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West African coups set to worsen already prevailing economic crises, mass hunger and violent chaos

West African coups set to worsen already prevailing economic crises, mass hunger and violent chaos
From left: Ousted president of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba. (Photo: Jonathan Hordle / WPA Pool / Getty Images) | Ousted president of Mali Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. (Photo: Wikimedia) | Ousted president of Niger Mohamed Bazoum. (Photo: Chesnot / Getty Images) |

The reality is that the African countries under new military leaders following coups face the spectre of plunging into Libyan and Sudan-like chaos.

As the economic crises post-Covid continue to deepen, climate change continues to unleash hunger, living costs soar because of spiralling inflation induced by the impact of the Russia-Ukraine War – all combined with authoritarian, uncaring and unresponsive governments – Africa is likely to see more coups, which increasingly appear to be supported by ordinary people, especially the young.

As these deep-seated multiple crises snowball, Africa is entering a particularly violent, unstable and chaotic period which is likely to set back development for generations, break up countries and unleash mass migration across, within and between countries, and to Western countries.

Most African countries are going to be increasingly left behind – as other formerly poor developing nations such as Singapore, Saudi Arabia and South Korea catch up with industrialised countries.

The continent has now experienced its 10th either attempted or successful coup in Central and West Africa since the height of Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020.

Most recently, on 26 July 2023, military leaders ousted Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum and have been holding him, his son and wife in the basement of his presidential palace in the capital Niamey. Soon thereafter, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, who was in power for 14 years from 2009, became the latest authoritarian leader to be toppled in a military coup on 30 August 2023.

Since independence from colonialism, food shortages, food price increases and food insecurity, especially if combined with official corruption, incompetence and authoritarian governments, have often fuelled mass uprisings against sitting governments – or if these governments are too impregnable, by coups by military leaders or have seen the rise of jihadist movements exploiting mass anger.

Many African countries have sham elections, whether Gabon, Guinea or more recently in Zimbabwe, where the ruling party, or leader, holds multiparty elections which are manipulated, and maintains power through a combination of patronage of supporters and repression of opponents. In Africa these autocratic, corrupt and incompetent leaders and governments who hold on to power at all costs can often only be ousted by coups, Arab Spring-like mass uprisings or when opposition parties form multiparty coalitions, aligned with mass civil movements.

Many African countries are facing the worst food insecurity in decades, caused by climate change, jihadist-fuelled insecurity, compounded by the Covid-19 lockdowns and food shortages because of the Russia-Ukraine war – and lack of care of governments, which has caused mass anger across the continent. These will continue to be exploited by the military to stage coups, or by jihadists to recruit new members.

Many, especially the youth, have embraced the coups, hoping they will bring much-needed change for the better which the autocratic leaders and governments, in their bubble of privilege, refused to provide.

Lack of democracy

Mass protests against Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta raged since June 2020, calling on him to resign over disputed August 2018 elections in which he claimed a re-election victory, his failure to tackle corruption and his inability to take back control from ethnic Tuareg rebels and aligned jihadists who in 2012 seized two-thirds of the country. Opposition parties, civil society organisations and observers said the August 2018 election was full of irregularities.

In response, Keïta bulldozed the holding of legislative elections in 2020 during Covid lockdowns, despite the main opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé having been kidnapped by unidentified gunmen, and countrywide insecurity because of attacks by jihadists. To top it all, the constitutional court, under the thumb of Keïta, overturned 31 of the legislative results, handing the president’s party 10 extra parliamentary seats. Keïta was accused by opposition parties, civil society and the media of systemic corruption.

Covid-19, insecurity caused by jihadist attacks, inflation, food shortages caused by the Russia-Ukraine war and the impact of climate change on agriculture crippled the Malian economy. Not surprisingly, in August 2020, the military – surfing public anger over the manipulation of the 2018 presidential and the 202o legislative elections, the economic hardships, systemic corruption, chronic insecurity and starvation – launched a military coup and arrested President Keïta.

In September 2021, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya and his special forces overthrew Guinea’s President Alpha Condé. Many citizens came out in the streets shouting “freedom” in support of the coup. Condé had changed the constitution – against popular opposition – to run for a third term, which he did in a disputed election. His election victory elicited widespread mass protests which he suppressed with an iron fist, leading to the death of many at the hands of the security forces, and imprisoning hundreds of journalists, human rights activists and political opponents.

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, who was in power from 2009 for 14 years, took over from his father, Omar Bongo, who was president for 42 years from 1967 to 2009. Ali Bongo took power after his father’s death in 2009 in the post-Cold War African phenomenon of presidential monarchies whereby children of long-standing leaders take over government from their fathers, albeit through carefully managed elections.

