Africa’s coups: have we reached the point of no return?

Photo: Akpokona Omafuaire/Getty Images

Stuart Wilkie looks into the behaviour of African leaders on the brink of (and, often, inside) military coups.

Some black Africans will tell you coups are one of the blighted legacies of colonialism.

For generations in Africa, coups, sudden power grabs, power-sharing deals and counter-coups have been seen as a way to bring change without bloodshed or bloodshed.

But that is changing as coups are increasingly deployed by young men used to a 24-hour news cycle and instant messages on smart phones.

Recent coups have occurred in countries where young politicians have dominated the political scene.

The widely reported coup in Burkina Faso in September and January, led by a politician in his twenties, were part of a general shift in military politics in Africa from coups to an “and”.

Instead of staging a coup, the army offered the elected president a deal whereby he held on to his position, and handed over his share of power to the secretary-general of the ruling party.

Despite having won the elections, the populist president Roch Marc Kabore had to be allowed to stay on to end the crisis. The leader of the protesters, Christian Mbugua, told me after a military takeover he was “very happy” the army had shown “real statesmanship”.

And it’s a difference from 2014 when Ivory Coast’s president Alassane Ouattara was forced to step down to meet challenges of his challenge to be re-elected a second time. This failed again in 2016.

On 13 March, the Chadian military forces sacked President Idriss Deby of Chad, but he went on to say he had no plans to flee the country. The coup came on the heel of two years of political deadlock following disputed elections.

By the end of August, Deby had begun to mutiny against the head of the Chad armed forces, General Ismael Omar Guelleh.

The coup came at a time when Deby could have been hoping to secure his place as one of Africa’s longest-serving heads of state for a third term, in spite of attempts by dissidents to repeal his elections in 2015.

Now Deby, who has faced accusations of human rights violations, military impropriety and corruption, will be more likely to win the presidential elections due next year.

Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma came close to stepping down in March 2015 after being criticised for poor governance, poor leadership and corruption.

But leaders of the ruling All People’s Congress returned quickly to stabilise the situation and ensure the outcome of the country’s planned presidential and legislative elections in 2016 were free and fair.

Vibhur Ali, a professor of political science in Accra, says coups are not a new phenomenon in Africa but the increased use of social media may be an influencing factor, leading to the belief that a coup can be launched without being visible to the outside world.

Brief interventions such as social media reports, controlled by the elite within the coups, may be creating the environment where coups are getting a new lease of life.

Other countries where coups are becoming common are Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Rwanda, Congo (Brazzaville), Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa).

The last coup in Africa happened in Congo (Brazzaville) last year, when General Jean Evariste Boshab was forced out of office after his authority had been undermined by his opponents.

Some observers think there may be another coup in Congo (Brazzaville) before the end of this year.

My research has also found that coups may not be a driving force in African political change. While the use of military coercion and force may have increased during 2016 and 2017, so have the use of constitutional amendment, parliament, constitutional court and trade unions to get people elected.

As of now there is little change to get rid of strongmen. Despite calls for fresh elections in Congo (Brazzaville), the country’s president Denis Sassou Nguesso is now looking to extend his term in office. He has done this in previous elections.

So while coups may be making a comeback, it remains to be seen whether Africa is ready for a change of leadership.

The “and” situation may be one of those reforms needed. If so, Mr Wilkie will be watching.

Professor Stuart Wilkie is postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for African Studies at the London School of Economics.

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