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Why Have There Been So Many Coups in Africa Recently?

There have been a spate of coups in Africa over the last 18 months. Most of these coups have taken place in West Africa, but not all. This includes Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Sudan and two coups in Mali. This is not to mention some attempted coups, most recently in Guinea Bissau.

On the line with me to discuss why there have there been so many coups recently, and whether or not this is a trend is Solomon Dersso. He is the founder of Amani Africa, an Addis Ababa based think tank with a focus on the African Union and African Union Affairs.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What was West Africa’s Political Landscape like Prior to the Recent Increase in Coups? 

Solomon Dersso [00:02:17] In order to speak of a dream, I think it’s important to have a baseline from which you start and if you look at the trend in Africa, particularly since the turn of the century with the establishment of the African Union, we have witnessed a marked decline in the pace of occurrence of cruelty in Africa. Within a year, you may have a maximum of two successful coups happening in the course of this period and there are a number of years during which coups didn’t happen at all. Now, in a matter of about nine months, we have witnessed the occurrence of at least four successful coups in less than a year and this is the single highest number of incidences of coups. This is without counting, of course, incidents of attempted coups.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:22] And you’re saying the advent of the African Union in 2002—in the years following that, up until very recently, you’ve seen a marked decline in the number of coups and sort of like if not a democratic consolidation, at least a degree of political stability in many countries throughout Africa.

Solomon Dersso [00:03:43] Yes, that’s right. So, a number of factors played into this. One is the relative consolidation of the democratization process on the continent, with some of the positive economic developments that have also been registered in various parts of the continent, as well as importantly, some of the very successful, normative, and institutional changes that were undertaken at the level of the African Union and regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for example, where we have witnessed the adoption of anti-coup norms by these organizations to which they have attached specific sanction regions. And these contributed heavily to this decline in coups. I saw that we have witnessed that in some cases, militaries going extra mild as we have witnessed, for example, in Zimbabwe to avoid being considered as engaging in coups.

Why has there been an increase in coups in Africa recently?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:04:58] Interesting, so given all that, why do you think now at least over the last several months, there have been so many coups in such a short period of time after a period of relatively few coups?

Solomon Dersso [00:05:16] Yeah. So, this we can approach from two perspectives. The first perspective is that of trends or explanations that apply to all cases. I think there are certain trends or explanations that apply to all cases.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:39] What are some of those?

Solomon Dersso [00:05:41] Now let me mention some of these. One is we have witnessed a notable regression in the democratization process on the continent. These have been registered in the various democracy evaluating databases, whether it is Freedom House or the Mo Ibrahim Index, and this has been manifested in terms of the increasing lack of support to government on the part of the public. Issues relating to lack of faith and confidence on the part of the public about elections and the outcome of elections, thereby the legitimacy of governments has increasingly become suspect in many parts of the continent. The extension of term limits by presidents who have been in power for many years, they are taking advantage of their incumbency in order to stay longer than their constitutional welcome by tampering with provisions in constitutions, for example, in Guinea.

What is third term-ism and what does it have to do with the coups in Africa?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:02] We call this third term-ism right? Constitutionally dubious attempts to ensconce yourself in a third term when previously the constitution only permitted two terms, and that that is certainly a trend we’ve seen.

Solomon Dersso [00:07:17] Exactly. And then you also have the socioeconomic fallout from COVID, also adding further pressure on state-society relationship, particularly in a context in which the living standard of people have gone down, with millions of people reported to have been pushed into extreme poverty.

How has COVID affected the political landscape and potential for coups in Africa?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:41] Can I stop you there because that was one of my very specific questions for you. To what extent is like the exogenous shock of COVID a factor in the fact that there have been so many coups? I mean, you describe a scene in many countries in which there is a deficit of legitimacy by the government and then layered on top of this is COVID.