Ali Bongo deployed allies into public service, state-owned entities and the judiciary. He violently repressed critical media, civil society and the opposition. Minority groups and women were marginalised. The country, with fewer than 2.5 million citizens, but abundant with minerals, gas, and oil, has an unemployment rate of 32%, with a third of Gabonese people living in poverty, and with access to basic public services nonexistent for the large majority.

The central African country is the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the country is among the most corrupt in the world.

In the 2016 presidential election, Ali Bongo and his Gabonese Democratic Party were declared winner with 49.8% of the vote against Jean Ping of the opposition Union of Forces for Change. The opposition and neutral and independent observers called for a recount, citing blatant vote-rigging. Security forces stormed Ping’s offices, and nationwide violence erupted which saw close to 100 people dead and hundreds arrested.

A recount of the presidential election was held without credible observers – the African Union observer mission was sidelined by the constitutional court which was under the control of Ali Bongo. Not surprisingly Ali Bongo was given 5o.7% of the vote in the recount. The coup against Ali Bongo was almost inevitable.  

Africa still in the grip of post-Covid economic crises

African countries are still battling from the Covid-19 induced financial crises which disrupted global logistical networks, supply chains and caused business collapses, with lockdowns causing food price inflation, food shortages and increased hunger. The Covid-19 induced African financial crisis reduced the income from Africa’s commodities following contractions in industrial economies which import the continent’s commodities, causing African countries to experience large revenue losses, leaving up to 30 million people at risk of extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Central banks across the board in Western economies have introduced tighter monetary policies to tackle inflation. This means that African countries seeking to borrow from Western governments and development finance institutions have to do so at a higher cost.

The Economist reported recently that Africa’s debt-service ratio in 2021 was the highest since 2011. Africa’s foreign debt increased fivefold between 2000 and 2020, to $696-billion. A quarter of African countries now contribute 20% of their national budgets to servicing foreign debt. This means African countries are now spending the most of all developing countries on interest payments on foreign debt.

The heavy debts of African countries, with their high debt-servicing commitments, are increasingly straining public finances, ensuring countries have very little financial buffers for emergencies and undermining economic growth.

Many indebted African countries have been forced in the post-Covid period to pay their debts through commodities they produce. Angola makes repayments of its giant debt to China by supplying oil to China’s state-owned Sinochem and Sinopec through the latter’s trading arm called Unipec.

Climate change increases hunger across the continent

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) warned in September 2023 that 98% of African countries are at high risk of being negatively impacted by climate change. The report analysed countries based on children’s exposure to climate and environmental shocks such as floods, heatwaves and cyclones. Using the global Children’s Climate Risk Index, Unicef reported that children in the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea, Somalia and Guinea-Bissau were most at risk.

For example, the worst food insecurity in decades, caused by climate change, jihadist-fuelled insecurity in the Sahel and compounded by the Covid-19 lockdowns and food shortages because of the Russia-Ukraine war, have given rise to mass anger, which was exploited by the military in Niger to stage the coup on 26 July 2023.

In early 2023, more than five million people in Niger were in immediate need of humanitarian assistance because of food shortages. Before the Niger coup, the UN reported that natural hazards such as droughts, wildfires and erratic climate, and epidemics such as measles, malaria, meningitis and cholera combined with violent insecurity caused by jihadist movements have led to mass migration, homelessness and violent competition over resources.

Russia-Ukraine war brings hardship to Africa

The Russia-Ukraine war is causing food price rises, food shortages and the drying up of development funds for Africa. The war has increased global oil and gas prices. This has increased global inflation and depressed global growth – which in turn has also depressed economic growth in individual African countries.

Russia and Ukraine combined produce 28% of the world’s global wheat and 18% of corn. More than 40% of Ukraine’s corn and wheat goes to Africa and the Middle East. Ukraine produced 45% of the global sunflower seed and oil output, with Russia second, producing 23% of global output. Ukraine produces 19% of the world’s rapeseed. Russia produces under 20% of the world’s barley. Russia produces 14% of the world’s fertilisers – a crucial input in agricultural production.

In a global scenario where there will be food shortages because of the Russia-Ukraine war, industrial countries with bigger purses will buy up most of the remaining food, leaving African countries without the buying muscle with nothing. Foreign investors’ uncertainty about the duration of the war is likely to put a brake on any new investments in emerging markets and Africa.

