The epidemic of coups exposes political fragility in Africa, but military rules aren’t the answer

The following is a guest-post by Olusegun Akinfenwa, a correspondent for Immigration Advice Service. Olusegun’s work raises awareness about the harsh socio-political realities confronting African communities, with a view to bringing lasting solutions to them.

Malians demonstrate following the military coup in Mali in 2021 (Photo: BBC/EPA)

The recent wave of coups in Africa has exposed the political fragility in many countries in the continent and reintroduced the debate on whether military rules are indeed a thing of the past. Given human rights violations and failed efforts to institute democratic governance by civilian authorities, some might welcome military rule. But it is not the solution to good governance and stability on the continent.

This “epidemic of coups” started in Mali in August 2020 after Col Assimi Goita overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. In March 2021, an attempted coup was reported in Niger amidst the contestation of President Mohamed Bazoum’s election victory.

The wave moved to Chad in April 2021 after the killing of President Idriss Deby on the battlefield. The constitution was bypassed, as he was hurriedly replaced by his son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby.

In May 2021, Mali again witnessed what has been termed a coup within a coup, as Col. Goita overthrew transitional government leaders and proclaimed himself president. In September, Guinea President Alpha Conde, who was re-elected to a third term in office in 2020, was overthrown by Col. Mamady Doumbouya.  

In October, the military forcefully took control of the civilian-military transitional government and deposed the civilian arm led by Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok. This marked the last of a string of coups in 2021, making it among the years with the highest number of military takeovers in Africa.

The coup epidemic would later resurface in January 2022, as the army led by Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kabore. A few weeks later, an attempted coup was reported in Guinea Bissau on February 1. Though it was a failed attempt, several casualties were recorded.

These many takeovers within just 18 months are a stark reminder in Africa of the past and a reality check for the continent’s political leaders. Between 1956 and 2001, 80 successful military coups and 108 failed attempts were reported in sub-Saharan Africa. But as more countries embraced civilian rules in the past two decades, there was a great reduction in coup d’états. As such, many concluded that military rules were a thing of the past. But the recent events may have proven otherwise.

Another disturbing issue is the street jubilations witnessed in some of these countries, with civilians coming out en masse celebrating the juntas. This goes to show the deep-seated anger many average citizens hold against their leaders after years of so-called democratic rules that worsen people’s living conditions which only benefits politicians and their cronies.

In Mali, Burkian Faso, and Guinea, where the juntas enjoyed rousing welcome, people have grappled with serious insecurity, endemic unemployment, and corruption for years. In Mali, the coup was a culmination of street demonstrations calling the government to resign after the attempts by the ruling party to rig the 2020 election.

In Burkina Faso, there has been a security vacuum following the repeated attacks from armed groups that left the masses helpless. The November and December 2021 attacks that left scores dead and tens of thousands displaced marked a lessening of the security threats and gave the military a perfect excuse to seize power in January. In Guinea, the months-long political instability that ensued from President Conde’s bid to remove term-limit restrictions which allowed him to seek a third term in office was a causal mechanism for the September 2021 coup.

The above scenarios give a perfect reflection of many African leaders and why some citizens now see military rulers as a legitimate alternative after years of suffering under civilian ones. A recent survey shows that many do not have confidence in their countries’ electoral systems. Less than half of the respondents believe that elections guarantee accountability and representation, key elements of flourishing democracies.

Although they claim to be democratic, the rule of law is hardly obeyed among many of these leaders, who have alienated themselves from the masses while often becoming more authoritarian by the day. Their sheer negligence and corruption has plunged parts of the continent into a serious economic and security crises, leaving youth vulnerable and desperate. According to the Africa Union Commission, there are about 600 million young Africans who are unemployed, uneducated, or in insecure employment. This has fueled the continent’s refugee crisis as tens of millions are forcibly displaced and many Africans seeking asylum and settlement in the UK, US, Canada, and other developed economies.

But while decades-long leadership vacuums may be a good reason to despise corrupt public office holders, military rule is not the answer. The history of past military rule on the continent shows as much. Although they usually appear appealing at the beginning under the guise of ‘rescuing the day’, military regimes have been known for their sheer human rights violations and disregard for the rule of law. Coups upon coups and sit-tightism are some of their antecedents, issues that end up frustrating the masses when their hopes – and rights – are dashed.

Expectedly, there have been some legal responses regionally and internationally. The West Africa Media Lawyers (WAMELA) issued a statement in September to condemn the coup in Guinea. The group called on all governments of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to “take necessary steps to resist the renegade military leaders of Guinea.” The United States has also invoked its Section 7008 of annual foreign aid appropriations legislation, which restricts aid to the governments of nations in which the military has overthrown duly a duly elected leader. This is in effect in Mali, Sudan, and Guinea, and most aid to Burkina Faso is also pending a determination.

The African Union (AU) and other sub-regional bodies like ECOWAS have been acting under available legal instruments, such as the Lome Declaration, the Peace and Security Protocol, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Good Governance, to return civilian rules to those countries.

Sadly, their approach does not appear to have succeeded, as some of the juntas have refused to yield and are still enjoying support from civilians. Perhaps, it is time for AU, regional bodies, and the international community to use their power preventively, and not just reactively. More focus should be placed on measures that can help make military rules unattractive to the masses. Good governance, freedom of the press, equity, and accountability from officer holders deserve more attention than periodic organised elections that are in many cases rigged. After all, democracy is much more than the ballot box.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in African Union (AU), Chad, Coups, Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), Guinea Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sudan and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The epidemic of coups exposes political fragility in Africa, but military rules aren’t the answer

  1. El roam says:

    Important post indeed.

    Not to forget:

    ISIS is “doing very well” there all over Africa. It does increase the instability and enhancing the military rule.

    Also, climate change, has very devastating impact there.

    Here for example to ISIS in Africa:


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