Democracy Under Threat: Decoding Alarming Wave Of Coups In Africa

Africa’s post-colonial landscape has witnessed a remarkable journey of nation-building and developmental endeavors.

Alongside these efforts, the continent has striven to embrace democratic values and governance practices, ushering in an era of newfound freedom since the late 1950s.

While these endeavors have largely paved the way for Africa’s development agenda, an unsettling phenomenon has tainted political spaces on the continent: the infiltration of military intervention through coups, particularly in West Africa.

Astonishing data reveals that since 2010, over 40 coups and attempted coups have plagued Africa, with a staggering 20 of them transpiring in the West African region alone, writes Kevin Mofokeng.

This analysis delves into the recent surge of coups in West Africa and seeks to unravel the perplexing reasons behind the rising popular support for such disruptive power seizures.

It is a paradox that warrants exploration, as it challenges the notion of a growing democratic culture that champions peaceful transfers of political power – an element of the debate that, regrettably, has been overlooked.

 The democratic wave that swept across the continent in the wake of the Cold War and the downfall of military regimes ignited hope for a brighter democratic future in West Africa.

The 1990s and 2000s witnessed a decline in coups compared to the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s, largely due to the burgeoning support for democratic reforms and the implementation of good governance practices.

Encouragingly, the average rate of successful coups per year in Africa dwindled to less than one per decade before 2021.

While it is crucial to emphasise that coups are never cause for celebration, this decline offered a glimmer of hope.

However, the recent upsurge in coups in West Africa has cast a shadow of apprehension among keen observers.

In just a span of two years, countries such as Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Chad, and Mali became hotbeds of political upheaval, with power being wrested away through coup d’états.

A disconcerting trend, as for the third time in a mere five months, political violence facilitated a transfer of power in West Africa, with Guinea, Mali (twice in the past thirteen months), and Chad succumbing to the grip of coups.

And the chilling reality is that this wave of coups shows no signs of receding, as demonstrated by the attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau in February 2022.

The region finds itself at a crossroads, grappling not only with a worsening security situation but also with the disheartening backslide of democracy.

What, then, has fueled this resurgence of military coups? While coups have been on the decline in many parts of Africa since the 1990s, the recent surge within the past two years demands our attention. As we delve into this question, we must approach it from three crucial standpoints.

Firstly, politics and governance lie at the heart of the matter. 
The high hopes that accompanied Africa’s embrace of democracy in the 1990s have, for many, been met with disappointment.

Widespread poor governance practices, feeble state institutions, and rampant corruption have left citizens yearning for the promised dividends of democracy. Secondly, socio-economic challenges play a pivotal role in fueling coups.

Fragile and impoverished nations with weak state institutions often find themselves susceptible to the allure of military intervention. 
Conversely, studies have shown that economically prosperous countries are less prone to coups.

The intricate interplay between socio-economic hardships and political instability creates a fertile breeding ground for coups, casting a dark shadow over West Africa’s democratic aspirations.

Lastly, external influences cannot be overlooked.

The growing presence of authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia on the African continent has introduced a troubling dimension to the rise of coups.

These regimes’ political indifference to coups, coupled with their expanding influence in Africa, may inadvertently provide indirect incentives for power seizures. 
This alarming trend warrants a closer examination of its implications and consequences.

Yet, amidst this complex web of causation, one cannot ignore the perplexing reality of popular support for recent coups in West Africa. 
Ordinary citizens, despite the growth of democratic culture since the 1990s, have found themselves drawn to the allure of coups.

In Mali, for instance, the 2020 coup was met with relief by a significant portion of the population, with a staggering 82% expressing their loss of faith in President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s leadership.

The subsequent sanctions imposed after the 2021 coup only further strengthened support for the coup leaders.

Likewise, the January 2022 coup in Burkina Faso resonated with large crowds, primarily composed of young people, who hailed it as a manifestation of their desires.

When coup perpetrators seize power, they often claim to be responding to the demands of the people, an assertion that resonates with a disillusioned populace.

This popular support for coups finds its roots in a confluence of factors. The connection between governance and stability is undeniable. Fragile democracies create fertile ground for unconstitutional changes in government.

Often, coups are preceded by unaddressed political and social unrest, which governments fail to quell.

When people, lacking the means to overthrow their governments themselves, witness the military seizing power in the name of the people, their support for such actions deepens.

Political repression, impunity, and electoral fraud further erode the democratic space, serving as triggers for coups.

It is no coincidence that most coup-prone African countries are those where the democratic fabric hangs by a thread. Additionally, unresolved socio-economic demands, security concerns, and pervasive corruption fuel the flames of discontent.

Coups often cite poverty, mismanagement, and corruption as justifications for their actions.

Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the leader of Guinea’s recent coup, pointed to poverty and endemic corruption as catalysts for the overthrow of President Alpha Condé.

In Mali, coup leaders decried theft and bad governance as their motivations.

The same arguments were echoed in Sudan. Government abuses have also played a pivotal role in provoking unconstitutional changes of government in Africa.

Organisations like Human Rights Watch have documented countless unlawful killings and abuses by security forces in Sahelian countries during the fight against terrorism and violent extremism.

The lack of political will to deliver justice to the victims further exacerbates political unrest, which ultimately garners popular support for coup perpetrators.

As uncertainties loom over the democratic future of West Africa, it is vital to maintain hope and focus on the imperative of democratic rule as the continent’s only viable pathway forward.

Achieving this requires an unwavering commitment to effective political leadership and the pursuit of good governance practices.

By addressing the root causes behind the rise in coups and nurturing a resilient democratic culture, we can foster a future where coups become a relic of the past, and Africa’s democratic aspirations can soar to new heights.

*The writer of this article is Kevin Mofokeng, a Developmental Writer and digital PR strategist based in Gaborone, Botswana. The views expressed by Kevin Mofokeng are not necessarily those of The Bulrushes