Season of putsch: Why have coups become popular in Africa?

In West and Central Africa, military leaders are exploiting disenchantment with democratic leadership amid deteriorating economic conditions.

Niger's military government supporters take part in a demonstration in front of a French army base in Niamey, Niger, August 11, 2023
Niger's military government supporters take part in a demonstration in front of a French army base in Niamey, Niger, August 11, 2023 [Mahamadou Hamidou/Reuters]

Lagos, Nigeria – Shortly after Ali Bongo, president of Gabon since 2009, was deposed by members of the Republican Guard, his personal security unit, he appeared in a short video, visibly frail and urging people to “make some noise” on his behalf.

Sitting on a chair against a backdrop of opulence that only a few Gabonese can aspire to, the long-term ruler of the oil-rich central African country looked helpless.

But in contrast to his plea, Gabonese people have been trooping out in Libreville, the country’s capital to solicit selfies with the soldiers and cheer them on in celebration of the apparent end of a dynasty that began with Bongo’s father Omar in 1967.

Since 2020, there have now been 10 attempted coups mostly in West and Central Africa, a rapid undoing of democratic systems in the region.

But in these countries, citizens have taken to the streets to cheer the disruption of democracy. In Niger, stadiums have been filled by supporters of the military government after its July 26 coup. In 2021, there was also jubilation on the streets of Conakry after the Guinean military removed Alpha Conde, the president who extended his stay in office despite stiff opposition from the citizens.

This pattern of reacting to military takeovers with optimism is an expression of deep-seated frustration with civilian leaders in Africa, some experts say.

“The seeming support of the militaries taking over is an indirect support, it is not support for the military,” Leena Koni Hoffmann, an Africa programme associate fellow with London-based think tank Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

“It is an opportunity to say that the government that has been overthrown is a government that does not represent our interest fully,” she said.

‘No electoral legitimacy’

Gabon is the latest country in Africa whose democratic leader has been overthrown by military rulers. A number of soldiers led by General Brice Oligui Nguema, head of Bongo’s Republican Guard, announced the takeover and overturned the results of the contentious election that Bongo had purportedly won.

In the country of an estimated 2.3 million people and around 850,000 registered voters, the general election held on August 26 stretched into the third day. While votes were counted, a curfew was imposed and internet access was cut off. International observers had also been barred from the country.

The military cited electoral malpractice as one of the reasons for the coup in a season where elections are still being disputed across the continent.

Gabon’s coup happened within days of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa being announced the winner of its presidential election. His victory has been rejected by opposition parties and criticised by international observers.

Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s newly elected president who has been leading regional efforts to return Niger’s Mohammed Bazoum to power, has said the Gabon coup shows a “contagion of autocracy” on the continent. But Nigeria’s February election is also being contested in court by opposition parties over gross malpractice and violence.

According to a 2022 poll by pan-African research network Afrobarometer, only 44 percent of Africans say elections enable voters to remove leaders the voters do not want. A 2023 Afrobarometer poll also showed a decline in preference for democracy over the last decade on the continent, from 73 percent to 68 percent.

The Bongos in Gabon are also just one example of African presidents who organise periodic elections but keep holding on to power. The leaders of Uganda, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon have been in power for at least two decades.

“This points to why the definition of democracy itself is so ambiguous in Africa because it seems as though, going back to the 1960s, democracy is when you have somebody in power who could be authoritarian and be in power for years insofar he is conducting a form of election,” Ibrahim Anoba, a fellow at the US-based Center for African Prosperity at the Atlas Network said.

“Even if the election is a sham and rigged and the constitution is constantly being changed to accommodate the person in power,” he added.

In Gabon, the coup was a product of internal political wrangling. But to many Western analysts, Niger was regarded as stable after the baton was passed by Mahamadou Issoufou to Mohamed Bazoum in 2021 in the country’s first civilian-to-civilian transition of power.

This perspective, some analysts say, represents the low thresholds for elections on the continent.

“There is [the] issue of legitimacy even in Niger where there was a peaceful transition of governments and all those markers that tick the boxes for what qualifies as peaceful election for Western analysts,” Nathaniel Powell, Africa analyst at geopolitical advisory Oxford Analytica said. “But the election was flawed and there was no electoral legitimacy.”

Questioning democracy

A sharp decline in quality of living in recent years has also made everyday people question the benefits of democracy.

Citizens across the continent are grappling with rising costs of living crisis due to rising inflation compounded in part, by escalating attacks by armed groups across the Sahel and Great Lakes regions.

This has already heightened poverty levels and displaced millions. Yet the World Bank has projected a further decrease in economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa from 3.6 percent in 2022 to 3.1 percent by the end of this year.

Given this context, civilian leaders are increasingly losing support in the eyes of their people, despite a fixation on democratic governance by these leaders and the international community.

External dynamics have also been driving the appetite for change.

So far, there has been a common denominator in all the coups in the last five years. Except for Sudan, they are all former French colonies and Paris is widely seen as being culpable to some extent.

Coupmakers have often used anti-French rhetoric to bolster popular support for their rule given France’s attachment to its colonies even after independence and its backing, directly or otherwise, of authoritarian and inept governments, to protect its own interests and retain control there.

But Koni-Hoffmann calls for caution in apportioning all the blame to outsiders.

“While it is important to pay attention to so-called anti-Western sentiments, I think the greater focus is that fact that the democracy has not centered the interests of many of the citizens in these countries,” she said. “The life chances of these citizens have not improved in many contexts because stability has been prioritised over true democratic dividends.”

Still, a lack of democratic dividends for the population is the major reason why coups have been welcome in the region, some analysts say. Despite a renewed hope of a better future, military governments may also not deliver those benefits either, they add.

“It is like having a sore wound that is itchy and you open the wound to itch it. It feels so good for some seconds in creating that relief but you are going to be worse off. That is what the military brings,” Anoba said.

Source: Al Jazeera