The recurrence of military coups d’état in Africa is the result of the continent’s clear structural fragilities and has no easy solutions. The fragilities may even culminate in a more generalized crisis that precipitates a more widespread coup contagion.
Since 1950, Africa has had the world’s highest number of military coups and second highest coup success rate at 52 per cent after Asia. Between 1950 and 2010, the continent experienced 169 coups, followed closely by 145 coups in the Americas and distantly matched by 72 in the Middle East, 59 in Asia and 12 in Europe. Within Africa itself, West Africa has experienced the greatest share of successful coups and coup attempts, accounting for 85 (45 per cent) of the 188 coup attempts between 1956 and the end of 2001 on the continent. As a result, until the 2000s, the most common way for a national ruler to lose power in West Africa was to be overthrown or killed in a coup attempt or civil war, representing 52.8 per cent of all transitions.
Military rule in many cases not only fosters repression of civil and political rights but tends to have narrower ‘social foundations’ than democratic rule—i.e. compared to democratic rule where a greater share of the population may be co-opted through patronage, infrastructure and job creation, military rulers’ repressive capabilities lead to a lower preference for co-optation over repression. Some may argue that they would accept the bargain of repressed civil and political rights for economic development fostered under military rule. However, unlike the authoritarian regimes that oversaw the industrialisation of East Asia from the 1950s to 1980s, African military regimes have been too unstable and socially dis-embedded to build developmental states.
After declining in frequency since the 1990s during the ‘third wave of democratisation’, there has been an uptick in military coups on the continent, most of which have occurred in West Africa. The first wave of coup resurgence in the 21st century was concentrated in West Africa, occurring in Mauritania (August 2008), Guinea (December 2008), Guinea-Bissau (December 2008 and April 2012), Niger (February 2010), Mali (March 2012) and Egypt (July 2013). Across Africa, unsuccessful coup attempts occurred in other countries including Madagascar (2010), Democratic Republic of Congo (2011), Malawi (2012) and Benin (2013). This trend forced researchers at the African Development Bank to ask the question in 2012, ‘Political Fragility in Africa: Are Military Coups d’Etat a Never-Ending Phenomenon?’
What Africa is presently experiencing is a second wave of new millennium successful and failed coup attempts in Sudan (April 2019 and October 2021), Chad (April 2021), Mali (May 2021), Guinea (September 2021), Burkina Faso (January 2022), Niger (July 2023), and Gabon (August 2023). There have been 54 coup and coup attempts in Africa since 2010. This has stoked a new round of researchers and analysts asking, ‘Why Are Military Coups Returning to Africa?’ The latest cases were in 2023 were Gabon and Niger.
These recurring coup trends would not be shocking to anyone who understands the structural basis of democracy and the recurrence of the conditions in which African coup contagions and coup traps thrive. More specifically, Africa’s relatively high number and the recent uptick of coups is the result of five factors: the lack of the structural conditions for de facto democracy; the temporary economic basis of the post-1990s decline in coup frequency in the first place; the persistence of military political influence in the post-1990s era; the fragile economic developments of the 2000s; and particular political fragility of the Sahel.
THE STRUCTURAL BASIS FOR DEMOCRACY
Democracy does not come about simply as a result of ‘the will of the people’, but instead requires powerful actors to converge on a system that limits the power of absolutist powers (ruling monarchical families or praetorian regimes). The actors, roughly powerful and dispersed, also have interest in demanding and are capable of funding state institutions that enforce the rule of law, private property rights, civil rights and political rights to select rulers in a situation whereby one single actor is not strong enough to monopolize the right to rule.
It is for this reason that the explicit and academically studied practice of democracy saw its emergence in Greece—where fierce political infighting among three main political factions and the decentralization of military power away from the aristocracy undergirded Athenian democratic reforms. Furthermore, democracy was revived during the Middle Ages in the small merchant Italian cities where large and diversified groups of elites (including merchants, bankers and workers’ guilds) gained power and pushed for constraints on the executive. The modern break in democratic rule was driven by the rise of capitalist classes by the 1600s and middle classes by the 1800s.
It is also for this reason that within Africa, postcolonial national power has not been usurped by ruling dynasties of precolonial kingdoms, empires and caliphates such as the Kabaka of Buganda, the Sultan of Sokoto and the Asantehene of Ashanti—unlike the Alawi Dynasty of Morocco and the Ngwenyama of Eswatini (who is Africa’s last absolute monarch). These rulers had their powers and military capabilities begin to reduce after the abolition of the despot-creating slave trade and then levelled during colonial conquests and under colonial rule. At the same time, new intermediate classes (merchant, business and administrative) emerged, empowered by the cash crop revolution (i.e. exportation of cash crops such as groundnut, palm oil, cocoa and rubber) and expansion of the bureaucratic apparatus of states.
