Two dramatic coups are shaking Africa in the coming weeks. The first takes place in Mauritania, where the army briefly detained the president, thwarted a coup attempt, then took control again.
The second is in Zimbabwe, where a military coup was put into place on Wednesday after President Emmerson Mnangagwa took office, defying foreign pressure to step down.
According to the CIA World Factbook, coups in Africa have been on the decline since the 1990s, when the military occupied power in several African nations and toppled regimes considered too rigid and slow to modernize. The decline, say analysts, is linked to the end of colonialism in most countries in Africa and the emergence of new democratic institutions, especially the rule of law, which put the military and other civil society organizations at the forefront of the grassroots opposition to military rule.
A decrease in coups doesn’t mean there is now no opposition to authoritarianism. It just means the opposition is more mature than when coups were the norm. Even when coups were small, they required a long preparation process, largely through legal channels. Their major villain is often the hated former ruler, so a new civilian regime often evolves from the top.
The new data also shows that post-independence African governments have more frequently faced internal divisions and instability, a relatively new phenomenon. Increasingly, governments have abandoned ambitious visionaries in favor of stable, rule-of-law middle-class elites, making them incapable of forging coherent social programs and changing deeply rooted corruption.
“The recent elevation of civilian presidents in nearly all of Africa’s largest economies (Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Botswana, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, Sierra Leone) further eases the risks of coups,” said Stacy Smith, author of the upcoming book “Dictatorship in Chains: The Global State of Emergency.” “They all have solid rule of law systems and functioning public institutions, leaving the civilian president much freer to establish that he or she will be the final arbiter of power.”
The second factor, she said, is the rapid escalation of the biggest international challenges to democracy: the rise of radical Islamist movements, the fallout from the Arab Spring and the consequences of climate change.
Across Africa, women are disproportionately burdened by food insecurity and skyrocketing population growth, while young men drift into lawlessness amid a talent shortage and still sizable youth unemployment.
“Coups are a form of self-preservation for regimes and a way to establish the separation of powers between the ruling military and civilian government,” said Thomas Swetnam, associate professor of conflict management at George Washington University. “So they tend to be about as effective as a medical treatment for cancer when applied to public governance — they’re not going to solve the problem. But they eliminate the risks.”
Swetnam said coups historically represented the only viable short-term option for embattled or failing military regimes because in the country they took place, they typically evoked protests and precipitated political instability.
He compared coups in Africa with coups in the Middle East. In the Middle East, “when you have an emerging democracy that’s been primed to break free, and it falls victim to external intervention, it’s more common to find unstable rulers being pushed back by their own citizens and then responding by pushing aside the other civilian authorities and installing another strongman regime that lasts for a bit longer.”
Perhaps in Africa, instead, coups will transform into symbolic gestures among the frustrated masses and serve only to further alienate elites with pockets of power.
“In our interactions with coups in Africa, we see them organized as true reactions by civil society organizations to demands from working-class citizens and civil society citizens and not as alternatives by democrats in power who wish to remain in power,” Smith said.
In Africa, as in other corners of the world, the success of a coup largely depends on how much public pressure is placed on the president or military chief to change course. If protests multiply, a leader likely will cave and step down. Otherwise, a lasting change is usually averted.
“In African societies, we are probably the only case we’ve come across where the demonstrators are able to compel the government to act,” Smith said. “So it’s not surprising that many of the coups we see in Africa involve military coups where civil society organizations control the policymaking process.”