The African Union (AU) February summit that marked its 20th year of existence, replacing the Organisation of African Union (OEU) founded in 1963, took place against a successful coup d’etat in Burkina Faso on the 23rd January – one of several in recent times. On the 1st February a coup attempt failed in Guinea-Bissau, a country that had suffered four coups since its independence from Portugal in 1974. Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad spoke of a disaster, calling coups absolutely unacceptable, with the summit condemning such unconstitutional power grabs.
During the latter half of the 20th century a spate of coups had often displaced the first post-independence leadership. At the time it was said that the army was the most efficient structure the colonial powers had left behind, so that their impatience with ineffective governments, misrule or personal ambition had enabled them to overthrow the constitutions bequeathed to the country and take control. A study of the US Professor Jonathan Powell showed that between 1960 and 2000, the overall coups and coup attempts numbered on average four per year.
In recent years coups have made a comeback. In 2020 a coup took place in Mali, to be followed in 2021 by four further successful coups in Chad, another once more in Mali, Guinea and Sudan.
What is behind this „epidemic of coup d’etats“, as the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had described it?
It is no doubt a mix, as indeed the views of experts show. Thus Prof. Powell as quoted by Al Jazeera, said that the militarisation comes amid “an increasing crisis” of legitimacy for rulers. He is no doubt right, in view of leaders extending their constitutional terms of office or tampering with the constitution to clamp down on human rights such as freedom of speech. Others talk of external actors involved.
To my mind the desire for change is surely also triggered by poverty, unemployment and poor services, coupled only too often with corruption and nepotism of the elite. The young are frustrated by poor education and low job expectations. Support for the military which ends the rule of an unpopular leader is understandable.
There is a further factor: insecurity. Since the mid-2010s Sahel region has suffered under a rise if Islam terror. Within the triangle of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso different military groups operate across the borders, some partly allied with ISIS, others with al-Qaeda. One million people are internally displaced as a result, with the fighting against the militia groups causing great loss of lives.
The response of outside actors too had its effect. The West has often accepted doing business with coup leaders, thus weakening democratic practices and assured such leaders that they will not suffer repercussions. China does not interfere in local politics, while relying on making friends through its aid and investments. Russia had exerted its muscles to extend its influence in Africa.
Mamady Doumbouya, the temporary president after the Guinea Bissau 2021 coup was then quoted as saying “We will no longer entrust politics to one man. We will leave it to the people.”
Unfortunately the rule of one man over a lengthy period has by no means ended throughout Africa. Nor are all elections fair and free and thus not led to the people.