like Tunisia, Zimbabwe and Sudan continue to face economic hardships and political crises. An extreme scenario is Libya, which experienced worsened economic conditions, governance crises and civil war since the overthrow and death of Gaddafi. 

Hence, it is likely that countries that face radical transitions could face deteriorating conditions. Avoiding such power vacuums, and the instability they cause, is one of the reasons why the AU rejects unconstitutional changes of government.

For African intergovernmental organisations to effectively prevent coups, popular uprisings and the resulting hardships, there must be actionable plans to review every constitutional amendment on the continent and sanction regimes that seek to extend their stay in office against the wishes of the people. 

During its extraordinary session on Guinea on 16 September 2021, ECOWAS enjoined the “President of the Commission to initiate the process of reviewing the 2001 Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance in order to ensure democracy, peace and stability in our region”. This presents the Commission with a unique opportunity to enhance the protocol with proactive measures to prevent subtle subversions of democracy through electoral fraud and constitutional amendment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author only.

Dr Ndubuisi Christian Ani is a specialist in governance, peace and security. He serves as a Senior Regional Advisor with the GIZ support project at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre (KAIPTC), Accra, Ghana.

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