While violent monarchical suppression, the cash crop revolution, and bureaucratic expansion have enabled African countries to sustain normatively democratic rule as opposed to monarchical rule, the lack of further economic diversification, structural transformation and middle-class growth has kept them in a state of what the political scientist Thomas Carothers in 2002 recognized to be ‘feckless pluralism’. The predominance of the informal economy, the weak fiscal capacity of states, the weak capitalist class and middle classes mean that political mobilization is largely based on patron-client relations, ethno-religious identity, informal institutions, political party campaigning based on patronage and off-budget expenditure, and weak and underfunded judicial systems failing to enforce the rule of law.
Under such conditions, the greater the number of social and economic cleavages, the more fractious and disruptive politics will be given that the resolution of conflicts driven by these cleavages occurs through these informal, patron-client and corruption-fraught mechanisms. It is, therefore, no wonder that of all the continents, Africa is most prone to this fecklessness, being the least industrialized, having the weakest middle class, the lowest tax/state capacity, the highest degree of ethnic diversity, the highest poverty rate, highest levels of perceived corruption, and ranking last in government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption. West Africa leads in several of these indicators, including by being Africa’s least industrialized region, having the lowest tax/state capacity, the highest ethnic diversity and the most dispersed distributions of power.
These characteristics have made the continent, and West Africa in particular, most vulnerable to military coups both through the weakness of democratic institutions and through the greater frequency and intensity of economic shocks and ethno-religious political contestations that democratic institutions have faced.
THE PERSISTENCE OF AFRICA’S COUP FRAGILITY
In the 1980s and 1990s, the African continent experienced what Thandika Mkandawire, late Chair of African Development at the London School of Economics, called the Great African Depression—which he argued was deeper and lasted longer than the American Great Depression of the 1930s. This, along with the fiscal crises of the period, helped to delegitimize military rule, in combination with other factors such as international democratic euphoria following the collapse of the world’s second-strongest superpower and largest authoritarian empire, the Soviet Union, in 1989. This consequently enabled democratic transitions across Eastern Europe, while even East Asia began to democratize following the East Asian financial crisis of 1997.
These conditions and events spurred a decline in the frequency of military coups across Africa occurred in the 1990s and led to a reversal of the positive view of military rule held by modernization theorists such as Lucian W. Pye and Samuel Huntington in the 1960s. By the turn of the 21st century, the paradigm shift was materially sustained by three major factors.
First was the general economic recovery and boom of the 2000s buoyed by increased commodity prices and emerging market growth, especially that of China. It was during this period that the mainstream narrative of Africa shifted from The Hopeless Continent in the 2000s to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative by 2010.
Second, in many countries, military-affiliated big men won elections to usher in civilian rule partly because they were seen as the only ones capable of facilitating such a transition or it was merely an adaptation of powerful military leaders to civilian rule. In Nigeria, it was former military head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo’ in Chad, it was former warlord, Idriss Déby; in Burkina Faso, it was former military head of state, Blaise Compaoré, who won every election since 1991 until his resignation in 2014; in Guinea, Colonel Lansana Conté ruled until 2008 and in Sudan, Omar al-Bashir ruled as president from 1993 to 2019. In other countries, the military continued to influence politics or get involved in coups, such as in Mauritania where the military retains substantial influence over who is elected as president. In several other countries, the transition to civilian rule involved the monopolization of state power in particular leaders who ruled for prolonged periods of time without delivering sustained positive economic outcomes, as with Omar Bongo in Gabon.
The persistence of the structural fragility of democratic institutions and the enduring power of military leadership under civilian rule ensured that while the general economic euphoria of an ‘Africa Rising’ kept military coups below the pre-1990s levels, coups still occurred. However, enduring bad governance and ethnic conflicts in the Sahel created a surge in diffusive insecurity in the Sahel, which formed the backdrop of military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and, recently, Niger.
In other cases, attempts by rulers to extend their rule through flawed electoral processes or the manipulation of constitutions could not be stopped by judicial, legislative or electoral mechanisms given weak democratic institutions and large power imbalances. Coups, therefore, occurred against leaders who tried to do this, such as in Guinea against 82-year-old president, Alpha Condé, in 2020 and in Gabon against Ali Bongo in 2023.
Many of these coups gained mass support due to the lack of substantive socioeconomic development experienced under the regimes of these big men. In fact, the failure of economic structural transformation and infrastructure-led development—and the debt burden it has wrought on African countries;—the persistence of commodities export dependence (and therefore vulnerability to commodity price shocks); the reality of jobless growth; and the growth in conflict and insecurity in the Sahel suggest that the economic gains made under democratic dispensations within the past 20 years have been fragile.
A case in point is Benin, the country which ushered Africa into Third Wave democratization in 1990. Despite its democratic credentials, a close look at its politics and economics reveal the persistence of a rentier economy and political mobilization based on ethno-regional alliances. Similarly, although for over a decade, Mali was praised as an example of democratic progress, the Sahel also did not transform economically under twenty-first-century democratic rule but instead saw the rise in terrorism which gave fodder for the execution of the 2012 military coup.
