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Picture: AFP – Protesters hold an anti-France placard during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey on August 3, 2023. Since 2020, Africa has recorded seven successful coups and three unsuccessful coups. No singular factor explains coup drivers, the writers say.

By Jide Martyns Okeke and Fatma Ahmed

The July 26, 2023, coup in Niger is not an isolated event. Rather, it represents the recent resurgence of military coups that have plagued Africa, especially West Africa and Sudan. Since 2020, Africa has recorded seven successful coups and three unsuccessful coups.

Some of these coups have occurred within the same country notably, Mali and Burkina Faso. These coup-affected countries have also experienced military rule for a third of their post-colonial independence. The resurgence of military coups is rooted in a combination of triggers, and proximate and structural factors that require examination.

Typically, official condemnations and membership suspension from both the African Union (AU) and relevant Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have often characterised regional responses. The recent coup in Niger marked a slight departure from customary responses from regional organisations, at least made on official statements by the Economic Community of West Africa States (Ecowas).

On July 28, the Authority of Ecowas under the leadership of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu of Nigeria issued a communique condemning the unfolding military coup in Niger. The Ecowas Communique not only expressed total rejection of the coup but unprecedentedly gave the coup plotters an ultimatum of one week to restore constitutional order. In a similar vein, the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) also expressed rejection of the coup and gave a timeline of fifteen (15) days to restore constitutional order. At the time of writing (August 11), Ecowas had issued a further communique prioritising the peaceful resolution of the crisis but also authorising the activation of its Standby Force to restore constitutional order in Niger.

Beyond the uncertain outcomes of various responses by regional and international institutions as well as bilateral partners, the latest manifestation of coups especially in West Africa, calls for a deeper reflection.

State fragility, characterised by weak governance and political cohesion, also intensifies the vulnerability and risk of coups – (@jmartyns @_FatmaAhmed)

Unpacking the complexities of coups in Africa

No singular factor explains coup drivers. The in-depth analysis presented in UNDP’s (United Nations Development Programme’s) Soldiers and Citizens report (read here) sheds some light on the multidimensional factors, which could create coup risks. For analytical convenience, this web of factors could be framed based on trigger, proximate and structural factors, which may often overlap and are closely interrelated.

Triggers could typically be events – at the domestic, regional, or international levels – which could sufficiently shape, drive or become a tipping point for coups. In recent times, the death of a president, and behind-the-scenes power struggle intensified by geopolitical considerations may have contributed to triggers.

Proximate factors highlight broader challenges in Africa’s political landscape, this inflection point in democracy coincides with a broader questioning of its effectiveness as an optimal form of government. The failure of leaders, even those democratically elected, to meet citizens’ needs and aspirations further exacerbates the situation.

When examining the structural and institutional issues that contribute to coup susceptibility, the historical involvement of militaries in politics emerges as a structural factor, alongside institutional deficits in ensuring clear checks and balances. State fragility, characterised by weak governance and political cohesion, also intensifies the vulnerability and risk of coups. These factors coupled with exclusionary patterns of economic growth and inequality, are alarmingly prevalent in all recent cases of military coups in West Africa and the Sahelian region.

Constitutional Amendments could Create Coup Risks

Constitutional manipulation, which seeks to extend term limits, often retrospectively, diminishes the peaceful transfer of power. It creates a dangerous precedent where leaders seek to perpetuate their rule, stifling political competition and reducing the opportunities for fresh ideas and leadership.

Furthermore, the lack of clarity in enforcing measures against such constitutional manipulations enables incumbents to exploit legal ambiguities, which undermine the essence of rule of law and the integrity of democratic institutions. As seen in the graph below, this practice has spread geographically, with countries either lacking term-limit provisions or witnessing the removal of such limits through constitutional amendments.

The 2000 Lomé Declaration on the framework for an OAU (Organisation of African Unity) response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government (UCG) does not include constitutional amendments as a form of UCG. There is an inherent risk in such exclusion, which could offer a legitimatising tool, which can be exploited by coup plotters. Regional institutions such as Ecowas are seeking to reverse this trend through the adaptation of their frameworks to tackle this growing concern through the 2001 Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Governance which offers a glimmer of hope.

