Coups Make A Comeback In Africa — And For Some Leaders, Therein Lies A Warning

By Nalova Akua

CONAKRY, Guinea — A military coup d’état in Guinea last month — the country’s third since independence in 1958 — became just the latest data point in a resurgence of unconstitutional power grabs in West Africa. The return of the plight of coups has raised fears of democratic backsliding in one of Africa’s turbulent hotspots.

On Sept. 5, the 41-year-old Colonel Mamady Doumbouya deposed Guinea’s 83-year-old President Alpha Condé, after declaring it was “the duty of a soldier is to save the country.” It was West Africa’s second successful coup in 2021, following another in Mali on May 24 and a failed attempt March 31 in Niger.

Meanwhile, when Chadian strongman Idris Déby died in April while fighting rebels, the army installed his son Mahamat as de facto president, a move opponents termed a “military power grab.”

Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, the chairman of the Transitional Military Council of Chad, addresses the United Nations General Assembly via video on Sept. 23, 2021. (Timothy A. Clary – Pool/Getty Images)

Since 2010, Africa has had eight successful coups and at least 29 attempts, according to an ongoing project to track global coups maintained by American researchers Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne. The pair have documented over 200 coup attempts in Africa since the late 1950s, with the landlocked West African nation of Burkina Faso leading with seven successful and one failed coup.

Almost all instance, they note, are justified by their perpetrators in name of “the people” to end autocratic regimes and seek economic and social justice — even if such good intentions are rarely, if ever, achieved.

“Africa’s deep-rooted social, political and economic problems in the 21st century cannot be resolved … by coups nor with greedy heads of states conniving with lawmakers to tweak constitutions to legitimize their stay in power,” David Otto, director of Geneva Centre for Africa Security and Strategic Studies, told Zenger.

Despite adopting democracy as their system of government, states in Central Africa and the Sahel region also remain a major global epicenter of 21st-century military coups.

Experts like Otto say that is because they adopted democratic structures without developing relevant supporting institutions.

“Leaders must rely on strong institutions and respect the rule of law while in power,” he said. “The military and other security agencies must not be brought too close to politics and used to intimidate citizens into keeping leaders in power. It allows the military to take power by force citing corruption, intimidation, economic downturn, instability, and bad governance from sitting presidents as justification.”

Guinean President Alpha Condé greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel upon his arrival for the G20 Compact with Africa conference in Nov. 2019 (Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)

Condé, the ousted president of Guinea, had been a longtime opposition leader in the country before becoming its first democratically elected president in 2010. He won a second term in 2015. After amending the constitution through a controversial referendum in March 2020, he secured a third term in office after an Oct. 2020 presidential election that was marred by violence.

The coup leader, Doumouya, in turn deposed a man who had once blessed his career, after asking him in 2018 return to Guinea to lead the newly established elite Special Forces Group. The coup leader is a former French legionnaire who trained in France, Israel, the United Kingdom, Senegal and participated in the United States special forces exercises.

After the coup, Doumouya proclaimed: “The duty of a soldier is to save the country”— a phrase beloved by Africa’s military strongmen who cast themselves as “saviors” of their people.

“We saw the same with Thomas Sankara,” said Sam Amadi, director of the Abuja School of Social and Political Thought, referring to the leader of Burkina Faso’s 1983 coup, who was killed by military allies in 1987. “When the conspiracy gets to the point of enlisting the president’s closest aides, the deed is done. It illustrates the lesson that dictators don’t have trusted people, and their hold on the so-called enablers is tenuous at best.”

Sam Amadi, director of the Abuja School of Social and Political Thought, says Condé may have paid the price for his infamy.(Courtesy of Sam Amadi)

The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States both condemned Guinea’s coup but could not convince the putschists to return Condé to power.

But even coups have their apologists, who argue they are often necessary to end unjust governments.

“Regional organizations should first condemn prolonged stay in power,” Wilson Tamfuh, professor of Public and International Law at the University of Buea in Cameroon, told Zenger.

“There is what you call military democracies and civilian dictatorships. We also have a coup of necessity which usually happens when a civilian dictator has brought a country to its knees. There is a need for such a coup, especially if the plotters are doing it in good faith: to reorganize the government, conduct elections, and see that a good constitution is drafted for the country to go back to democracy.”

“That is what the coup leaders in Guinea are saying.”

Meanwhile, Otto noted that coups can be difficult event to discourage, as the international community has few useful options to punish militaries who have taken control of the levers of a state. He said continent and regional bodies like the African Union and Economic Community of West African States have only one primary tool to deter such coups: ineffective economic sanctions.

“This is not enough to deter putschists who understand how these economic sanctions have been applied unsuccessfully in the past,” Otto said. “They understand how to circumvent these measures. For example, they’ll appoint a transitional government that they control. The Economic Community Of West African States has so far failed to bring back any deposed leader.”

That has regional consequences, too, according to Amadi, who attributed the military coup in Guinea to “the crisis of political legitimacy growing in the region.”

“Many of the regimes are facing existentialist challenges of legitimacy,” he said.

“The result of failed transitions and rigged elections is showing. The so-called democratic governments are transitioning into military regimes. This marks an ugly phase that tends to increase violent conflict over control of political power. In turn, this will increase refugee crisis and starvation.”

Then there is Africa’s ever-present “resources curse.”

Guinea is blessed with abundant natural resources, including large quantities of bauxite, iron, gold, and diamonds, and mineral wealth, which gives it the potential to be one of Africa’s wealthiest countries. But its people are among the continent’s poorest — it’s estimated that 43.7 percent of Guinea’s population of 13 million people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

Otto said it was not surprising that younger army colonels were now trying to secure their share of spoils, after being forced to watch their corrupt leaders monopolize them for years.

“These young military officers have had the opportunity to hang around these older leaders and seen how vulnerable they are and in most cases very self-seeking, greedy and selfish,” he said.

In the end, said Tamfuh of University of Buea, that means Guinea’s coup should be seen as a warning.

“Citizens in failing civilian dictatorships are in sinking ships, and if there are no captains bold enough to take the steering wheels, then the ships will all drown with all of us,” he said. “We are not promoting the coups, but we are saying that current hardliners in Africa should learn from what has happened in Guinea.”

Edited by Kipchumba Some and Alex Willemyns



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