Africa’s trust in elections is eroding, and coups are resurfacing. Why?
When coups were common in Africa in the early postwar decades, coup leaders almost invariably cited the same reasons for destabilizing governments: corruption, incompetence, and poverty.
Sudanese events have many of the signs of a successful coup, but Africa specialist Alex de Waal believes it is not a “done deal.” It’s unclear how much support Gen Burhan has for this move.
Apart from tribalism, the latest coups are mostly motivated by economic “reasons.” Perhaps democracy has let us down after all. Perhaps it is time to prioritize the continent’s economic dignity before political correctness.
Some analysts have criticized the AU’s recent position in so many African nations, claiming that they have been sleeping on the job. Referring to the union as a welfare office where member states appear to work and then get aid from the international world, a completely autonomous AU is being advocated for.
But, looking at the situation critically, what do they want the AU to do? It is up to the Sudanese people, and by extension, citizens of other African nations, to correct and lead their own destiny.
The AU lacks the authority to interfere in a coup of independent nations. It might voice its displeasure and offer to mediate. AU is a clerical organization that uses computers, paper, and pencils.
In the case of Guinea, the leader of the recent coup, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, reiterated similar explanations, stating “poor and chronic corruption” as grounds for deposing 83-year-old President Alpha Conde.
The troops who conducted a coup in neighbouring Mali last year said their actions were motivated by “stealing” and “poor governance.” Similarly, the Sudanese and Zimbabwean generals that deposed Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and Robert Mugabe in 2017 used similar reasons.
While tired, these reasons continue to connect with many Africans today because they properly represent the realities of their country. Furthermore, many individuals in many nations believe that these issues are becoming worse.
The research network Afrobarometer conducted polls in 19 African nations, finding that 6 in 10 respondents believe corruption is on the rise in their country (63 percent in Guinea), while 2 in 3 believe their governments are failing to combat it.
Furthermore, 72 percent say regular individuals face “retaliation or other negative repercussions” if they disclose corruption to authorities, indicating that Africans feel their public institutions are not only complicit in, but actively defend, corrupt regimes.
When it comes to poverty, an already awful situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic’s devastation of Africa’s frail economy.
In Nigeria, the biggest economy in West Africa, one in every three individuals is currently jobless. The same is true for South Africa, Africa’s most industrialized country. It is presently projected that the number of severely poor individuals in Sub-Saharan Africa has surpassed 500 million, accounting for half of the population.
This is happening on the world’s youngest continent, with a median age of 20 and a population that is expanding faster than any place else, exacerbating an already strong battle for resources.
These circumstances foster coups and encourage increasingly desperate young Africans who have lost patience with their corrupt governments to embrace coupists promising dramatic change, as seen on the streets of Guinea after the takeover, with some ecstatic Guineans even hugging the troops.
However, like with the 1970s coups, these spectacles of pleasure will most likely be fleeting, according to Joseph Sany, Vice President of the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. “The immediate response to what you see on the streets will be a pleasure,” he adds, “but very soon, people will be expecting action… and I’m not sure the military will be able to deliver on the expectations, basic service delivery, and greater liberties.”
What is certain is that these coups represent a significant danger to the democratic accomplishments won by African nations in recent decades. Worryingly, data reveals that many Africans are losing faith in elections to provide the leaders they want.
According to surveys performed in 19 African nations in 2019/20, just 4 in 10 respondents (42 percent) currently feel elections function effectively to guarantee “MPs represent people’ opinions” and “allow voters to dismiss non-performing leaders.”
In other words, fewer than half of respondents think elections provide representativeness and accountability, both of which are essential components of effective democracies.
According to the study, people’s opinion that elections allow voters to remove non-performing leaders has declined by 11 percentage points among 11 nations tested on a regular basis since 2008. It is not that Africans no longer wish to pick their leaders via elections; rather, many increasingly think that their political systems are rigged.
Leaders like the ousted Conde are contributing to the situation. The only reason he remained in power until the revolution was because he arranged constitutional revisions in 2020 to allow himself to serve a third term as president, a practice shared by other African presidents, from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni to Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara.
The African Union has rightfully condemned the coup in Guinea, but its reaction to such constitutional violations has been restrained.
These double standards and purported elite conspiracies provide an ideal setting for young swashbuckling cops like Doumbouya, 41, to jump in and offer to rescue the day.
“If the people are crushed by their elites, it is on to the army to deliver the people their freedom,” Guinea’s new leader stated, paraphrasing former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, who launched two coups himself.
It’s no accident that Doumbouya cited the fiery Rawlings, who was quite adept at expressing Ghanaians’ rage at their political elites when he headed military juntas in the 1980s. Desperate voters living in political systems that they properly perceive are broken may be readily swayed by anti-elite, anti-corruption rhetoric laced with the promise of the new.
We should, sadly, brace ourselves for additional coups in Africa in the coming years. They are not to be anticipated in wealthier, more stable nations such as South Africa, Ghana, or Botswana, but rather in poorer, more fragile governments. As are Mali, Niger, Chad, and now Guinea, all of which have lately seen coups or attempted coups.
15 of the top 20 countries on the 2021 Fragile States Index are in Africa, including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and South Sudan, as well as larger nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia (which has been experiencing violent internal conflict for nearly a year now), and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
Prisoners are marched out of their cells. The bodies then drift down the river.
Prisoners are marched out of their cells. The bodies then drift down the river.
This increased likelihood of coups will make Africa less predictable and stable in general, which will be a negative for investors and may aggravate the economic situation.
Is it possible to reverse this unfavorable trend? Yes, but although foreign condemnations of coups in Guinea and elsewhere are important deterrents to future would-be power grabbers, African leaders are the only players with the true potential to alter this alarming trend.
They are the ones in command on the ground, and their reaction to the current events will be decisive. They must rekindle the conviction that democracy can provide for Africans. However, if the difficulties that continue to be used to justify coups in today’s African democracies deepen, the temptation to attempt something different will remain dangerously alluring, both for coupists and people alike.