If sustained and respected, these efforts could strengthen norms and practices, providing a much-needed deterrent against the subversion of democratic processes, especially in response to the fight against the military juntas. Safeguarding term limits and constitutional integrity is essential to preserving democracy’s vitality, ensuring peaceful transitions of power, and fostering a political environment that encourages inclusivity, transparency, and accountability.

Building trust and understanding between civilian leaders and the military is paramount to safeguarding the region’s democratic aspirations and steering it towards a path of sustainable progress and genuine democratic renewal – @jmartyns @_FatmaAhmed

Turning the Tide of Military Governance

Military rule is historical in Africa’s political landscape. Since 1952, Africa has witnessed almost 100 successful coups. Despite the optimistic wave of democratisation in the 1990s, the recent surge in coups equals the tally of the entire last decade (2010 to 2019) and mirrors the gloomy period of authoritarian regimes in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. The aftermath of coups often unleashes prolonged political chaos, insecurity, and, as seen in Sudan, the looming risk of further coups and full-fledged wars.

It is a stark wake-up call for countries to fortify themselves against coups by investing in the quality of democracy and redefining the social contract with citizens. To truly strengthen resilience against coups, more people-centred views are vital. In countries where we have seen recent military coups, there has been a dominance of historical patterns of military rule. For example, Burkina Faso has experienced 25 years of military rule since its 62 years of independence. Mali has experienced 25 years of military rule since its 62 years of independence. Guinea has experienced 14 years of military rule since its 64 years of independence. Niger has experienced 38 years of military rule since its 63 years of independence. Sudan has experienced 31 years of military rule since its 66 years of independence. In other words, on average most of these countries have experienced military rule for more than one-third of their history.

Military rulers have also transitioned into civilian administration making the dominance of military influence in governance more prevalent. There are several instances where countries that have experienced similar dominance of military rule, have managed to experience prolonged democratic transitions (for example, Ghana and Nigeria). However, there is a clear correlation between the historical pattern of military governance and coup risks.

The Soldiers and Citizens report unveils a compelling finding: while citizens may initially cheer for military interventions, their underlying desire is for transformative leadership and effective governance. In a survey of 5,000 citizens from countries that have recently experienced military coups, only 17 percent of those interviewed preferred a non-democratic form of government. Understanding these sentiments is pivotal in addressing the challenges to democratic stability in the region.

The ephemeral support for coups is therefore a cry for democratic renewal. This should serve as a rallying call for governments to build coup resilience and a shift towards improved governance, and truly inclusive development progress. Many states have masked exclusionary governance behind a democratic façade, causing citizens’ tolerance for such trends to wane across the Continent. Disappointment with democratically elected governments fuels support for non-democratic styles of governance, like military rule, particularly where democracy is perceived as abused or corruption and insecurity prevail. However, it is essential to recognise that citizens overwhelmingly prefer democratic governance, emphasising the need to prioritise democracy and human rights investments.

Peaceful Constitutional Restoration and Transitions

Military coups are on the rise in Africa. There is a risk that this pattern of disruptive and unconstitutional transition may reverse development gains and deepen insecurity, especially in the greater and central Sahel regions. Yet, there could be an opportunity to re-set the social contract between the state and citizens as well as promote improved quality of governance that is more accountable and responsive. This will entail promoting democratic processes that are more inclusive of young people, women, and vulnerable groups that are often underrepresented in political processes.

The history of military governance in coup-affected states also demands a reset in civilian-military relationships. This would require engaging in meaningful civil-military dialogues. By prioritising dialogue, we can bridge the gaps between institutions, promote democratic principles, and reinforce the rule of law. Building trust and understanding between civilian leaders and the military is paramount to safeguarding the region’s democratic aspirations and steering it towards a path of sustainable progress and genuine democratic renewal.

Preventive measures offer a sustainable pathway for addressing coup spirals or risks. However, when coups occur a robust and timely response is required to navigate through the complex challenges. The recently launched African Facility to Support Inclusive Transition (AFSIT) by UNDP and the AUC (African Union Commission) is a timely tool for intervention. It presents an entry point to contribute to complex political transitions including those countries that have recently experienced coups through analysis, assessment, and niche interventions that complement existing programmatic responses.

Fatma Ahmed is a Specialist – Africa Facility to Support Inclusive Transitions, UNDP and Dr Jide Martyns Okeke, is the Co-ordinator – Regional Programme for Africa, UNDP

This article was first published in ACCORD