Solomon Dersso [00:08:06] So COVID is a factor to the extent that it actually shapes the political context and landscape of the countries in which these coups are happening. It’s not unique to these countries. It is something that is shared among many other countries, but we are talking about generally the various sources of pressure in state-society relationships, which actually created the conditions that made it possible for the military basically to use their possession of the gun in order to direct it at the government of the day, against whom there is a lot of disenchantment on the part of the public. And there are, of course, I think importantly, Mark, what I call the specific explanations unique to or particular to each case. If you go to Guinea, it’s important to remember that the extension of the term limits of the incumbent, the now overthrown President Conde, it was hugely unpopular and highly contested, forced on the public. It triggered a lot of protest from the public and yet it went ahead. Other institutions that are supposed to prevent this from happening, such as the judiciary or parliament, they do not have the independence and the tradition of exercising control and accountability over the executive. The executive apparently has what in some parts of the continent are considered to be imperial power. Then you also have the election happen in 2020, and apparently, he won the election, again raising serious questions about whether or not elections actually tell us the story about the hands of democracy of countries and if anything, that Guinea’s elections do not tell us anything about the hands of democracy of countries. And Guinea is not the only country in respect of which we are saying this. Elections have become just, you know, a process that incumbents have mastered to manipulate to their advantage, leading to the disenfranchisement of many on the continent. Then if you move on to Burkina Faso, it has to do with weak state institutions that have come under pressure from ever expanding terrorist attacks from which the military themselves have become major casualties and therefore a pressure emerged from that whereby the military is saying the government of the day is not providing the necessary leadership and support that is required in order for them to be in a position to fight back. And added to that layer, although of course some additional factors such as, for example, disputes over the kind of international support that the country needs to seek in order to capacitate the military to fight back the ever-expanding terrorist attack, which has resulted in the geographic spread and rise in frequency of attacks and also the degradation of the humanitarian situation with over two million people having been displaced. In Mali, you have a different context. It was a combination of the military feeling that the government is failing with respect to the effort to counterattack the terrorist groups in Mali together with bad electoral outcomes and bad electoral management or electoral disputes in which the parliamentary election resulted in a situation where the vast majority of the public felt that it was stolen by the party in power, leading to a widespread popular protest in the country. It was in the context of that wide, popular protest that the military actually intervened and removed the government. Of course, it repeated itself later on.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:23]   Sorry, go right ahead. You can finish your thought.

Solomon Dersso [00:13:28] I think the other factor is problems relating to the security sector and the relationship in between the military and the civilian authorities.

Who is leading the coups in Africa?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:37] That’s actually exactly what I wanted to ask you next. I mean, each of these coups happened in their own unique context but one similarity, and I would not be the first to point this out is that many of the coup leaders in the places you just described are relatively younger officers, often with like special forces or some sort of unique training. What similarities do you see among these coup leaders, both in terms of their individual profile and their relationship with the civilian leadership that they overthrew?

Solomon Dersso [00:14:20] So one of the things that you see is basically these are officers that have been trained—actually, the three […] were in the same joint exercise that was undertaken in Burkina Faso by the US military. Therefore, in part, what you may consider to be a neighborhood influence or what you may consider to be a contagion of sorts happening. These are people who have gone through the same exercise, have maintained links, and also, they have been trained for other Special Forces for the purpose of the certain activities in Burkina Faso and Mali. For example, they were actively involved in the fight against terrorist groups. So, these are the kinds of profiles that you see and indeed the training that they have received, such as, for example, from the security and training partnership with the US. These are some of the patterns that you identified from them. And of course, what this also suggests is basically that these people exposed to certain ideals, exposed to certain expectations of their own and people around them going back to their base and finding all kinds of gaps and weaknesses that didn’t meet their expectation obviously may look into ways of taking matters into their own hands with the supposed expectation of fixing things, so to speak. Although, there’s no background or basis to suggest that military coups have led to a better outcome from the experience so far.

What is the Economic Community of West African States and how have they reacted to the recent coups in West Africa?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:49] So many of these coups, most of these coups have occurred in West Africa among countries that are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). And you know, it seems there is something of a playbook that ECOWAS invokes when there is a military coup among their members. Can you just kind of describe what that playbook is and how it has been manifested and used over these last few months as governments that were members of ECOWAS, as they became prey to coups?

