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Understanding the sources of military coups in Africa

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Picture: Supplied – Military personnel keep a close eye amid protests in Gabon.

By Samuel Igba

The recent coup in Gabon is the latest in a spate of military takeovers occurring across Africa in recent years.

Like current and historical African military strongmen, Gabonese interim president General Brice Oligui Nguema has promised to return power to civilians through elections after a yet-unspecified length of transition period. The military junta stated as justification for the coup, a political, economic and social crisis, and particularly the failure of the August 2023 elections “to meet the conditions for a transparent, credible and inclusive ballot”, as well as “a continuing deterioration in social cohesion, with the risk of leading the country into chaos”.

There is apparently a recurring challenge resulting in military takeovers across Africa since the end of colonial rule. Of 242 successful coups across the globe since 1950, Africa has experienced 106.

While analysts have put forward several explanations about why coups, in whatever form they occur, the key reasons are often the inability of successive administrations to deliver public goods, and a breach of the social contract. In the first generation of coups, there was a failure of democracy as a political philosophy in the African context.

The failure went un-addressed, and in the wave of democracy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, democracy failed to translate into popular empowerment, evidenced by the levels of widespread underdevelopment and inequality across the continent.

Between 1960 and 1990, there was a wave of military coups occurring throughout the continent. Within this period, around 90% of 45, independent black African countries experienced a military takeover of power, an attempted coup or a plotted coup. During the same period, there were 115 legal changes of government, among which were 52 successful coups, 56 attempted coups, and 102 plots – the events institutionalised military coups as the main mechanism for power succession in sub-Saharan Africa.

Picture: AFP – Niger’s National Concil for the sefeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) Colonel-Major Amadou Abdramane (2nd R) is greeted by supporters upon his arrival at the Stade General Seyni Kountche in Niamey on August 6, 2023. – Thousands of supporters of the military coup in Niger gathered at a Niamey stadium Sunday, when a deadline set by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS to return the deposed President Mohamed Bazoum to power is set to expire, according to AFP journalists. A delegation of members of the ruling National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) arrived at the 30,000-seat stadium to cheers from supporters, many of whom were draped in Russian flags and portraits of CNSP leaders.

The motivations for coups in Africa are manifold but strongly depend on civil-military relations – the proximity between the military and the civilian government that determines how much influence the military has in the governance of the state – in each specific country.

Some analysts argue that military ideas, lore, and ideology matter; making it important to study officer attitudes towards the ruling government. In this sense, democratic or military convictions can grow if there is a change in the attitudes and beliefs of members of the armed forces.

The change in ideology can come from a variety of experiences with military or civilian rule. It could be material-based, or perceptions of legitimacy as in the case of the recent Gabon coup. Materially, when the government of the day threatens the interests of the armed forces, the dissatisfactions of officers may be expressed as coups.

A popular ideological argument for the frequency of military coups during the early days of African independence, and relevant today, was that democracy, as a political philosophy of newly westernised African elites, clashed with underdevelopment, resource allocation in diverse societies that bred similar legitimacy crises across the continent, as well as corruption.

Picture: AFP – A general view of billowing smoke as supporters of the Nigerien defence and security forces attack the headquarters of the Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS), the party of overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, in Niamey on July 27, 2023. – The head of Niger’s armed forces on July 27, 2023 said he endorsed a declaration by troops who overnight announced they had taken power after detaining the country’s elected president, Mohamed Bazoum.

Deciding that social order is absent, the military arrives to “return order”. By the late 1990s, there was a wave of democracy sweeping across the continent. Between 1989 and 2010, Africa witnessed 70 presidential elections across 48 countries. Legislative polls involving more than one party were also held at least once in 42 countries. Virtually all states on the continent had carried out multiparty elections apart from Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia and Swaziland.

During this period, stakeholders both within and outside Africa – including African citizens, civil society, and the international community – began to discredit single-party political systems and military regimes. Domestically, citizens became more and more disgruntled with the economic and social realities of their states, and internationally, aid was tied to conditions of democratisation.

Globalisation resulted in African military regimes becoming increasingly unable to operate in isolation in the context of the global economic crises of the 1970s and 1980s. Military governments were left with little choice. The continent experienced a period of widespread democratic governance and multiparty systems but democratic forces were not necessarily translated into popular empowerment. The same challenges of underdevelopment, inequality, resource allocation and legitimacy continued to be the reality within states across the continent. The burning question remained how to expedite the democratic process while revitalising the economy, taking care of the social and economic needs of African citizens.

In recent years, there has been a surge in military coups, beginning with Mali in August 2020, Chad in April 2021, Guinea in September 2021, Sudan in October 2021, Burkina Faso in January 2022, Niger in July 2023 and Gabon in August 2023. Analysts have blamed the rising popularity of coups on a myriad political, social, and economic factors including: continued control of power by individual leaders leading to a deep resentment of dynastic-style politics, a growing security challenge and the fight against jihadists with little support from civilian governments, as well as economic inequality leading to a decline in civic trust, especially among the younger generation. Citizens often go out in the streets to support military juntas: a clear sign of a failure of democracy in those countries.

*Dr Samuel Igba is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.