Act more swiftly to halt rash of coups in Africa, expert warns
Those wanting to overthrow governments seem to be immune to sanctions imposed by the African Union.
Military coups, once the preferred method of changing power in Africa but then later rather unfashionable, are making a comeback, with six successful and two failed ones in just the past two years.
The last successful putsch was in Burkina Faso on 24 January – its seventh since independence in 1960. On 1 February, troops loyal to elected president Umaro Sissoco Embaló only just managed to fight off armed men who had attacked the presidential palace in Guinea-Bissau, apparently determined to kill him and the prime minister.
Africa averaged four coups a year for the four decades after independence until 2000, according to US researchers Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne. They have listed more than 200 coup attempts on the continent since the late 1950s, about half of which have been successful.
In 2000, the Organisation for African Unity (now the African Union) introduced sanctions against governments that came to power via “unconstitutional changes of government” – that is, coups. The main punishment was to suspend them from the continental intergovernmental body, but other targeted measures have also been used.
The sanctions seemed at first to have an effect as the average dropped to under 1.5 coups a year for the next two decades, according to Powell and Thyne. But now it appears coups are on the rise again.
The continent’s leaders will be meeting at the AU summit in Addis Ababa this weekend to try to find a way to discourage coups.
As Jean Kamau, Kenya’s ambassador to the AU and Ethiopia, said at an Institute for Security Studies webinar this week that the AU “will have to deal more decisively with unconstitutional changes of government. We thought if we deal decisively with one country it would be a deterrent but clearly it’s not”. She was apparently referring mainly to Mali, on which the AU and the Economic Community of West African States have imposed severe measures after the military conducted two coups, in 2020 and 2021, and then reneged on its promise of allowing swift transition back to constitutional rule. But in vain.
Kamau said that suspending military juntas from the AU did not seem to be working so these measures needed to be revisited.
One of the most worrying features of the latest batch of coups is that they seem to be enjoying rising popular support. Images of junta leaders being cheered by crowds in the streets of different capitals may even be contributing to a copycat effect.
The reasons for the sudden spike in coups are not completely clear and they also vary.
In Sudan last October, the military seized sole power to avoid having to transfer it to a civilian leader as part of a transitional government deal. In Chad in April, the military pulled off what the political opposition called a “dynastic coup”, as the officers short-circuited the constitutional succession process to unilaterally install one of their own, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, as interim president after his father, Idriss Déby, was killed by rebels.
The soldiers who toppled Guinea’s President Alpha Condé in September 2021 were mainly motivated by outrage that he had manipulated an amendment to the constitution the year before to allow himself what would previously have been an unconstitutional third term in office.
Intensifying and spreading violent jihadist extremism in West Africa and the Sahel is also clearly driving coups. Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and the other young officers who toppled Burkinabé President Roch Kaboré were aggrieved that his government had left them isolated in the frontline fighting against the jihadists without proper supplies and support.
The decade-long insurgency in Mali played the decisive role in the 2012 military coup and was a factor in the 2020 and 2021 coups. The motives of those who tried to topple Embalo in Guinea-Bissau on 1 February are not yet quite clear, though Embalo said drug trafficking was a factor. The country has been labelled a “narco state”, largely because of the South American cocaine that flows through it to Europe.
In more general terms, disenchantment with the poor performance or blatant clinging to power of civilian governments is one of the main overlapping causes of coups. That is why the people so often dance in the streets when the army takes power.
And that is why so many analysts have been urging the AU and its subregional bodies, such as the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), to impose sanctions not only on military juntas that seize power unconstitutionally but also on civilian leaders who cling to power unconstitutionally by rigging elections or manipulating constitutions to abolish presidential term limits. Or who simply govern badly and corruptly. The AU and its subsidiary bodies have provisions for enacting such measures but they don’t use them – and for obvious reasons. The AU has too many leaders who are themselves guilty of employing such ruses to stay in power so they have no incentive to enforce sanctions against others.
Powell, a coup expert at the University of Central Florida, agrees that the AU and regional bodies need to extend their punitive measures to corrupt and undemocratic civilian leaders as they are often catalysts for coups.
But he also says these intergovernmental bodies as well as the wider international community need to apply sanctions against military juntas more swiftly, strongly and consistently if these measures are to work as deterrents.
“The failure to respond to a few recent cases, perhaps most notably Chad in 2021 and Zimbabwe in 2017, sent signals that coups were okay under the right conditions,” Powell told DM168.
The AU failed to punish the Chadian junta. And, in Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ousting of then president Robert Mugabe was widely characterised as a coup as armoured vehicles surrounded Mugabe’s house. But Mnangagwa’s government insisted Mugabe had resigned and the AU went along with that.
Powell also believes that the AU should be extremely strict about never recognising soldiers who come to power by force and then replace their military uniforms with suits and run for political office.
“The willingness of various actors to quickly recognise officers as legitimate leaders after post-coup elections further sends the signal that soldiers in power is okay. Seeing folks like Mauritania’s Abdel Aziz or Egypt’s [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi not only accepted as presidents, but even becoming the AU chairperson, further illustrates that any costs of coups can be relegated to the short term.
“I think it is important to demonstrate that participation in a coup necessarily ends any later political involvement. Relevant organisations should not tolerate coup participants to participate in elections, should refuse to recognise any coupist as a head of state, member of a cabinet, etc.
“Coupists should certainly not be allowed to eventually chair the regional organisations that purport to want to end these events. The same goes for foreign states providing military assistance.”
Powell believes the wider international community must go further in deterring coups by having nothing more to do with coup leaders even if they try to legitimise themselves by running for civilian office.
He criticises the US, for example, for resuming suspended military aid as soon as coup leaders are willing to contest an election. Instead, they should be doing their utmost to ensure that coup leaders – such as Mali’s junta leader Assimi Goïta – have no political or military future.
Powell adds that, although most of the attention has been on how to respond to coups, part of the prevention toolkit must be for the AU, regional organisations and the international community “to get serious” about other violations.
“Leaders should not be allowed to manipulate electoral rules, term limits, etc. Aside from violating the region’s purported goals for preventing the unconstitutional maintenance of power, these acts are themselves common catalysts for coups.
“Preventing coups means preventing their primary triggers, and executive aggrandisement is a large one.”
Powell urges Africa and the international community to act swiftly and decisively in West Africa – and in the Sahel especially – to deter the rash of coups before the situation spins out of control.
“Unfortunately, the sheer number of attempts in such a small geographic area will simply overwhelm any regional response at this point. Maintaining suspensions throughout a belt of coups that could have stretched from the Atlantic to the Red Sea (had Chad been suspended and had Niger’s 2021 coup attempt succeeded) would be, to say the least, challenging.
“It could generate even larger problems if more costly sanctions were imposed, particularly on the economic and security fronts,” Powell says.
“Given that public support for coups, and even military rule, appears to be increasing, it will become even more difficult for actors to mount a meaningful response.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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