Military scorecard: How do coup leaders perform in office?

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A growing number of African countries – Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and most recently Gabon – have all experienced military interventions in the last seven years, underlining the grave risk democracy faces in Africa.

In the face of the comeback of coups, which remind us of Africa’s difficult past and potentially fragile future, it is important to ask how these countries have fared – and what this tells us about the future of military rule on the continent?

To this end, this article reviews the experience of some of the most prominent countries that have seen the rise of the military to political prominence – and finds that it rarely generates better quality governance or delivers better development.

Zimbabwe

Once dubbed the “breadbasket of Africa”, the once prosperous South African country experienced its own horrors of colonialism and then white minority rule under the regime of Ian Smith. Robert Mugabe’s long and eventful fight for Zimbabwe’s independence turned sour when he became Zimbabwe’s president for more than three decades, using all means possible to consolidate power. It took a largely unexpected military coup in 2017 to depose him.

Emmerson Mnangwagwa subsequently replaced Mugabe as president and has ruled ever since. Zimbabwe’s experience is a classic one of the more things change the more they stay the same. Although politics has become increasingly militarised, and there is a new leader, the ZANU-PF government is still in power, and still stays in power through a combination of electoral manipulation and repression.

Partly as a result, the country continues to struggle on many levels. Long promised economic growth has failed to materialise, with citizens consistently asked to believe that things will get better when the evidence suggests that if anything corruption has gotten worse under the new regime.

Mali

Mali experienced a succession of military coups in 2020 and 2021. But little has changed for the landlocked West African country. Democracy has often been a somewhat contradictory experience, here, as political parties have struggled to establish deep roots while Malians have never hesitated to pour into the street to ask for a change whether of government or of their socio-economic situation.

Located in the Sahel, which has become the new epicenter of insecurity, the successive governments have been badly wounded – and in some cases fatally undermined – by their inability to deal with terrorism and violent extremism.

This has proved to be as true of military regimes as their civilian counterparts. Assimi Goita seized power in 2021 but there has been painfully little progress as the country continues to be wracked by poverty and insecurity. Moreover, while it is true that the Kidal has been retaken, which is symbolically important, for the regime, recent analysis in this publication suggests that the strategies used to achieve this outcome may actually make peace even more difficult to maintain in the long-term.

The transition to democracy is also up in the air after presidential elections were postponed, and elsewhere there is painfully little to suggest that the country is close to coming out of the doldrums. The decision of the military junta to withdraw the country from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional body, has also dealt a blow to regional trade and efforts to sustain democratic government more broadly in West Africa.

Burkina Faso

Two military coups shook Burkina Faso in 2022. First, Paul Henri Damiba seized power from the civilian administration of President Roch Kabore which he accused of failing to properly tackle the growing insecurity in the country. Damiba was then forced to relinquish power himself when he himself was deposed in a military coup, allegedly for failing to re-establish security.

At the helm of the government in Burkina Faso now sits thirty six year-old soldier Ibrahima Traore, who would in an alternate reality be a beacon of youth political aspirations but for the way he came to power. Under his leadership civil society groups and other voices has increasingly been excluded from power, as an increasingly authoritarian approach is pursued under the guise of fighting corruption.

For all Burkina-Faso’s youthful military leader has to say about taking back his country from foreign powers, crime and instability, the situation very much remains on the edge of a knife. The fact that around one in ten Burkinabes – roughly 2.1 million people – have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of insecurity tells its own story.

Like Mali, the junta shows signs of wanting to remain in power longer than the country’s citizens either wanted or expected, and like Mali the decision of the military junta to pull the country out of ECOWAS would have serious implications both for the country and for the rest of the region.

Guinea and Niger

Guinea may not be experiencing the security challenges that have bedevilled some of its West African neighbours, but the future of democracy looks bleak in one of Africa’s poorest countries. The military has been in power since September 2021, under the leadership of General Mamady Doumbouya, and has promised elections will be held in December 2024. There are serious concerns that this will not happen, however, and each day Doumbouya spends as the face of the country’s government serves as a brutal reminder of the horrors of the 2009 stadium massacre, which occurred under tenure of another military ruler, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara.

Meanwhile, Niger caught the coup bug on 26 July 2023. Amidst a raucous international outcry against the ouster of President Mohammed Bazoum – who had actually been doing a decent job where security is concerned – junta leader Abdourahamane Tchiani has moved to consolidate his own power power. This follows a military intervention that was predominantly driven by the desire of senior figures within the security forces to protect their own positions when a reshuffle was in the offing. 

In part because of the self-serving nature of the coup, the junta in Niger has been particularly keen to manipulate public sentiment and the current international context – claiming to be fighting to establish the country’s sovereignty, while in reality constructing a new dependency on Russia to replace the previous dependency on France. The move to leave ECOWAS plays into this narrative, while insulating the junta from international pressure to democratise, but will do little to deliver security and development for the Nigerians who desperately need it.

Learning the lessons

Even this quick review provides ample evidence that coups are unlikely to engender the positive change that their proponents claim. There is also evidence that military rule is unlikely to deal effectively with terrorism in the region.

Military regimes – especially those that rely on Russian proxies such as Wagner – are more likely to commit human rights violations, generating fresh grievances and further complicating efforts to build a sustainable peace. In this way, the indiscriminate use of force in counter-terrorism often serves to complicate the fight against terrorism.

The idea that military rule is the answer to insecurity also relies on a false assumption about what generates instability and how to restore it. In the context of weak states, political order cannot simply be established by might. The root cases also need to be addressed. These causes include poverty, conflict, marginalisation, weak law enforcement, inadequate infrastructure, exclusionary political practices and a lack of effective decentralisation.

Terrorism thrives when justice is not seen to be done, or fails to come at all.

Most of these key drivers of terrorism and other forms of anti-system movement are likely to be made worse by military regimes that, throughout African history, have tended to commit human rights violations, not listen effectively to their citizens, become involved in corruption, and fail to deliver public goods.

The experience of the last seventy years – when democratic Botswana and Mauritius were the only countries to consistently experience impressive economic growth – is that democracy does a better job at dealing with these issues. While democratic leaders may have performed poorly in many West African countries, generating widespread frustration and hence facilitating military intervention, a more inclusive and accountable form of government remains the best bet.

It is also the form of government most citizens prefer, with 68% of respondents to Afrobarometer surveys continuing to reject military rule.

What these citizens recognise is that military coups are at best short-term fixes, and are not a lasting solution to their country’s problems. The greatest risk to the future of the continent is therefore that the transitions back to civilian rule in the continents “coup countries” become delayed indefinitely, turning the clock back to the dark days of the 1980s when almost all governance indicators were worse than they are today.

Kene Obiezu is a Nigerian lawyer and writer who is interested in counter-terrorism.

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