In the days after elite soldiers stormed the presidential palace in Guinea in late September, people in the mineral-rich west African country poured into the streets to celebrate.
This year there have been more coups in sub Saharan Africa than at any time for the past two decades and the fact that people in Guinea hailed the departure of President Alpha Condé was a reflection of how far respect for democracy had fallen, said Martin Ziguele, an opposition leader in the Central African Republic, a country that itself has had three successful coups since 1966.
“You see young people out in the streets applauding the coup, why?” he added. “In a country where you have no water, no electricity, every day you’re asking, what is government doing to solve my problem?”
There have been five coups in sub Saharan Africa since August last year — Mali in August 2020, Chad in April 2021, Mali again in May 2021, Guinea in September and Sudan last month. While this is a far cry from the continent’s heyday for coups — in the 1970s there were 25 successful coups — observers say that conditions are ripe for more military takeovers.
The coups in Guinea and Mali were driven by widespread public disaffection with democratically elected leaders who had overstayed their welcome, said Idayat Hassan, executive director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development.
“The failure of democracy to deliver development to the people has pushed Africans to welcome coups d’état,” she added. The coups reflected “a creeping sense that elections, and by association democracy, are not delivering on the promise nor do they reflect on the will of the people”, said Ayisha Osori, ex-head of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.
In Guinea, Condé had tarnished his reputation as a life-long opposition leader and enemy of tyrants by cramming through a constitutional change that allowed him to run for, and win, a third term in March. Six months later, he was ousted by a group of soldiers claiming the mantle of tribune of the people.
In Mali, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected in 2013 after a series of coups and amid spreading insecurity. He proceeded to appoint family members to key positions, among widespread perceptions of corruption, as a jihadist insurgency engulfed the country. In March last year, he pushed ahead with flawed legislative elections in which many Malians were unable to vote, sparking a mass protest movement that culminated in a coup six months later.
In Sudan a huge public backlash against the coup continues. Last week the army chief announced a new sovereign council, the top decision-making body, as the military tightened its grip on power. Two years after a revolution overthrew Omar al-Bashir and installed a transitional military and civilian government, pro-democracy protesters still flood the streets of Khartoum. “The army needs to realise that this is not gonna work,” said Hajooj Kuka, a Sudanese activist and film-maker. “Although we hate the government . . . what the military don’t realise is that we really didn’t give up on democracy.”
UN chief António Guterres has lamented “an epidemic of coups d’état”, and urged the Security Council to act to effectively deter them but the perpetrators have been subject to few or very few consequences from the African Union.
The AU and the west African regional bloc Ecowas, which have imposed some sanctions, “have lost credibility and influence, because of the gap that exists between the norms they are trying to promote and their attitudes towards those norms when one of theirs is flaunting them”, said David Zounmenou, senior consultant at ISS.
People “are fed up with AU reactions post-coup, because they are saying: why don’t you react when these guys are creating instability, killing their citizens, weakening institutions, amending the constitution — all those ingredients that made the bed for coups”.
In an interview with CNN in October, Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio articulated the bind regional leaders found themselves in when it came to the coup makers.
“Guinea is a neighbour, we are together by geography, and we do quite a lot of things together, we have security arrangements which have fallen apart, I need to sort those out,” he said.
Bio himself is an example of the contradiction inherent in democratic talk from local leaders. Like president Muhammadu Buhari of regional heavyweight Nigeria, he is a veteran of multiple coups and once served as military leader of his country.
France, the ex-colonial power in three of the countries in which leaders were overthrown, had also responded “incoherently” to the coups, said Issaka Souaré, director of the west Africa programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Given the uncertain and contradictory nature of the response, there are plenty of leaders at risk of coups across west and central Africa in particular, said Zounmenou.
He points to family dynasties such as the Obiangs in Equatorial Guinea or the Gnassingbés in Togo, Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, who took power in a 1997 coup, and increasingly authoritarian leaders such as Benin’s Patrice Talon, who won 86 per cent of the vote in an April election in which the opposition was all but outlawed.
“These are countries where the construction of democratic institutions have been stymied by the personalisation of power, and the use of the military to punish or destroy any aspiration to normal political process,” he said.
“When civilian avenues are not favourable for power transfer, only violence can work out, and that may certainly come from the military side.”
Additional reporting by Chelsea Bruce-Lockhart