The scourge of popular coups in Africa

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The recent spate of coups in Africa has generated considerable attention and concern. Between 1999 when the African Union (AU) was established and 2020, coups had significantly declined. These trends owed much to the development of the AU’s policy against unconstitutional changes of government that was complemented by efforts of regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

These African organizations have been coordinating their sanctioning regimes to motivate coupists to relinquish power and restore constitutional rule. Ideally, enforcement of these regimes could also deter future coup attempts. Unfortunately, in 2021 there were four successful coups, the highest number since 1999. And in 2022 there have already been two coup attempts to topple governments in Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau. This suggests that AU-led efforts may not be as effective as hoped.

While this increase in coups is worrying, we should be even more concerned about the rise of “popular coups”, or coups that seem to have mass support from the affected publics. The AU’s anti-coup policy identifies the conduct of elections following a coup as an indicator of the restoration of constitutional order. However, this policy sidesteps addressing the factors that indirectly contributed to such coups having popular support and increases the chances of subsequent coups and other threats to democracy. Without addressing these indirect causes of coups, coups will be more popular and any regional anti-coup frameworks are destined to fail.

Coups by numbers

Since 2010, there have been 14 successful coups in Africa. While there has been some variation in how the AU and other African regional organizations like ECOWAS have responded, generally these organizations have suspended the membership of the affected state and in some cases imposed targeted sanctions to pressure the coup-born regime to turn power over to civilians. These responses have resulted in coupists establishing transitional government frameworks that organize elections to facilitate a return to constitutional rule. On the surface, these actions generally satisfy the AU and ECOWAS requirements of re-establishing constitutional order. However, these AU/ECOWAS anti-coup responses fail to address the leadership and institutional deficiencies that triggered the military’s intervention, setting the stage for future coup attempts.

Research on coups has found several potential causes, including military grievances with the incumbent regime, political factors such as personalist rule, and economic characteristics including inequality and poverty. Among political factors are those that have precipitated recent coups: public dissatisfaction with the incumbent government/leadership. Typically, such coups are preceded by mass protests motivated by economic mismanagement, corruption, and poor governance.

It is in the midst of such protests that the armed forces steps in, overthrows the incumbent, and is, at least initially, welcomed by the people. While such appearance of popular support for coups may not reflect the entirety of the situation, it nonetheless suggests that a segment of the population has lost faith in the incumbent leadership and political institutions and processes aimed at ensuring accountability.

The popular coup script

Several recent overthrows have followed this script of a “popular coup” including the August 2020 coup against Mali’s Ibrahim Keita,  the September 2021 coup against Guinea’s Alpha Conde, and the January 2022 coup against Burkina Faso’s Roch Kabore. As expected, the AU and ECOWAS have responded to these coups in line with their policies against unconstitutional changes of government. Yet, although commendable and comparatively more powerful than responses from other international actors, these reactions to coups fail to address the factors that provided the pretext for military intervention.

Dissatisfaction with the incumbent resulting in widespread mass protests is a sign that public trust in these domestic political institutions is waning and the public desires leadership change rather than preferring military rule. Incumbent actions that seek to forcefully quell these protests to secure their positions and muted responses from external actors such as the AU only strengthen public distrust of the incumbent as these reactions implicitly suggest a preference for the status quo. It is under these circumstances that we witness initial public support for coups, an observation that should not be seen as signalling public endorsement of military rule. With no other alternative besides continued mass demonstrations to force the incumbent to resign, the public tends to endorse coups as a victory in these situations to the extent that the coup has resulted in the ousting of the incumbent.

Importantly, the requirement that coupists relinquish power and the civilian-led transitional administration organize elections further overlooks these indirect triggers of military interventions into politics. Elections may be seen as providing an opportunity for (re)democratization. However, elections, in and of themselves, are not the institutional reforms that may be necessary to address public grievances.

The regional response

While the AU and ECOWAS have included promises to assist in consolidating democracy and constitutional order following post-coup elections, these promises have not been backed by concrete steps that ensure the consolidation of democracy. For instance, these organizations do not continue to monitor closely the post-coup environment following the elections aimed at restoring constitutional order. Instead, elections are seen as marking a return to normalcy despite leaving unaddressed the triggers of the coup.

There is awareness that the institutional deficiencies that can trigger anti-government mass protests constitute threats to constitutional order. In the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, incumbent leaders’ attempt to remain in office through means that abrogate democratic power changes is identified as one of the unconstitutional changes of government alongside coups. Yet despite instances where leaders have pushed constitutional amendments eliminating term limits, the AU has yet to respond to such threats to democracy in a manner similar to how it reacts to coups.

Instead, the AU’s response has come after successful coups that were indirectly triggered by mass protests against incumbents seeking third terms in office, overlooking the unconstitutional change of government that served as a pretext for the military coup. ECOWAS has recently taken note of the consequences of not addressing such violations of constitutionalism. Following the ousting of Alpha Conde in 2020, Liberian president George Weah lamented:

“While we are condemning these military coups, we must also muster the courage to look into what is triggering these unconstitutional takeovers. Could it be that we are not honouring our political commitments to respect the term limits of our various constitutions?”

Fragility of democracy

The recent increase in coups points at the fragility of democracy in Africa. This fragility is further complicated by institutional deficiencies that have indirectly contributed to coups, including the recent spate. Responses to coups by the AU and regional organizations are commendable, yet these are not enough to strengthen democratization processes in Africa. This is because other unconstitutional changes of government, especially those that epitomize institutional deficiencies that indirectly motivate “popular coups,” have been left unaddressed.

To mitigate coups, and particularly those that seem to have popular support, there is a need to fully and consistently apply the AU’s policy against unconstitutional changes of government. By targeting incumbent abuse of power, the AU and ECOWAS can send a strong signal to domestic constituents of their commitment to good governance and democracy and a warning shot to incumbents and would-be abusers of power that such threats to constitutional rule will not go unpunished. Such external pressure has the potential to motivate reforms and dampen mass protests that can be used as a pretext for military intervention.

Mwita Chacha (@chacha_republic) is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Birmingham, UK.


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