What’s causing Africa’s coup epidemic?
The Western intervention in Libya may have played a crucial role
The past two years haven’t been productive for most people, with one notable exception: African coup plotters. The successful coup in Burkina Faso last week, like the unsuccessful putsch attempt in Guinea-Bissau on Tuesday, are further evidence of what UN Chief Antonio Guterres has called an “epidemic of coups d’etat,” spreading across the continent, often to popular acclaim, a wave of de-democratisation comparable to an Arab Spring in reverse.
The current cycle of coups kicked off in Mali, a country beset by a decade-long counterinsurgency campaign against jihadists and ethnic separatists in the north and centre of the country, and a sense of growing instability the French military presence has been unable to quell. First Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (or IBK) was overthrown by middle-ranking officers in August 2020. And when the military-installed interim government removed military officers from key posts, that too was removed from power by a second military coup in May last year.
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In Chad, the army installed General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, son of the three-decades long ruler Idriss Déby, in office last April, after his father was killed battling rebels in the country’s far north. In Guinea, the country’s first democratically elected president Alpha Conde was overthrown by the army last September, after he attempted to extend his term in office. And in Sudan, a military coup last October overthrew the civilian-led transition government installed after the army overthrew the autocrat Omar al-Bashir following mass protests in 2019.
But why now? Like families in Anna Karenina, each of these countries is unhappy in its own unique way, but some common trends can be discerned: Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso have all been destabilised by the growing Sahelian security crisis, an unintended consequence of the 2011 Western intervention in Libya. When Malian Tuareg mercenaries in Gadhafi’s employ fled the country following the NATO-backed rebel victory, they brought with them vast quantities of weaponry looted from Libyan arsenals, which they used to take over Mali’s north — prompting a 2012 military coup in the capital Bamako. The Tuareg nationalists were ousted in turn by better-disciplined jihadist forces, whose advance towards Bamako was halted only by a French-led military intervention.
A gruelling decade-long counterinsurgency campaign has dragged in American special forces as well as European allies — including British troops — but has been unable to prevent the conflict spreading not just to Mali’s previously quiet central belt, now the focus of both the jihadist insurgency and a bloody cycle of interethnic violence, but also across the wider Sahel as a whole, dragging in neighbours like Chad and Burkina Faso. The securitisation of the region’s politics may not have ended the violence, but has raised the profile of the military, while feeding a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the quality of democratic governance among voters in the region’s capitals.
Whatever its attraction in theory, in practice democracy has failed across much of Africa. As the Burkinabe civil society activist Marcel Tankanao told Reuters this week, “Since the 1990s there has been a wave of democracy across West Africa. But that democracy has failed the people…We must be clear, we need a military regime.” As Rwanda’s relatively benign (or at least, competent) dictator Paul Kagame remarks, military coups are simply the “result of a failure in governance,” asserting that “if, under a civilian government, the situation deteriorates and people die, the problems accumulate and the authorities use the military to rig the elections, who is to blame when the army overthrows these governments?”
Of course, dissatisfaction with the democratic system is not unique to Africa. What has changed is the international context: the wave of democracy promotion that followed the Cold War is receding, and more and more countries are either reverting to or experimenting with non-democratic forms of governance. As in the Cold War, when the continent served as a proxy battleground between communism and capitalism, Africa can be seen as a barometer of wider global trends, reflected by the new Malian regime’s insistence that French troops leave, to be replaced by Russian mercenaries: if that’s the case, then the global outlook does not look good for democracy.
Stable democracy grows out of established traditions and trusted institutions and the attempt to impose democracy in their absence is doomed to failure. Democracy itself isn’t the cause of stability in a democratic state, it is an outcome of having a robust civil society and trust in things like constitution, government and law. Iraq should have taught us that giving everyone a vote is not necessarily conducive to a functioning state.
“robust civil society and trust in things like constitution, government and law.”
Exactly Chris, democracy doesn’t just arise out of nothing.
Here’s a very good essay on the situation in South Africa. Their institutions are collapsing, becoming corrupt and characterised by a will to power. Democratic in name only?
It reminds me of my own very depressing time at UCT in 2009-2010. After 1 year there working in research, I was ready to go back to Zimbabwe and take my chances with the war veterans (who I still regard as preferable and far more reasonable and eloquent than any UCT activist).
I would add to your observation that democracy is founded in the basic values and beliefs of the people that build the institutions and the constitutions to begin with. It requires a kind of group consciousness to produce functioning systems, where the average person must believe in the system.
As one supreme caught judge in the US once memorably wrote: “The rule of law comes not from the pen, but from the heart.”
In line with the above, my own observation of Southern Africa is that colonialism failed because it didn’t get the colonised to think like the coloniser. In the absence of colonisers, such places quickly reverted to their previous social and political structures.
South Africa is just a normal example, with 350 years of institutions unravelling to leave what was there previously.
This is hastened by a particular brand of iconoclastic leftwing thinking, which is particularly explosive in South Africa. It combines racial hatred with class warfare, to produce sound and fury, signifying…nothing.
Well said, Hayden!
“Democracy itself isn’t the cause of stability in a democratic state, it is an outcome of having a robust civil society and trust in things like constitution, government and law.“
Also, the form of democracy we have in the West may well be dependent on the level of wealth and equity.
A continent that is 2000 years behind anywhere else on our planet .. that is the problem… the next problem is the fear of finger pointing ” racism” accusations for declaring this empirical fact, let alone trying to do anything about it
Democracy cannot be imposed upon societies and nations that have never previously had any experience of such a system of governance. Our western democracy was forged through several millennia of fraught civil evolution, culminating in the Christian era that underpinned the value systems, political organisation and cultural development of Western Europe. Over the same period other cultures and societies developed alternative systems that bore no resemblance to democracy. Democratic imperialism has been a disaster for this reason alone. Africa is perhaps the most stark illustration of this fact; but contemplate nations around the world (South America, Middle East, Asia) in which democracy is absent.
It seems that our Era of Democracy may be in its final stages as the tide of wokery drowns two thousand years of cultural evolution and new systems are imposed through a framework of brutal intolerance, cynical untruths, destruction of a hated heritage and punitive orthodoxy.
Fascinating but depressing article. It’s interesting that they are reflecting on democracy as the best model for their culture/communities/countries.
People of former colonies, many with manufactured borders, often have democratic traditions of their own that are unable to be expressed as a national identity. They are prevented these expressions by adolescents with guns and uniforms enjoying their emotional development as comic book Heroes to satisfy child-like needs. A vision of Governance capable of identifying and supporting self-governing regions with coherent cultural structures of their own, may not include western style democracy. It may include traditions and a rule of law local citizens would be prepared to fight for. Funds and resources currently managing the “running away to Europe” program may be usefully applied supporting African homegrown schemes to counter this age of coups by the kids. Suspect it will take a while, but surely must start regardless of western perceptions of democracy. A continent with indulged adolescents in charge just can not be tolerated in this 21st Century.
Once again, Aris, you hit the nail on the head.
The media mostly report the Sahel insurgencies as if they were spontaneous and local. Understanding the Tuareg link and the Libyan weapons is vital.
As I understand it, Qaddafi used the Tuareg as his personal guard as he could not trust locals! When he fell, they ran, taking the weapons with them.
As we saw with the Sunni in Iraq, it does not take much to radicalise those with a grievance who have the weapons and training.
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