America and China opened the door for African coups to return

Backsliding on the part of Western powers, and the rise of autocrat-friendly China, have created an atmosphere in Africa that emboldens generals and military cliques to seize power.

Sudan's top army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks during a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum
Sudan's top army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan speaks during a press conference at the General Command of the Armed Forces in Khartoum on October 26, 2021. - [Ashraf Shazly/ AFP]

The most recent coup in Sudan has been modified – not undone – by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s reappointment of deposed civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

The coup, which had been widely rumoured in Sudan but still managed to blindside the United States, remains a source of outrage for Sudanese citizens. But Washington is yet to take a clear stance on the issue.

The reaction from American diplomats, who have signalled acceptance of the new arrangement and willingness to turn a blind eye to the continued military dominance of the transition government, has diverged widely from that of Sudanese citizens, who continue to reject military hegemony.

This case highlights the breakdown of the anti-coup coalition that had formed for Africa – a breakdown that has led to military interventions reemerging as a leading method by which power is transferred on the continent.

After decolonisation, competitive elections remained rare for decades in Africa, while military coups emerged as the leading method by which power changed hands. But around the turn of the century, multiparty elections became the norm within African states, while coups were relegated to rare and generally short-lived breakdowns of constitutional order.

This dramatic change, coming in the aftermath of the Cold War, was brought about by a convergence of domestic and international actors. Local populations, fed up with dictatorial and military rule and hopeful for the promises of democracy, forced autocrats and military regimes to step aside. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) went from being a notorious “dictator’s club” to enforcing democracy and constitutionalism as requirements for sustained membership in the continent’s main political body. Meanwhile, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and other Western powers recommitted themselves to upholding democracy. African strongmen and juntas were left without international backers, leading to widespread, though far from complete, democratisation across the continent.

For a while, the anti-coup consensus held. As popular pro-democracy activism persisted, African militaries were pushed back into the barracks and autocrats were shoved out of office. Coup attempts plummeted, and the military leaders that did seize power, as in Niger in 2010 or Mali in 2012, were swiftly removed in the face of united African, Western and broader international condemnation.

The legacy of these transitions remains in the endurance of competitive multiparty politics in formerly coup-plagued countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. But as coups make a comeback in Africa – with the Wall Street Journal newspaper noting that military takeovers have returned this year to their highest level in 40 years  – it is becoming evident that there is a growing division in the anti-coup coalition that helped democracy emerge in Africa.

Local populations have upheld their end of the bargain, as have regional blocs like the African Union (AU), the successor organisation to the OAU. But the international environment has returned to one that is at best permissive of military takeovers, and at worst actively welcomes them as expedient ways to remove threatening or odious leaders. Backsliding on the part of Western powers, and the rise of autocrat-friendly China, have created an atmosphere that emboldens generals and military cliques to seize power.

A decade ago, the Arab Spring brought the democratisation wave to North Africa, toppling the long-serving dictators of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Yet, it was the aftermath of Egypt’s transition that began to break down the international consensus against coups in Africa. When the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, the AU quickly condemned the coup. The US and other Western powers, however, prevaricated, concerned about the undemocratic change of power but happy to see Morsi go. The American government publicly declined to call the overthrow a coup, and soon General-turned-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi found himself in the good graces of the US, while also cosying up to autocratic powers like Saudi Arabia and China.

The crack in the anti-coup coalition created for Egypt in 2013 grew into a chasm four years later, when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was pushed out of power by his military amid an internal power struggle within his ruling ZANU-PF party. At the time, there was near-unanimity of opinion that Mugabe’s nearly 40-year reign should end. He was pushed out by his former allies, with rumoured support from China, where coup leader Constantine Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwean military, had visited just before returning to Zimbabwe to remove Mugabe. The move was met with relief from Western governments that had long grown tired of Mugabe and approval from Zimbabweans, most of whom had lived their entire lives under Mugabe’s rule.

Still, the AU condemned the military stepping in to remove Mugabe, and Zimbabwean opposition parties and civil society groups warned that the army’s chosen replacement, ZANU-PF stalwart Emmerson Mnangagwa, would be just as oppressive as his predecessor. But the US and other Western nations were happy to pretend that Mugabe’s “resignation” was valid and not made at the point of a gun barrel, and the West quickly accepted the hasty election thrown together to legitimise Mnangagwa.

The ZANU-PF government has maintained its “look East policy,” remaining cosy with China – despite local Zimbabwean anger at Chinese economic exploitation of Zimbabwe’s mineral resources. Pessimistic local predictions about Mnangagwa’s rule have proven true – ZANU-PF remains as oppressive as ever – but the new leader remains propped up by the air of legitimacy granted him by the international community.

Which brings us to today. Sudan’s General Burhan likely had the examples of Egypt and Zimbabwe in mind when he planned the coup, calculating that he could take power and gain the acquiescence of chief powers like the US, which remains willing to replace the pariah al-Bashir with a similarly repressive but less notorious military-dominated alternative, and China, which is happy to work with whatever government brings stability to a longtime economic partner.

Meanwhile, activists, politicians, and citizens continue to risk their lives to fight for true, civilian-led democracy in Sudan (and Egypt and Zimbabwe, for that matter). But the fight for democracy and against military rule in Africa has seen significant setbacks. This year alone, coups have overthrown existing governments or undemocratically installed new leaders in Chad, Mali, and Guinea, in addition to Sudan. While African populations remain overwhelmingly committed to democracy and opposed to military governments, the lack of reliable international pro-democracy partners makes the struggle against military rule much more difficult. But as the sustained anti-military protests in Sudan demonstrate, local populations are willing to continue the fight for democracy, even if they must go it alone.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.