Key questions about recent coups in Africa

The recent spate of coups witnessed on the continent has triggered a number of questions including whether we are witnessing a return of coups, what explains the coups and what to make of their apparent popular support.

Photo by Annie Risemberg/AFP
Photo by Annie Risemberg/AFP

The recent spate of coups witnessed on the continent has triggered a number of questions including whether we are witnessing a return of coups, what explains the coups and what to make of their apparent popular support. This piece offers some insight into these questions.

While it is true that the coups in Mali and Guinea were greeted with popular celebration, it is not evident that the celebration by members of the public is actually the military’s seizure of power @SolomonADersso

What evidence is there of a resurgence of coups? 

It is the first time that the African Union (AU) has suspended four countries for unconstitutional changes of government. Indeed, the research that we carried out at Amani Africa indicates that 2021 was the first year in which Africa experienced the largest number of military coups since 2003. According to Antonio Guterres, it has become a season marked by an ‘epidemic of coups’. Between April 2021 and February 2022, in a period of 10 months, Africa has experienced five military seizures of power.

Until 2021, the trends in the occurrence of coups in Africa was largely characterised by decline despite its sporadic occurrence. As our research shows, the maximum number of coups that Africa has experienced since 2000 was in 2003. Since then, there were a few years (2005, 2008 and 2012) when a maximum of two coups occurred, with several years without coups, except one instance of what is called a military assisted transition in Zimbabwe. 

It is clear from the statistics thus far that Africa is experiencing a resurgence of coups. It is also worth noting that out of the five coups that took place in less than one year, three took place in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. 

What accounts for this resurgence of coups in Africa? 

For example, from the coup in Guinea our research at Amani Africa identified at least five issues that explain why the coup in Guinea occurred:  

  1. The first is the crisis in state-society relationship in which the government lost public legitimacy. In a clear indication of this damaged relationship, the coup did not elicit visible public opposition in Guinea. Indeed, the downfall of Conde’s government was greeted by widespread celebrations on the streets of Conakry. Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo welcomed the coup for bringing ‘the failure of the dictatorial regime’. 
  2. Second, the coup and the public reaction it elicited also signifies that the election that took place in October 2020 was anything but credible, free and fair. It attests to the fact that the election, held in a highly tense and charged political context and in a playing-field tilted decidedly in favour of the incumbent, became a stage-managed exercise organised to give a semblance of democratic credential for extending Conde’s stay in power. 
  3. Another feature of countries that faced coups is the lack of effective separation of powers and checks and balances. In Guinea, the executive arm of government came to concentrate so much power to the point of rendering the constitutional roles of parliament and the judiciary ineffective in placing checks on the executive authority. It is worth noting that the Constitutional Court certified the highly contested constitutional referendum that paved the way for Conde’s third term.
  4. Fourth, in all these cases, the various constitutional mechanisms for effecting change of government such as election, impeachment and recall are rendered ineffective. Where the possibility for using political and constitutional procedures for change of leadership and holding the government accountable is absent, it forces the public to resort to popular uprising or to seek the intervention of the military to orchestrate a coup d’état.  
  5. The coup is also a manifestation of governance issues in the security sector. It highlights a crisis in civil-military relationship and in the professionalism of the army as well as the existence of weak command and control. It is a manifestation of the politicisation of the security sector. As in cases such as Sudan, it also highlights the deep entanglement of the army in politics. All cases of coups also highlight the poor state of professionalism of the security sector, particularly the army. That the army arrogates the role of being the arbiter of politics and hence deciding when to play the role of ‘correcting’ the wrong in the politics of the country (by ousting the incumbent government and seizing power) is the most prominent manifestation of the military’s abuse of its control of the means of violence. 

One can add to the foregoing two additional factors. The first such underlying factor is the disregard and indeed violation of the rights and freedoms of the people. All cases of unconstitutional changes of government are preceded by and involve violations of human rights. The other factor is the changes in the security situation of some countries leading to an enormous gap between the capacity of national security institutions and the violence resulting from terrorism.

It is clear from the statistics thus far that Africa is experiencing a resurgence of coups. It is also worth noting that out of the five coups that took place in less than one year, three took place in the ECOWAS region @SolomonADersso

Popularity of recent coups? 

It is not uncommon to see many commentators pointing out that recent coups have popular support. While it is true that the coups in Mali and Guinea were greeted with popular celebration, it is not evident that the celebration by members of the public is actually the military’s seizure of power. But, as Sudan’s experience of the April 2019 seizure of power by the military illustrates, the celebration by the public was more for the end of the old regime than an expression of support for the seizure of power by the military. Indeed, not long after the military’s takeover of power, civilian protestors directed their opposition against the military that seized power. 

As in Sudan, the cases of Burkina Faso in 2014 and Mali in 2020 highlight that the public can celebrate the end of the old regime while at the same time rejecting the control of government power by the military. This is not surprising. After all, in almost all cases the security sector, including the military, often serve as the main instrument for enforcing the authoritarian and repressive rule of the old regime whose fall the public celebrates. 

These are some of the issues that any policy response needs to deal with for it to be effective. Thus, the use of sanctions, unless anchored on a political strategy that addresses the underlying conditions and the drivers of coups and without support from the public, stands little chance of leading to return to constitutional order. Indeed, as Mali’s experience since 2012 shows, any return to constitutional order that is confined to getting the men and women in uniform back to the barracks without the necessary institutional and governance reforms tackling the factors behind the coup will not be long lasting.

Solomon A. Dersso is the Founding Director of Amani Africa, an Addis Ababa-based think tank.

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