These seizures of power threaten a reversal of the democratization process that Africa has known over the past two decades and a return to the era of coups d’état as the norm.
Sub-Saharan Africa experienced 80 successful coups and 108 failed coup attempts between 1956 and 2001, an average of four per year, according to one study. That figure halved between that date and 2019, as most African nations turned to democracy, only to gain the upper hand. Why?
During the first postcolonial decades, when coups were rampant, African coup leaders practically always offered the same reasons for overthrowing governments: corruption, mismanagement, poverty.
Although worn out, these justifications still resonate today with many Africans for the simple reason that they continue to accurately portray the reality of their countries. In addition, in many countries people feel that these problems are getting worse.
The Afrobarometer research network conducted surveys in 19 African countries which showed that 6 in 10 respondents said corruption was increasing in their country (the figure was 63% in Guinea) while 2 in 3 said their governments were doing something wrong. bad job to fight it.
In addition, 72% believe that ordinary citizens “risk retaliation or other negative consequences” if they report corruption to authorities, a sign that Africans believe their public institutions are not only participants, but active advocates. corrupt systems.
In terms of poverty, an already tragic situation has been worsened by the blows dealt to Africa’s fragile economies by the coronavirus pandemic.
One in three people are now unemployed in Nigeria, West Africa’s largest economy. The same goes for South Africa, Africa’s most industrialized nation. The number of extremely poor people in sub-Saharan Africa is now estimated to have passed the 500 million mark, or half the population.
This in the world’s youngest continent with a median age of 20 and a faster growing population than anywhere else, further intensifying an already fierce competition for resources.
These conditions create fertile conditions for coups d’état and for increasingly desperate young Africans who have lost patience with their corrupt leaders to welcome coup plotters promising radical change, as seen in the streets of Guinea. after the takeover, some elated Guineans even kissing the soldiers.
But as with the coup d’etats of the 1970s, these scenes of joy will likely be short-lived, said Joseph Sany, vice president of the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. “The initial reaction to what you see in the streets will be of joy, but very soon people will be asking for action… and I’m not sure the military will be able to meet the expectations, the service delivery of base, etc. freedoms, ”he said.
Threat to democratic gains
What is clear is that these coups pose a serious threat to the democratic gains that African countries have made in recent decades. Worryingly, research shows that many Africans increasingly stop believing that elections can provide the leaders they want.
Polls conducted in 19 African countries in 2019/20 showed that only 4 in 10 respondents (42%) now think elections work well to ensure that “MPs reflect the views of voters” and to “empower voters to remove non-performing leaders ”.
In other words, less than half believe that elections guarantee representativeness and accountability, key ingredients of functioning democracies.
In 11 countries polled regularly since 2008, the belief that elections allow voters to eliminate underperforming leaders has fallen by 11% among citizens, according to the survey. It’s not that Africans no longer want to choose their leaders through elections, it’s just that many now think their political systems are being played out.
Leaders like the fallen Condé are part of the problem. The only reason he was still in power until the coup was because he had crafted constitutional changes in 2020 to afford a third term as president, a common practice by several leaders on the continent, from Ugandan Yoweri Museveni in Alassane Ouattara in Côte d ‘Ivoire.
The African Union rightly condemns the coup in Guinea, but its response to such constitutional abuses has remained silent.
These double standards and perceived elite conspiracies create the perfect environment for young swashbuckling officers like Doumbouya, 41, to step in and promise to save the day.
“If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom,” said the new Guinean leader, citing former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings who himself carried out two shots. State.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Doumbouya cited the fiery Rawlings, who was very effective in expressing the anger Ghanaians felt towards their political elites when he led military juntas in the 1980s. Desperate people living in political systems that they often rightly believe to be rigged can easily be seduced by anti-elite, anti-corruption rhetoric coupled with the promise of the new.
We should, unfortunately, prepare for the possibility of further coups d’état in Africa in the years to come. They are not to be expected in rich countries with strong institutions like South Africa, Ghana or Botswana, but in the poorest and most fragile states. Just like Mali, Niger, Chad and now Guinea where coups and attempted coup d’état have taken place recently.
Fifteen of the twenty countries at the top of the Fragile States Index 2021 are in Africa, including countries like 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 conflicts for almost a year now) and Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
This increasing likelihood of coups will make Africa in general less predictable and stable, a negative point for investors that could end up worsening the economic situation.
Can this unwanted trend be reversed? Yes, but while international condemnations of coups d’état in Guinea and elsewhere are crucial as a deterrent for other potential power grabbers, the only actors who really have the power to reverse this disturbing trend are the African leaders themselves.
They are the people in charge on the ground and it is their response to these recent events that will be decisive. They must rekindle the conviction that democracy can provide Africans. But if the problems still invoked to justify coups d’etat continue to worsen in African democracies today, then the temptation to try something else will continue to be dangerously alluring, to both coup plotters and politicians. citizens.