/ 2 November 2023

Do coups mean African democracy is under threat?

Pro Coup Protests In Niger
Making the cut: Nigeriens holding the flags of Burkina Faso and Niger and a sign reading ‘Together we will make it’ take part in a march called by supporters of General Omar Tchiani, who led a coup in Niger earlier this year. After the coup, thousands pledged their support to the military. (Djibo Issifou/Getty Images)

In the recent past there has been a surge in unconstitutional changes of government across Africa in the form of coups d’état. 

Since 2020 Mali, Chad, Sudan, Guinea-Conakry and Burkina Faso have experienced coups, with Burkina Faso and Mali contending with two coups in one year. This year, there have been coups in Niger and Gabon. 

It has been striking that the military has received support from the wider population for these coups in West and Central Africa. 

This is probably because the people who had been entrusted with governing these countries had abused this trust. They had circumvented democratic norms by extending their term limits, repressed dissent, disregarded people’s grievances, contested credible election results and were mired in corruption scandals.

The standard set of measures used by political scientists to declare a country democratic include a familiar panoply of overused buzzwords such as accountability; economic freedom; equality; free and fair elections; human rights; independent judiciary; multi-party system; participatory citizenry; peaceful transition of power; political tolerance and transparency.

These terms can be useful sometimes but they can also refer to a set of metrics banded about in NGOs and universities that do not directly relate to people’s lived experiences. 

We must ask what factors commit a society to democracy and what factors lead a society to prefer authoritarian forms of governance.

We also need to be clear that countries that claim to be democratic are often not democratic for all their people. Under apartheid South Africa was, much like Israel today, seen as a democracy by some although clear racial limits were placed on democracy. More than 70% of the population did not count as fully human and were excluded from participation in democratic life. 

India is often called “the world’s largest democracy” although Muslims, low-caste people and other minorities are subject to severe and often violent exclusion. 

America often describes itself as the “greatest democracy” in the world yet that country did not have a peaceful transition of power in its last election, women’s rights over their bodies have been curtailed and many states erode black and Hispanic people’s rights to the franchise. 

In South Africa, democracy was a result of a long and bitter struggle. It was not handed to us as a result of external geopolitical shift or international pressure. It was fought for by the people.

Yet, despite all this, in 2021, 67% of people surveyed told Afrobarometer they would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing and jobs. This is a startling statistic that should be a profound wake-up call indicating that democracy will not be secure if it doesn’t make a meaningful difference to people’s lives. 

This is the same dynamic driving the rejoicing on streets when military coups happen elsewhere in Africa. 

After the coup, thousands pledged their support to the military. General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema (below) greets people in Gabon who came to cheer him after his inauguration following a recent coup. (Desirey Minkoh/Afrikimages Agency/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Perhaps we should not be surprised by this. After all, some African leaders have made a sham of democracy by becoming rulers in dynastic governments which have created fertile ground for the cycle of coups to be perpetuated. These dynasties have only benefitted a few politically connected individuals at the expense of the majority of the people.

Gabon, for instance, had been ruled by the Bongo family from the time the recently deposed 64-year-old Ali Bongo was eight years old. 

Despite Gabon being the fourth-largest producer of oil on the continent, and with a population of only a few million people, a third of the population still lives below the poverty line. It’s hardly surprising that its citizens are deeply sceptical about the political institutions and processes in their country.

But perhaps the biggest driver of the support for the coups and anti-democracy sentiments on the continent are the high levels of inequality and poverty. 

When countries such as China, the United Arab Emirates and Rwanda, which are not liberal democracies, seem to be prospering and eradicating extreme poverty they become attractive models to many Africans. Many people would accept more authoritarianism in exchange for less poverty. 

It is a sobering reality that countries on the continent that embraced democracy, hold regular elections as mandated, and have a semblance of independent judiciaries and media, have not necessarily seen an improvement in the lives of their people. 

Voting on its own does not produce governments that are responsive to the needs of their people. 

Democracy will not be entrenched and secure in Africa if it is not made real in people’s lives. 

We have to understand democracy to be about much more than elections. People have to experience political freedom and participation in their everyday lives. 

And that freedom and participation must translate into states being willing to ensure more equitable economies and a clear sense of hope and progress among the population, perhaps especially young people.

So, does the recent surge in coups in Central and West Africa indicate the death of democracy in the continent? Not necessarily. 

Most of these coups were supported by the people because the coup leaders seemed to hear and see them, in ways the elected leaders had not. 

What people are crying out for is to be heard and seen and for their elected officials to use the power that has been entrusted to them to tangibly change their lives. What people want is for democracy to work.

This is why Ali Bongo’s cry for the world to “make noise” on his behalf fell on deaf ears. 

This is also why the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) could not agree on how to deal with the coups in its backyard. 

Some Ecowas countries wanted to intervene in defence of deposed regimes because they had held elections, albeit these might have been rigged. 

When Ecowas threatened to intervene militarily in Niger, some countries in the bloc threatened to intervene in support of the coup leaders, resulting in that idea being stillborn. 

And of course it was never clear on whose behalf Ecowas would have been intervening when the Nigeriens had welcomed the coup.

People will not support coups if democracy is a real presence in their lives leading to real social progress. In order to achieve this, ordinary citizens need to participate more in political life, something that should not be outsourced to Western-backed NGOs. 

At the same time, African leaders need to know that if they do not respond to the needs of the people they will be promptly voted out. 

The military overthrowing governments is not the biggest challenge to democracy on the continent, rather it is the “democratically” elected leaders who are not working for the people. 

As a continent, we need to expand our definition of democracy to be about more than the election of leaders, upholding of the rule of law and speaking out. 

We need to make democracy change the lived experiences of people; people cannot eat rule of law. 

Democracy must mean more than being a member of a certain club, it has to be flexible enough to respond to the changing circumstances and the needs of people in their communities. Failure to do this makes undemocratic countries which seem to be prospering to appear increasingly more attractive.

Democracies have to adjust to a changing world and to do so without losing the values that make them democracies. Democracy is a living, changing beast and we need to tame it to our needs and make it work for our needs.

Nontobeko Hlela is a research fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought & Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.