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Africa’s coups crisis: Deepen democracy for peace

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Malian troops stand guard outside Kati Barracks in Bamako, the headquarters of coup leader Amadou Sanogo. A commitment to democracy, accountability, inclusiveness, participation, reconciliation, and good governance in Africa’s multi-election year is the key to peace and stability on the Continent, the writers say. – Picture: Wikimedia Commons / October 31, 2012

By Lennon Monyae and Bhaso Ndzendze

Africa is witnessing a troubling resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs), a phenomenon that directly undermines democratic principles, respect for human rights, and the rule of law and good governance that the African Union (AU) was founded upon.

The Continent, once filled with hope for democratic progress following the democratic wave of the 1990s, now faces a disheartening reality of military coups and political instability. This pressing issue demands the immediate collective attention of all African citizens in order to address the structural, dynamic and trigger causes. As almost half the Continent goes into elections, 2024 could be a turning point – for better or for worse.

Africa’s modern coups

The AU, through its Constitutive Act of 2000, firmly established its commitment to promoting human and people’s rights, democratic principles, popular participation, and good governance. It also declared its unwavering stance against UCGs. The AU’s principle of total rejection of UCGs emanates from the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU’s) Algiers Declaration of July 1999 which affirmed the principle as sacrosanct and cardinal for the Continent.

Furthermore, the Lomé Declaration of July 2000 established the framework for responding to UCGs and outlined various scenarios that qualify as UCGs, including military coups d’etat against a democratically elected Government; interventions by mercenaries to replace a democratically elected Government; replacement of democratically elected Governments by armed dissident groups and rebel movements; and the refusal of incumbent governments to relinquish power after free, fair and regular elections.

The definition provided by the OAU is further buttressed by the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance (2007), that went further to stress that any amendment or revision of a constitution contrary to democratic principles constitutes an UCG.

To address this crisis [of UCGs], African nations must deepen their commitment to democracy, accountability, inclusiveness, participation, reconciliation, and good governance.

A brief look at the trend

Alarming statistics from the African Peer Review Mechanism’s (APRM’s) Africa Governance Report 2023 reveal that from 2003 to 2022, there were 18 successful UCGs on the Continent. The military takeover in Niger in July 2023 marked the nineteenth such instance, with Gabon’s UCG a month later becoming the 20th. It was also a grim milestone as it was the 100th successful military coup in post-colonial Africa (1952-2023).

Coups tend to beget more coups, as has occurred in countries such as Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso and Gabon. This wave of coups represents a staggering 229 percent increase compared to the previous two decades, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Report titled Soldiers and Citizens: Military Coups and the Need for Democratic Renewal in Africa. The UNDP report states that military coups not only undermine constitutional rule but also perpetuate bad governance and create conditions that erode human rights and civic freedom, ultimately fostering a climate conducive to future coups.

The AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, along with the AU Peace and Security Council, have expressed deep concern over this alarming resurgence of military coups. They acknowledge that these coups undermine democracy, peace, security, and stability on the Continent.

Causes of coups in Africa: What the data says

The causes of unconstitutional changes of government in Africa are multifaceted and complex. The Africa Governance Report 2023 identifies several catalysts, including the integrity of democratic elections, diversity management, constitutional order, economic governance, and popular uprisings.

The UNDP Report further categorises these causes into structural, proximate, and trigger factors. Structural factors encompass political and military involvement in politics, state fragility, and issues of legitimacy. Proximate factors involve insecurity, government performance, democratic dysfunction, geopolitical shifts, and economic challenges.

The AU Peace and Security Council has also highlighted governance deficiencies, such as greed, mismanagement of diversity and opportunities, marginalisation, human rights abuses, refusal to accept electoral defeat, constitutional manipulation, and corruption, as potent triggers for UCGs.

To address this crisis, African nations must deepen their commitment to democracy, accountability, inclusiveness, participation, reconciliation, and good governance. This cultural shift is essential to fostering peace and stability on the Continent.

Data from reputable sources further underscore the gravity of the situation. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance both consistently ranked the countries currently under military rule as having poor governance and democratic deficits. These rankings reveal that the erosion of democratic principles preceded the military coups.

Moreover, the Afrobarometer Citizens Survey conducted in 2021-2022 indicates a significant level of public dissatisfaction with elected leaders in these countries. A substantial majority in each of the affected nations expressed support for military intervention in response to perceived abuses of power by elected leaders.

Furthermore, Nana Amoateng suggests that military coups in Africa are best understood in the context of neocolonialism. In his article, “Military Coups in Africa: A Continuation of Politics by Other Means?”, he argues that foreign powers, along with local actors, play a significant role in these coups, often fuelling political and socioeconomic problems to advance their interests.

[…] many of the current juntas have either postponed election dates or are unwilling to commit to a specific date.

Elections an opportunity and a litmus test

In 2024 half the world and 37 percent of African countries will be holding critical elections. It may be the most important election year in the history of the Continent. A quarter of these will be in West Africa, including some of the recently coup-hit countries: Burkina Faso (by July), Chad (by October), and Mali (to be determined).

Nearly all these regimes undertook to adhere to transition timetables when they assumed power. This is to the credit of the African Union, in whose wake and ‘norm entrepreneurship’, coups on the Continent have been more short-lived. Still concerningly, however, many of the current juntas have either postponed election dates or are unwilling to commit to a specific date. In the case of Burkina Faso, Captain Ibrahim Traore has insisted that elections are not a priority for his regime, with much of its rhetoric pointing to the issue of combatting terrorism.

This misses the principle of civilian oversight: militaries, whatever the nature of their contingent aims, are the instruments of the populace and are legitimate in their use of force only insofar as they are presided over by democratically elected leaders. A regime without a campaign-tested popular base and operating without checks and balances is also likely to be excessive in its counterterrorism efforts, corrupt in its financial dealings, and, ultimately, ineffectual.

Ghana and Senegal, two bastions of stability and democracy in West Africa, have seen tense campaigns characterised by the passing of a controversial anti-LGBT bill for what appear to be calculated electoral purposes and political imprisonment (and later release) of key opposition leaders, but they will see new presidents sworn in as the incumbents have seen their terms through and have not sought a third.

Despite this recent turn of events, Ghana still illustrates that a country can move from coup pandemic to a largely healthy democracy. After experiencing frequent coups throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the tide turned in 1990, when Jerry Rawlings, who ironically came to power through a coup himself, worked with civil society to put in place measures that ensured democracy was the country’s modus operandi. One of his key measures was ensuring true civilian oversight. Another was subjecting himself to the electoral process.

Countries such as Botswana and Namibia elicit no concern, while others are seen as ‘foregone conclusions’. These hybrid regimes and flawed democracies notwithstanding, these polls have the potential to affirm democracy and serve as an example for the attainment of policy change through the ballot box. They are also an opportunity to observe whether the juntas are committed to civilian rule and the democratic path as they have claimed. In many ways, then, this is the year democracy will either prevail or dim across the Continent.

Lennon Monyae is a researcher at the AU-APRM and a political science PhD candidate at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Bhaso Ndzendze is an associate professor of politics and international relations at UJ. They write in their personal capacities.