Indeed, economists more familiar with African economic history have often scoffed at the excessive optimism of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative and its basis in historical amnesia. The Africanist economic historian, Morten Jerven, for instance, shows that Africa’s economic growth occurs in episodes of growth spurts and growth retractions. These episodes are driven by over-dependence on undiversified foreign trade in commodities, with growth being local responses to global demand for African-produced commodities rather than the result of sustained within-sector productivity growth or sustainable capital accumulation.
The main implication is that the culmination of these economic fragilities in a continental generalized economic crisis would likely lead to a resurgence of a more widespread wave of coups, coup contagions and coup traps across Africa, again concentrated in the Sahel and West Africa. This resurgence may not reach the level of coup frequency of the 1960s to 1980s but would surpass the levels of the 2000s till present. The pre-1990s levels would likely not be reached due to the greater normative entrenchment of democratic rule as well as the more diversified class of elites that emerged with the post-1990s economic boom across Africa, exemplified by new billionaires and private industries as well as ideologies such as Africapitalism, although these new spheres of private wealth are geographically concentrated.
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE?
The obvious long-term solution to Africa’s vulnerability to military coups is for African countries and regions to undergo economic diversification and structural transformation. These make it possible to strengthen democratic institutions and formal/constitutional mechanisms for addressing political conflict while reducing the frequency and intensity of economic shocks that undermine the legitimacy of sitting presidents.
Yet, Africa’s dynamics force any observer to maintain both optimism and pessimism. The basis for optimism is that ensuring this structural economic transformation requires the adoption by ruling elites of ‘experimental governance’. The basis for pessimism is that the degree to which national ruling coalitions become benevolent or self-interested enough to do so is based on the idiosyncratic emergence of pressures and alignment of mutual interests between them and productive businesses—a situation beyond the control of most actors, international, regional and even domestic.
In the short-to-medium term, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has made use of targeted sanctions (such as border closures, trade embargoes, travel bans and freezing of assets) and diplomatic pressure to push coupists into relinquishing power or facilitating a transition process. However, the infra-national nature of military coups places fundamental limits on the power of external actors to reverse coups, especially in situations of wider national discontent with the toppled civilian regime. This is due to the fact that ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) lack strong supranational powers and enforcement capabilities while West Africa and Africa in general lack as strong a democratic hegemon as Southern Africa does. In the Sahel, where military coups are intertwined with terrorism and other forms of violence, this difficulty is greater. Deadlines given to coupists in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea have been repeatedly flouted.
Having seen the failures of these prior measures in deterring coups in the region, ECOWAS threatened physical invasion against the recent Nigerien coupists as a means of stemming the coup contagion. However, as many recognize, physical force might just as easily further destabilize a region as a coup contagion, especially in the fragile region of the Sahel where Niger has even been more stable against multi-directional sources of insurgency than Mali and Burkina Faso. It was one thing for ECOMOG to intervene in Liberia, Sierra Leone and other countries of the Mano River region crisis of the 1990s, it is another thing to intervene in the more expansive and terrorism-challenged Sahel.
Perhaps realism and the historical reality of the long drawn-out nature of the state-building process require that regional bodies and civil society discard the universalistic pro-democratic and anti-praetorian stance they currently hold and instead take a pro-democratic and ‘Sankarization’ stance. This means democracy promotion continues, but when military coups inevitably occur in some countries, efforts are not entirely put into calling for coupists to return power, but also to take advantage of the possibility that the early months or years of the coupists’ rule may be characterized by greater pressure to legitimize their rule.
This would require developing a framework whereby transitional periods could be extended if evidence of substantive economic progress is seen within a specified initial period of rule, available—in addition to targeted financial assistance—only if the new military regime takes power with a feasible economic plan. This would only be available to countries where the coup occurred against a civilian administration overseeing ‘serious’ economic instability or protracted economic stagnation; where there is a strong historical legacy of military coups (in order to mitigate the moral hazard of coups occurring to exploit this framework); where the targeted sectors are not too complex and too demanding of governance capabilities (and are therefore less vulnerable to short-term horizons of rulers); and where the implementation of the plan is occurring without parallel efforts to undermine civic institutions.
The goal is to reward and punish coupists into forging pro-development coalitions and engaging in pro-growth reforms at their most legitimacy-seeking points—that is, to force them into reformists as Thomas Sankara, the famed progressive military leader of Burkina Faso (1983-1987). This is also an experimental mechanism to tie military coups more closely with economic diversification.
Nonetheless, this is merely experimental and there needs to be both greater research into military regimes’ legitimacy crisis and further tinkering with the idea to mitigate the risk of unintended consequences. In general, there are no easy or quick answers and no universal solutions. ECOWAS and the AU can only do what they have the power to do, just as they are curtailed in the area of regional economic integration. The recurrent pattern of sequences of lulls and upswings in military coups will likely continue, and a major upswing would likely occur if a more generalized African economic crisis hits within the next few years⎈
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