/ 21 September 2021

Coups are always a bad idea – even the popular ones

Topshot Mali Unrest Conflict
One more time: Malian soldiers arrive in Bamako after rebel troops seized power in the fragile West African country. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

The coup d’état in Guinea earlier this month was just the latest manifestation of a worrying trend: an increase in the frequency of military coups in Africa. In 2019, there was one successful seizure of power (Sudan), and another one in 2020 (Mali).

So far in 2021 there have been three: Chad, Mali again, and Guinea. This has prompted the AU’s Peace and Security Council to identify the resurgence of “unconstitutional changes of government” as one of Africa’s most pressing security threats.

On the streets of Conakry, there appears to be plenty of support for the coup. In Mali and in Sudan too, the ousting of the sitting president by the military was mostly greeted with celebrations by the public. But these celebrations are more about the end of the old regime than an expression of support for increased military intervention in politics. After all, in almost all cases, the military and other security services are the primary means of enforcement of authoritarian and repressive regimes.

The celebrations in Guinea can be compared directly with the celebrations in Zambia last month. In both cases, an unpopular ruler was deposed; but in Zambia the change of power happened through the ballot box rather than at the business end of a semi-automatic rifle. Zambians were able to celebrate a political system that is doing what it was designed to do – and the incoming government of President Hakainde Hichilema has enjoyed widespread international support as a result. Guinea, on the other hand, has been suspended from regional and international organisations.

Why are coups happening more frequently? Each context is different, of course, but there are a few common trends, the most significant of which is the deepening democratic deficit across the many African countries (and a corresponding decline in effective enforcement of democratic norms by international organisations such as the AU.

Civil space is narrowing, while activists, opposition groups and independent media face undue restrictions and attacks.

Another symptom of this deficit is the slew of attempts, often successful, of leaders to extend term limits to keep themselves in power. Over the past two decades there have been 26 instances in 20 African countries in which constitutional changes led to the relaxation or removal of term limits. It is striking how often these attempts by leaders to remain in power spark further social and political unrest – and sometimes prompt a coup.

That’s exactly what happened in Guinea, where Alpha Condé fiddled with the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term. This prompted widespread political unrest, and eventually the military stepped in.

But it should not be up to armies to determine who holds power in any particular country. What makes soldiers more qualified to make this call than any other institution in society? It is only their weapons that set them apart. Allowing political problems to be “solved” by the people with the biggest guns is a recipe for disaster.

The idea of a “good coup” is an oxymoron. The norms established by the AU are right in rejecting coups in general as unconstitutional, and therefore not deserving of political and legal recognition.

But regional and international bodies can do more when it comes to enforcing these norms.

In the case of Guinea, international actors, including the AU, should go further than just suspending the country until a transitional government is in place and new elections are convened. Experience shows that these measures do not guarantee that further coups will not occur. The international response needs to address the deeper issues of the democratic governance deficit. A good place to start would be to prevent term limit extensions; encourage less power to be held in the hands of the executive; and segregate the army and the security sector more broadly from politics.

Until these reforms are widespread, it can only be a matter of time before another coup.  

This article first appeared on The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here