Africa at crossroads as more democracies fall to military coups, experts say

by MMC
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LONDON — In the early hours of the morning, a group of men dressed in military uniforms appear on state television and claim they have seized power from a president whose family has controlled the country for decades.

This is a scene that played out recently in Gabon in August, but has become all too familiar in this part of Africa, a vast region known as the “coup belt” with a continuous chain of military rulers stretching from ocean to the other.

There have been at least a dozen coups in West and Central Africa since 2020, eight of which succeeded while the rest failed or degenerated into conflict. The driving factors are complex and varied, but experts seem to agree that Africa is at something of a crossroads. Will more democracies on the world’s second-largest continent fall victim to military coups, or will they heed deafening calls for better governance?

The coup in Gabon came just hours after President Ali Bongo Ondimba was re-elected for a third term in a vote criticized by international observers. The putschists immediately placed Bongo under house arrest for a week. He became president of the oil-rich Central African country in 2009 after the death of his father, who had ruled since 1967.

About a month earlier, a military junta in Niger overthrew the democratically elected government of the West African country. Before that, there were two successful coups in Burkina Faso, one in Guinea, one in Chad and two in Mali – and that only happened in the last three years. Gabon marks the 100th successful coup in postcolonial Africa, according to Issaka K. Souaré, author of a book on coups in West Africa and lecturer at the General Lansana Conté University of Sonfonia in Conakry, Guinea.

“This surely makes most other governments vulnerable to military coups, including military regimes born from coups, as we saw in Burkina Faso,” Souaré told ABC News. “It could also lead some to improve their governance practices and, where they considered manipulating constitutions to stay in power, perhaps to abandon such plans.”

This week again, the military junta of Burkina Faso announcement he had foiled “a proven coup attempt”.

In 2021, after a military takeover in Sudan, which has since escalated into an ongoing power struggle between the two main factions of the military regime, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres denounced what he called ” an epidemic of coups.” There are now growing fears of a “domino effect” as coups spread across West and Central Africa, according to Bamidele Olajide, a lecturer in political science at the University from Lagos to Lagos, Nigeria.

“Coups are usually contagious, because a successful coup in one country encourages potential putschists in neighboring countries, especially where social, economic and political situations are similar,” Olajide told ABC News . “This has proven to be the case throughout the continent’s history and the new wave of coups is no different.”

Military juntas often cite a number of reasons for intervening and overthrowing a regime, including political corruption and economic hardship. But the most important factor behind coups in sub-Saharan Africa has historically been poor institutional performance, while the failure of elected governments to combat jihadist violence in the Sahel region has been a key trigger for power grabs. in West and Central Africa since 2020, according to Carlos Garcia-Rivero, associate professor of politics at the University of Valencia, Spain, and research researcher at the Center for International and Comparative Politics at Stellenbosch University in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

“When governments don’t run countries as expected, citizens will welcome the military’s intervention,” Garcia-Rivero told ABC News. “Citizens’ response was to take to the streets and welcome the military coup, which propagated the idea that it is legitimate to overthrow a government when it does not behave as expected.”

This was seen recently in Gabon and Niger, where crowds of people took to the streets of their respective capitals to celebrate coups. Pro-junta protesters also gathered in front of the French embassies in Libreville and Niamey. Niger and Gabon maintain close ties with France, their former colonizer, as do Burkina Faso and Mali. Niger was also a key ally of the United States and other Western countries in the fight against Islamist militants in the Sahel.

“Some developed countries have helped incompetent and corrupt leaders stay in power, which is why recent coups have enjoyed popular support,” Olajide said. “For the United States and its allies, the stand of Africans against neocolonial trends and pressures is palpable.”

“Future coups will likely rely more on anti-imperialist rhetoric and stance,” he added. “The United States and its allies must change their exploitative pattern of engagement with Africa, as renegade militaries use it to subvert the democratic process on the continent.”

In recent years, military juntas in West and Central Africa have “clung to resentment against France… as a tool to justify their coups and legitimization of power,” according to Olajide.

“People now see the military as a messiah,” he said, “and only time will tell if they really are.”

However, as Souaré noted, a report published this year by the United Nations Development Program, found that apparent popular support for recent coups in Africa has been “transient” and does not signify a rejection of democracy, but rather a call for better democratic governance.

“People took to the streets to encourage change against a backdrop of deeply felt, growing and yet frustrated democratic aspirations,” the UNDP report said.

The African Union, ECOWAS and other regional blocs currently lack a “clear legal instrument” to confront the continent’s leaders who seek to amend the constitution in order to stay in power longer. According to Souaré, this has led these organizations to lose credibility and trust in the public eye.

“As a result, where their threats helped deter would-be putschists in the 2000s, which saw the trend of coups decline until 2020, this is no longer the case,” he said. declared.

Nevertheless, Garcia-Rivero warned that “Gabon will not be the last” African country to fall into the hands of a military junta.

“I would keep an eye on Togo or Chad,” he said. “And if I were (Zimbabwe President Emmerson) Dambudzo Mnangagwa, I would keep an eye on my back.”

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