Solomon Dersso [00:17:30] So ECOWAS has a protocol on democracy and governance and one of the important provisions of this protocol is the banning of unconstitutional change of government, such as, for example, militia coming to pass through military coup. The result of that banning is basically an automatic outcome, there is automatic requirement, which is to suspend the country where the military came to power. It is automatic. It’s a legal requirement and it’s not the first time, by the way, that ECOWAS deployed this tool in West Africa previously, in the same country like, for example, Mali in 2012, it used this same instrument of suspending the country from active participation in equal force, thereby imposing diplomatic isolation. Adding to that, when measures are not taken by the de facto authorities to return to constitutional order, it adds further sanctions, as it did on Mali, for example, including closure of borders, monetary sanctions, and financial force. This is a well-established way of responding to coups not just on the part of ECOWAS, but also the African Union at the continental level, as shared with others like perhaps most notably the Southern Africa Development Community. So that is the state of the quote unquote playbook if you like to use your term for responding to coups. I think the question now is whether or not this is really working.

How is the public reacting to the recent increase in coups in Africa?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:19:31] That was my next question exactly. It seems that, you know, it’s not an effective deterrent at this point, especially among ECOWAS countries. So, I guess why is this not working? And what more could regional groups like ECOWAS or even the African Union do to dissuade coups?

Solomon Dersso [00:19:56] So one factor has to do with the fact that these coups largely targeted governments that are regarded by the public as illegitimate, as failing to deliver on their mandate, are not responsive and representative of the wish and will of the public, some of them accused of corruption in a context where many people are struggling to meet ends. So that is one factor why you have, you know, the public not campaigning against those who have seized power through military coup. Then it’s also important to note the context, the other precipitating factors, whether it has to do with the fact that there are immediate pressures, such as, for example, the counter terrorism measures that need to be taken. Now, it is in this context and also in a context in which you know, those who are taking power through military means are reaching the point where they are saying, the negative consequences of rejection by the AU and ECOWAS is less important than what they are able to do by taking power through military, and it has to do with a number of factors. 1. These measures by ECOWAS and the African Union are very reactive. They are basically measures taken after the fact, and there are legitimate concerns being expressed that the African Union and ECOWAS should have been proactive in facilitating measures that prevent the occurrence, of coups in the first place, and these measures range from rejecting, for example, extension of term limits by presidents like has happened in Guinea, for example, or by facilitating institutional reform measures that enhance separation of powers and checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, that deals with corruption, that actually limits resources that could have gone to supporting the security establishment in their fight against terrorism. With the range of issues including economic pressure with respect of which steps needed to be taken and failing, making these conditions. After the fact, you react and of course, people are like, where were you when the situation was festering?

Which African countries are most likely to experience a coup next?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:22] So to the extent that this might be a contagion of coups, if not in ECOWAS, among other countries in Africa more broadly, is there a next country or a couple of countries that you are most concerned may be next, sort of like the next domino to fall, so to speak?

Solomon Dersso [00:23:45] I think it’s difficult, I don’t have a crystal ball to say that this is going to be the next country, but, you know, countries having similar features with Burkina Faso and Mali, countries that are under pressure from terrorism with fragile institutions and lacking public legitimacy, that is the kind of characteristic that you can look at. But I think it is not possible to say that these are the only contexts in which it happens. Transitional situations may also trigger or create the context for the army to take advantage of conditional contestations into its own hands to orchestrate a coup, whether that is because of mass protest or because of contestation among different political actors. But it’s important to note some of the recent attempts that we have witnessed actually in the course of the past week—one in Guinea-Bissau, where there was a scare, which actually it was called an attempted coup against the president in Guinea-Bissau. And over the course of this week, we also heard some developments that were associated with plans for orchestrating a coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo. You have therefore a situation in which various political contestations being used either by political opponents who working in concert with the military try to pick out the government of the day or militaries that are under pressure from terrorism or other pressures basically turn their guns on their own government out of frustration or militaries who would like to protect their interests taking advantage of the resentment of the public towards government. Basically, take power in order to shield themselves like has happened in Sudan.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:26:18] All right, thank you all for listening. Thank you to Solomon. That was very helpful. And just a quick disclaimer that the opinions and views expressed in this conversation belong solely to those of us who expressed them. And lastly, please do reach out to me if you have suggestions of people I should interview or topics I should cover, it’s easy to contact me. You can use the contact button on Global Dispatches or through my Twitter profile @MarkLGoldberg. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!