Coups are not a new phenomena in sub-Saharan Africa, and have shaped how people think about the continent for decades. Chinua Achebe’s now infamous prediction of Nigeria’s first coup in his book A Man of the People and Hollywood’s depiction of the Idi Amin regime in The Last King of Scotland, are examples of how the coup has penetrated popular media, both on the continent and in the West.
This perception of Africa as a continent beset by military intervention is not entirely without substance: Africa experienced nearly four coups per year between 1960 and 2000. In many cases, these occurred in regimes that struggled to build effective systems of government that could sustain their legitimacy beyond the beyond popularity they gained through national liberation. Against this backdrop, military figures quickly realized they could assert themselves as a political force. Using an iron grip and pitching themselves as a lesser evil than the previous failing civilian government, military regimes began to proliferate.
The most recent military takeovers in Africa don’t fit this pattern, however. Following a period after the end of the Cold War in which coups were thought to be in decline as a result of the emergence of an international “anti-coup” norm, coups in Chad, Mali, Guinea and Zimbabwe have raised concerns that military takeovers are back in fashion. While these countries represent only a small number of cases and we should not assume that they necessarily represent the beginning of a new trend, it is pertinent to ask whether we should be worried about the future of historically coup-prone states.
Coups over time in Africa
Before proceeding any further, it is important to note that many African states have never had a coup. Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia are among the countries that have never seen a military takeover. There are also a number of countries that suffered coups in the immediate post-independence era but have not experienced one for decades. Ghana, for example, saw a series of coops between 1966 and 1984 but has since become one of Africa’s most stable democracies.
Indeed, the annual average number of coups across the continent fell by half in the first two decades of the 21st century, and many assessments of political freedoms have improved dramatically. However, just as democracy made significant gains immediately following the Cold War and appears to be struggling now, there is no guarantee that the decline in military rule will prove permanent. Given rising insecurity concerns throughout Central Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, the resurgence in military regimes is concerning.
The Imperative of Acceptance
If you watch the immediate aftermath of any coup, you will invariably find that the new junta appeals to two audiences: the country’s population and the international community. Even the most oppressive governments still have to take the mood on the street and the opinion of foreign powers into account. In Guinea’s coup of 5 September 2021, for example, the coup leaders promised elections and a “unity government”, while opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo framed the coup as the completion of the country’s pro-democracy struggle.
During the Cold War, a simple declaration of ideology was often enough to gather sympathy in Washington or Moscow. Where African regional organisations were concerned, coups were often accepted because many of the leaders in these bodies had come to power in the same fashion. Following the end of the Cold War, things began to change. When the Soviet Union collapsed, US foreign policy shifted from anti-communism to promoting democracy. Along with widespread domestic pressure for change this led to the emergence of a set of new civilian governments, many of whom became very nervous about their militaries.
To address this convergence of opinion in Western and African capitals, the Lome Declaration of 2000 and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance of 2007 strongly condemned unconstitutional seizures of power. This set the stage for the same bodies that previously welcomed coup leaders to ostracise them: the vast majority of recent coups have been criticised by global and continental leaders.
Thus, while coups in the Cold War-era were actively facilitated by international power politics, the terrain has been very different for military leaders since the Lome Declaration. Regional summits are now mostly filled with elected civilians who would like to discourage subversive movements, while Western powers view military regimes as inconvenient partners unless they are strategic in the War on Terror.
A Coup in the 21st Century
This assessment of why African coups have been less common in the past two decades begs an obvious question: why have there been so many in 2021? There are three primary factors that appear to be at play: (1) the specific circumstances in each country, and in most cases the deeply unpopular status of the civilian president, (2) an uptick in regional instability; and – more controversially – (3) the spillover effects of a nearby coup to other countries with a history of military power-grabs.
(1) In any analysis of international politics, it must be remembered that local factors are driving events. This most recent spate of coup attempts have taken place, variously, following a period of democratic backsliding and policy failure (in Mali), to secure a continuation of elite power (in Chad), and to end a controversial third term for an unpopular president (in Guinea). In other words, each of these coups were ultimately triggered by factors specific to their own country.
(2) These country-specific factors are not always isolated, however. Around the world, democracy has been observed to be in decline, the security situation in the Sahel has deteriorated, and there is widespread concern at the damage the COVID-19 pandemic is doing to both government and economic stability. While local events define political outcomes, international ones have the power to shape the domestic political landscape. Just as the start of the 21st century in Africa saw a global trend that helped to promote democracy, the following decades risk going the opposite direction.
(3) One way that domestic and international trends can interact at the regional level is through the spillover of coups. In this regard, it is important to note that Mali and Chad, and Niger where a coup attempt was thwarted in March, are contiguous Sahelian nations involved in the broader fight against Islamic extremist groups, while Guinea is Mali’s southwestern neighbour. The politics of any region are inherently linked by trade, politics and the movement of people. We don’t know for sure, but it is feasible that the leaders of the coup in Guinea were emboldened after watching coups in Chad and Mali succeed without immediate repercussions. In turn, if these military governments are allowed to stand, there is a risk that a culture of “coup acceptance” will return.
This is not the case just yet, however. The coups in Mali, Chad and Guinea have been condemned by regional players, but the criticism of the AU, ECOWAS, and international powers has largely been empty so far. To protect the democratic gains that so many have given so much to win, the international community and citizens of these countries will need to demand the rapid reintroduction of civilian government. If it starts to look like coups can capture power without consequences, there will be more before the decade is out.
Patrick Conley is a program associate for the International Republican Institute’s Africa Division
The opinions expressed here are Patrick’s and not necessarily those of IRI.