A slump in global economic growth could mean that demand for Africa’s commodities could be slashed – reducing the income of many African countries that depend on single commodities for most of their income.

Corruption has laid the foundations for coups

Niger had struggled with corruption before this year’s coup. As a case in point, last year civil society organisations filed a legal complaint over the alleged disappearance of $99-million in state funds. The Nigerien Organisations for Budgetary Transparency and Analysis (Rotab) and other civil society organisations said they had uncovered massive corruption in state spending.

There were incidents of fake public tenders. Government officials were granted “undue advantages” in government contracts. Government purchases of Covid-19-related materials were done at “unreasonable costs”, Rotab alleged. However, the Niger government has, like many governments in West and East Africa, often prosecuted anti-corruption activists and human rights defenders.

Early this year, Amnesty International condemned governments in the region for this: “Governments in the region must live up to their international human rights obligations to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil the rights of those who take a stand against corruption and defend human rights. They must address the pervasive culture of impunity that continues to fuel endemic corruption, contributes to further violations of human rights, and denies victims access to justice and effective remedies.”

Agnès Callamard of Amnesty International said those who shed light on these government abuses were routinely subjected to repression, intimidation and harassment by authorities across West and Central Africa. This includes the use of defamation and “fake news” laws, disproportionate fines, arbitrary arrests and threats and physical violence to silence activists and journalists exposing corrupt practices.

In Niger, blogger Samira Sabou was convicted in January 2022 of “defamation by electronic communication” under the country’s cybercrime law. She was sentenced to one month in prison and a $100 fine. She had republished an article from the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime which alleged that a drug shipment seized by the Nigerien anti-trafficking agency was reacquired by drug traffickers.

Africa’s impotent regional and continental governance structures

The governance structures of Africa’s continental and regional structures make them impotent in dealing with coups, election rigging and abuse of power by authoritarian leaders and parties.

Most members of African regional organisations, such as the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the continental African Union, are dictators, military leaders or authoritarian leaders. They are either unwilling to act or lack the credibility to act against their peers, and this has emboldened prospective military coup leaders to take power through violence, knowing they are unlikely to be censured.

Ecowas threatened to send troops to Niger to take on the military junta. However, given that many of the Ecowas members are authoritarian themselves, they lacked credibility. African regional and continental institutions must be democratised to exclude dictators, military coup leaders and jihadist leaders from membership – and start to act more decisively against wayward African leaders, otherwise Africa’s violent chaos and lack of development will continue for generations while the rest of the world prospers.

UN Security Council is too divided to tackle African coups

The UN Security Council has the power to impose sanctions against African coup leaders. However, the council, particularly since the Russia-Ukraine war, has been divided between Western powers and Russia and China – and split along these lines over how to respond to coups, whether in Africa or the rest of the world.

Russia and China oppose UN intervention in member countries to bring to book authoritarian governments and leaders, whether through regime change or sanctions, fearing this may be reciprocated against them. When Ecowas did try to act against Mali following the coup there, Russia and China blocked the UN Security Council from publicly supporting the Ecowas intervention.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has in the past unsuccessfully appealed to UN Security Council members to put aside their differences to respond collectively in dealing with coups. “My appeal, obviously, is for – especially the big powers – to come together for the unity of the Security Council in order to make sure that there is effective deterrence in relation to this epidemic of coup d’états.”

Most of the military coup leaders have claimed – to secure popular support, especially from the youth – that they want to restore “democracy”, or end corruption or bring security where jihadist movements have created insecurity. Some of the military coup leaders – in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – have also attacked the continued influence of France, the former colonial power, for economic hardships of ordinary people, claiming they want to bring about “decolonisation”.

Not surprisingly, protesters in support of the military coups, mostly youth, have raged against former colonial power France. In Niger, youths supporting the military coup converged outside the French military base in the country, demanding the 1,500 French soldiers – there on request by the ousted government to help tackle insecurity – leave.

The reality is the African countries under new military leaders following coups face the spectre of plunging into Libyan and Sudan-like chaos – escalating the already dire economic crises, mass hunger and violent chaos in these countries.

Past coups in African countries, whether in Egypt or Algeria, have often led to long civil wars, dictatorship, and violent chaos. The poor, unemployed and desperate youth who often embraced military coup leaders, hoping they would at last provide a better life for them, only experience more misery as these military “leaders” escalate the violent chaos, corruption and democratic reversal whenever they take power. DM

William Gumede is Founder of the Democracy Works Foundation & Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand.

This is an extract from his Democracy Works Foundation briefing paper, “How Lack of Democracy Fuels Coups in Africa”.

Absa OBP

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