Key questions about ‘coup epidemic’ in Africa

Guinean opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo welcomed the coup for bringing ‘the failure of the dictatorial regime’, says the writer. File picture: Cellou Binani/AFP

Guinean opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo welcomed the coup for bringing ‘the failure of the dictatorial regime’, says the writer. File picture: Cellou Binani/AFP

Published Jun 4, 2022


By Solomon A Dersso

The recent spate of coups on the continent has triggered several questions, including whether we are witnessing a return of coups, what explains the coups and what to make of their apparent popular support. This piece offers some insight. What evidence is there of a resurgence of coups?

It is the first time that the AU has suspended four countries for unconstitutional changes of government. Indeed, the research carried out at Amani Africa indicates that last year Africa experienced the most military coups since 2003.

According to UN secretary-general António Guterres, it has become a season marked by an “epidemic of coups”. In the 10 months between April last year and February 2022, Africa has experienced five military seizures of power.

Until last year, the trends in the occurrence of coups in Africa was largely characterised by decline, despite sporadic occurrences. As our research shows, the maximum number of coups that Africa has experienced since 2000 was in 2003.

Since then, there were a few years (2005, 2008 and 2012) when at most two coups occurred, and several years without coups, except one instance of what is called a military-assisted transition in Zimbabwe. It is also worth noting that out of the five coups in less than a year, three were in the Economic Community of West African States region. So what accounts for the resurgence of coups in Africa?

Using the coup in Guinea as an example, our research identified at least five issues that explain why the coup there occurred: The first was the crisis in state-society relationship, in which the government lost public legitimacy. In a clear indication of this damaged relationship, the coup did not elicit visible public opposition in Guinea.

The downfall of Conde’s government was greeted by celebrations on the streets of Conakry. Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo welcomed the coup for bringing “the failure of the dictatorial regime”.

Second, the coup and the public reaction it elicited also signifies that the election of October 2020 was anything but credible, free and fair. It attests that the poll, held in a tense and highly-charged political context and with a playing field tilted decidedly in favour of the incumbent, became a stage-managed exercise organised to give a semblance of democratic credibility to extending Conde’s power.

Another feature of countries that faced coups is the lack of effective separation of powers and checks and balances. In Guinea, the executive arm of the government came to concentrate so much power that it came to the point of rendering the constitutional roles of parliament and the judiciary ineffective in placing checks on the executive authority.

It is worth noting that the Constitutional Court certified the highly-contested constitutional referendum that paved the way for Conde’s third term.

Fourth, in all the cases, the various constitutional mechanisms for effecting change of government, such as election, impeachment and recall, are rendered ineffective.

Where the possibility for using political and constitutional procedures for change of leadership and holding the government accountable is absent, it forces the public to resort to popular uprising or to seek the intervention of the military to orchestrate a coup d’état.

The coup is also a manifestation of governance issues in the security sector. It highlights a crisis in the civil-military relationship and in the professionalism of the army, as well as weak command and control. It is a manifestation of the politicisation of the security sector.

As in cases such as Sudan, it also highlights the deep entanglement of the army in politics. All cases of coups also highlight the poor state of professionalism of the security sector, particularly the army.

That the army arrogates the role of being the arbiter of politics and hence deciding when to play the role of “correcting” the wrong in the politics of the country (by ousting the incumbent government and seizing power) is the most prominent manifestation of the military’s abuse of its control of the means of violence.

One can add to the foregoing two additional factors. The first such underlying factor is the disregard and violation of the people’s rights and freedoms. All cases of unconstitutional changes of government are preceded by and involve violations of human rights.

The other factor is changes in the security situation of some countries, leading to an enormous gap between the capacity of national security institutions and the violence resulting from terrorism. It is not uncommon to see many commentators pointing out that recent coups have popular support.

While it is true that coups in Mali and Guinea were greeted with popular celebration, it is not evident that the public celebration is the military’s seizure of power. But, as Sudan’s experience of the April 2019 seizure of power by the military illustrates, the celebration by the public was more for the end of the old regime than an expression of support for the seizure of power by the military.

Not long after the military’s takeover of power, civilian protesters directed their opposition against the military that had seized power. As in Sudan, the cases of Burkina Faso in 2014 and Mali in 2020 highlight that the public can celebrate the end of the old regime while rejecting control of government power by the military.

These are some of the issues that any policy response needs to deal with for it to be effective. Thus, the use of sanctions, unless anchored on a political strategy that addresses the underlying conditions and the drivers of coups and without support from the public, stands little chance of leading to return to constitutional order.

* Dersso is founding director of Amani Africa, an Addis Ababa think tank. This is an edited version of his article that was first published in Accord.