Why have coups returned to Africa, and what can be done about it?

Supporters of the military junta wave Nigerien and Russian flags at a demonstration of support for the coup/CREDIT: EPA-EFE/Issifou Djibo
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The current spate of coups in Africa has many causes, often specific to each individual country: bad governance, lack of accountability, lack of legitimacy, corruption, pervasive insecurity, insurrectionary challenges, personal ambition, foreign meddling… But there are deeper causes that need to be recognised because they must be tackled if there is to be a return to greater political stability and economic progress.

While there is inevitably a feeling of déja vu, this spate of coups and wars in the countries south of the Sahara underlines not only the continuing challenges that many African nations have faced since independence 60 years ago in building robust political systems, but the fact that it is getting harder to do that.

This is in large part due to the combined impact of climate change and demographic growth, making ever greater demands on stagnant or diminishing resources.  This has combined with the difficulty of accelerating Africa’s economic growth to create stresses that all African political systems, democratic and authoritarian, are struggling to cope with.  It increases the risk of further coups or instability, and that in turn will create more problems for the whole world.  So the international community as a whole world needs to help find a solution. 

It is no accident that recent instability is concentrated where population growth is fastest, and the impact of climate change most tangible – above all across the Sahel from Mali in the west to the Horn of Africa in the east, an ‘arc of instability’ as it has been called. In principle, rapid demographic growth – a tribute to the massive improvement in health across the continent – should create a demographic dividend. But this will take time, and for young people short term pressures to find a living are paramount. The impact of climate change is mixed: changing patterns have brought more rainfall to some places. But the difficulty of managing increased pressures on land from herders and cultivators without active policies to help increase productivity and manage the impact of a changing climate, result in escalating conflicts that merely exacerbate the problem.

Young people, particularly young men, who cannot make a living where they are will either move somewhere they can make a living – the city, a neighbouring country or further afield – or accept the offer of a Kalashnikov and a few dollars to join an insurrection or a bandit gang. Militias set up to resist them add to the problem of national militaries losing control of the situation on the ground.

On top of this economic and social pressure, there are two other underlying causes of the recent coups.

Several of the governments overthrown lacked popular legitimacy. In Guinea and Gabon, the coups followed closely on elections which were widely seen as rigged to preserve the incumbent in power. In Mali and Burkina Faso, civilian governments had lost legitimacy because of their inability to assure basic security across growing parts of the country. In Sudan, both the governments of Bashir and al-Burhan were the object of popular protests to restore a more representative government. 

These point to an underlying problem of political succession: where no agreed mechanism exists to remove a leader in whom the public has lost faith, through open and transparent elections for example, force becomes the only way of making a change. On this basis there are a number of Presidents (in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Cong-Brazzaville, Togo, Uganda) whose longevity in office owes more to control of the political system and less to their popularity, and who might find themselves vulnerable to a forceful regime change.

While Afrobarometer continues to show most Africans prefer to live under a democratic government, disillusion has spread over how democracy has actually operated in practice. Too often it has failed to stem corruption or deliver what had been promised. This makes it easier for Russian propaganda to paint democratic governments as ‘clients’ of ‘the West’, not serving the citizens’ interests, and to stir up popular protest on the street. Never mind that autocratic governments, whether military or dynastic, are unlikely to stimulate economic growth, create more jobs or stop the jihadists. The aim is to give military governments legitimacy simply from being ‘anti-imperialist’ or ‘anti-West’ and to bring them into a ‘Global South’ bloc that will support China and Russia (as seen at the recent BRICS summit in South Africa).

For these regimes, as for growing numbers of their citizens, politics is no longer about improvement but about survival – and they will ally with whoever offers them help to do that.

But poor governance, insecurity and lack of economic growth are common. The third underlying cause is that the military take power in these countries because they can. Political institutions tend to be centralised but weak – sometimes weakened by the very leaders trying to stay in power. Civil society organisations may be active but are often small. Many of these Presidents had set up a Presidential Guard to ensure their own security independently of the regular army, but thereby simply encouraging a ‘Praetorian politics’, where it is easy for those close to power to seize it. Countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya Senegal or South Africa, where political power has been more extensively devolved, civil society is stronger and the military are more clearly under civilian control, are far less susceptible to a coup. 

So how should other countries respond? For Africa itself, these unconstitutional changes of government threaten the consensus achieved in the 2000s that all should support democracies. The swift and firm response of ECOWAS and the African Union illustrates how worried they are about contagion. On the other hand, the so-called ‘middle powers’ who are increasingly involved in Africa, take a more nuanced view, seeking national advantage in the circumstances.

Western countries face a dilemma, graphically illustrated by France whose Africa policy now lies in tatters. Their policy has always been focussed on keeping the French in and the jihadists out, but the effect has been that the French are now out and the insurgents swiftly coming in. A fundamental re-think is needed. President Macron had tried to shift  French policy from the traditional ‘Francafrique’ approach of supporting friendly autocrats in return for French business access, to supporting democratic governments and helping them fight terrorism, along with a forward position on the return of cultural property. But their old reputation went before them: the democracies were too often imperfect, the elites too Francophile and France could too easily be portrayed as still pulling the strings from behind the scenes. A policy of mild political conditionality and a purely military approach to defeating terrorism has ended up being counter-productive. 

Britain has suffered no such a backlash, but mainly because it is seen as increasingly disengaged from Africa. A hostile visa regime, cuts in aid programmes, stagnant trade and investment, a shrinking British Council and political neglect from the top are what many Africans perceive. It is odd, for example, that new Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has already met Presidents Biden, Macron and Modi, but not Prime Minister Sunak, despite Nigeria’s importance to Britain and to the whole stability of West Africa.

Both British and French policy seem out of touch with the kind of partnerships that Africa is now looking for. The US has moved faster to adjust, publishing last year a new Africa Strategy that put the emphasis on a more equal partnership that prioritises the things that are important to Africa – as has the EU. This is reflected in the high turnout of African leaders at their respective summits. But there can be no presumption that Africa ‘ought’ to support the West: it is that attitude that breeds resentment.

But western countries now need to redouble their efforts to support Africa’s democracies. This should include a substantial increase in funding to help them deal with the impacts of climate change and accelerate economic growth, as well as support for democracy itself through civil society and civil institutions. To cope with current climatic and economic challenges in particular, African governments need more innovative and well-funded policies which western countries, including the UK, are well placed to support. This is important not just in the big countries like South Africa and Nigeria, but the small and vulnerable like Malawi and Sierra Leone. Given the resources and the opportunity, Africans can find solutions to their problems.

It is in the world’s interests to back them while we can.

Nick Westcott (@NickWestcott4) is a Professor of Practice in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

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