The contagion of military coups in Africa

The military coup that toppled the president of Niger last week was a shocking reminder to the people of this continent that the threat of military coups is now rearing its ugly head in a brutal fashion.

The recent rise in coups in the continent is a reflection of a declining regional and international willingness to enforce anti-coup norms.

It was between 1960 and 2000 when coup d’états were prominent as demonstrated by 82 successful coups translating to an average of four military coups per year.

This period was devastating for the continent, contributing to the instability, corruption, human rights abuses, impunity and poverty.

However, things changed for the better between 2000 and 2019, as there was a decline in this trend. Some of the reasons for the decline were that this era was characterised by calls for democratic reforms and constitutionalism. Military coups decreased to an average of two per year till 2019. Since then the unconstitutional power grabs have made a strong comeback.

Between 2020 and 2022 there have been two coups in Mali in a space of 10 months. These were followed by coups in Guinea, Sudan and recently Burkina Faso. This worrisome turn of political events was dubbed by the UN secretary general António Guterres as “Africa going through an epidemic of coup d’états”. This statement shows that the continent, thus risks hurtling back to the bad old days of military misgovernance.

Some people associate these coups with the surge in the militarisation of politics in the continent. Both the external drivers and internal factors influence this militarisation. The external drivers include the increasing number of diverse international actors who are active in the continent to push their selfish interests such as multinational corporations, mercenaries, and military contractors. Their corrupt symbiotic relationship with Africa’s political elite, exploitation of the resources and labour, and destruction of the environment, has a detrimental impact on the socio-economic stability of many states. Internal factors show that there is a growing public frustration against corruption, insecurity, poor governance, meddling with constitutions, etc. This militarisation of politics comes amid an increasing crisis of legitimacy for rulers. This is because when leaders toy with constitutions, term limits and electoral processes, it increases public support for armed forces to do something. In this case, the army assumes the position of saviour and use civic discontent as a means of legitimising their unconstitutional power grabs. This was demonstrated by the massive celebrations by the people in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea after their leaders were ousted by the military. Their frustrations with poor governance, meddling with term limits, and failure to provide security by their civilian leaders, makes them to view the military takeover of the government as a “positive” step towards “fixing” the wrongs committed by their civilian leaders. This misguided notion that the militaries are messianic envoys to restore good governance overlooks the fact that the phenomenon is regressive in terms of democratic consolidation and that military coups are contagious because a successful coup significantly increases the probability of subsequent coups in that country as well as its neighbours, thus creating more instability.

When it comes to international responses to military coups, African and international actors are not robust and effective to the extent that some critics lament that they are relatively toothless. It is very common for international actors besides imposing limited and ineffective sanctions, to favour a process of a more docile diplomatic engagement between leadership and those aggrieved domestic stakeholders than serious punitive measures. Unfortunately, this approach ensures that democratic consolidation does not take place organically within these states, which in turn allows militaries to exploit these deficits.

The severe lack of concrete and unified condemnation in addition to the willingness of some international actors (China, Russia and USA) to work with military governments encourages more unconstitutional power grabs by militaries in Africa. These is because coup leaders know that they will not face severe consequences or regional and global isolation. This calls for re-thinking of strategies to reverse the trend of unconstitutional and regressive power grabs. Joseph Seegle says the most important action that the international democratic community can take to reverse the trend of coups in the continent is to incentivise democracy. By this, he means that those African governments those commit to and uphold democratic practices should merit significantly greater diplomatic support, development and security assistance and promotion of private investment. Seegle asserts that while Africa’s wave of democratisation of the 1990s was led by democratic reformers, there were clear international incentives for adopting democratic norms. It is against this background that Seegle calls for international democratic actors to find the importance of recommitting themselves to these norms by building a more unified posture in sustaining opposition to coups. He reasons that this diplomatic effort needs to actively engage the AU and regional bodies each of which have their own democracy charters, to affirm these norms. Seegle’s arguments are reasonable because if African regional institutions are clear in condemning a coup, it is far easier for the international democratic community to rally behind that position.

One can also share Seegle’s view that the flipside of providing incentives for Africa’s democratisers is the need to consistently impose real costs on coup makers. This effectively means that those who seize power extra-legally should not be recognised, financial assistance and debt relief should be suspended, coup leaders should have their assets frozen, and denied access to the international financial system and coup installed governments should be denied access to sovereign accounts.

In addition, external powers that are financially or politically propping up coup leaders must also face the costs. These costs should be reputational and financial (naming and shaming) that can deepen antipathy towards these external actors spoilers and limit their regional influence. From this one can safely argue that that this is not just a moral stance but one that can contribute to a more stable Africa that can yield more reliable security and economic partners.

Editor's Comment
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