2021, the year military coups returned to the stage in Africa
This year, there were four successful military takeovers across the continent – in Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan – up from one in 2020.
Surrounded by soldiers and with Guinea’s flag draped around his shoulders, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya appeared on state television hours after leading a coup in September.
“Guinea is beautiful,” he told his co-patriots, using a crude analogy to describe what would be his vision for the future of his country. “We no longer need to rape her. We need to make love to her, that’s all.”
Doumbouya’s elite Special Forces had earlier stormed the presidential palace and detained Alpha Conde, the country’s first democratically elected president whose election victory in 2010 was once seen as a new beginning after decades of authoritarian rule. But the 83-year-old’s time at the helm of the West African country ended dramatically, with a video showing him sitting on a dusty sofa, barefoot with his printed shirt buttons open and surrounded by heavily armed guards.
Guinea’s September 5 coup was neither the first nor the last power grab this year in sub-Saharan Africa. There had been four successful military takeovers across the continent, up from one last year.
Most recently, Sudan’s military detained the country’s civilian leaders and seized power in October, about a month after authorities said they had thwarted an attempted coup they blamed on plotters loyal to former ruler Omar al-Bashir. In May, Malian soldiers had their second coup in the space of 10 months. This came weeks after General Mahamat Idriss Deby immediately seized power in Chad by suspending the constitution and dissolving the parliament following the death of his father on the battlefield.
Soldiers as saviours?
In the second part of the 20th century, military coups in Africa were used as a common means of changing the political order in the wake of decolonisation. Between 1960 and 2000, the overall number of coups and coup attempts stood at an average of four per year, according to a study by Jonathan Powell, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, and Clayton Thyne, a professor at the University of Kentucky.
However, as calls for democratic reforms and constitutionalism grew with the new century, military coups decreased to two per year until 2019.
Now, however, they seem to be making a comeback – prompting United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier this year to decry what he dubbed “an epidemic of coup d’etats”.
The recent surge in the militarisation of politics, analysts say, is influenced by a mix of external drivers, including the increasing and diverse number of international actors who are active in the continent prioritising their interests, and internal factors, such as widespread public frustration against corruption, insecurity and poor governance.
The Guinean coup took place after widespread dissatisfaction and protests against Conde’s largely unpopular move to scrap the presidential two-term limit. Hence, Colonel Doumbouya justified the power grab by claiming poverty and endemic corruption compelled his special forces to intervene.
“The personalisation of political life is over. We will no longer entrust politics to one man. We will entrust it to the people,” he said at the time.
For Powell, this militarisation comes amid “an increasing crisis” of legitimacy for rulers. “When leaders like Alpha Conde toy with constitutions, term limits and the electoral process, it increases public support for the armed forces to ‘do something’,” he added.
Ryan Cummings, the director of consulting firm Signal Risk, agreed.
“The militaries assume the position of saviour and use civic discontent as a means of legitimising their unconstitutional power grabs,” Cummings told Al Jazeera.
Likewise in Mali, the two military coups took place against the backdrop of popular nationwide protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, whose government was accused of corruption, nepotism and failing to tackle the country’s worsening security crisis.
In Mali and Sudan, military leaders used similar tactics to capture power. The Malian putschists led by Colonel Assimi Goita initially agreed to form a military-civilian mixed transitional council following the first coup in August 2020, promising to hand over power to civilian rule at the end of the transition.
But last May, Goita imprisoned and then removed the civilian president and prime minister of the transitional council, following a cabinet reshuffle that saw two military members replaced with civilian politicians. Meanwhile, the military’s promise to hold elections by February is increasingly looking unlikely to materialise.
Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized power on October 25 and detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok with whom he initially agreed to run the country. Although nationwide protests and Western condemnation forced him to reinstate Hamdok, the military remains the main actor in Sudan’s fragile politics.
The African Union (AU) and the regional bodies such as The Economic Community of West African States or ECOWAS in West Africa suspended the countries where coups had taken place – except Chad – in a bid to force military rulers to negotiate with civilian leaders. But such moves have had limited effect.
Cummings said African and Western institutions have been “relatively toothless” in their responses to the recent power grabs.
“They have been generally favouring a dialogue process between the leadership and aggrieved domestic stakeholders than to enact punitive measures against the transgressing leadership,” Cummings added. “This ensures that democratic consolidation does not take place organically within these states which, in turn, allows the military to exploit these democratic deficits.”
Hindering democratic governance in Africa
Powell said the lack of concrete and unified international condemnation and the growing number of international actors who have shown willingness to work with the military governments, encourage more unconstitutional power grabs by military officials who know they will not face severe consequences or regional and global isolation.
China, the continent’s largest trading partner, has a no-interference policy on the domestic affairs of African countries, as long as they are committed to long-term economic ties. This is seen favourably by many across the continent, with more African leaders wooed by China’s economic success on the global stage becoming increasingly convinced their countries should leave Western prescriptions for good governance and economic growth.
Russia, on the other hand, had been expanding its influence politically and militarily across the continent.
Moscow has been stretching its muscles by backing putschist leaders like Mali’s Goita and Sudan’s al-Burhan and running online disinformation campaigns to spread a positive image of the Kremlin and capitalise on rising anti-French sentiments in Francophone Africa. Meanwhile, the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group has reportedly deployed mercenaries in conflict-ridden countries including the Central African Republic, Mali and Libya. The Russian government denies any links to the shadowy private security company.
“For Russia and China, the relationship is the priority, not an interest in democracy,” Powell said. “As they increase their influence, it has begun to mimic the Cold War, when a loss of support from the West didn’t alarm potential coup plotters because they could quickly win support from the Soviet Union.”
But it is not just Beijing and Moscow.
The first visible crack in the clear regional and international stance that forged against the military coup in the new millennium was the 2013 Egyptian coup. The Western world, led by the United States who denied calling the military takeover a coup, embraced General-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military government, which has also been a darling for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China.
A similar trend was followed with the 2017 Zimbabwean coup that ended the 40-year rule of Robert Mugabe who was forced to resign by the military. Happy to see Mugabe go, the US and European countries ignored that his resignation had come through a barrel of a gun.
Meanwhile, France, whose engagement with African countries has overwhelmingly been based on military and security, continues to pursue its traditional strongman-favouring strategy.
President Emmanuel Macron endorsed the Chadian coup and called late President Idriss Deby, who led 30 years of repressive rule, a “loyal and courageous friend’’.
Idayat Hassan, the director of the Abuja-based think-tank Centre for Democracy and Development, said even though some celebrate the departure of unpopular leaders, coups are not usually good news.
“The inability of democracy to deliver public goods and security to the people is now leading citizens to embrace coup in search of hope. The coup leaders will not necessarily bring the desired hope to the people”, Hassan told Al Jazeera.
“There is hope [among supporters] that the junta which assumes power will set the foundations for a democratic reset in authoritarian states. This often does not prove to be the case”, Cummings added.