Military coups in Africa, from Zimbabwe to Sudan

However, in recent years, the growth of coups d’états in Africa has been resurgent. After Zimbabwe, Africa saw nine attempted military coups, half of which were successful, in 2018, despite the lack of efforts by the military to remove the government.

During the Cold War and into the next decade, the number of attempted coups d’états in Africa reportedly remained high, averaging four per year (as also documented by Patrick J. McGowan in African Military Coups d’Etat, 1956-2001: Frequency, Trends, and Distribution), before declining. In reality, the yearly average between 2001 and 2019 plummeted to two, according to the data contained in Powell and Thyne’s dataset.

Confirming the trend are the events of the past few days in Sudan, where the military interrupted the experience of working with civilians and retook power, effectively disrupting the transition process that began after the fall of al-Bashir in 2019.

The most recent coups in Africa

In December 2017, just over a month after the events in Zimbabwe, mercenaries hired by some bangs of the army tried and failed to oust President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, according to Equatorial Guinea’s Ministry of Security.

The mercenaries were stopped at the border thanks to an intervention by security forces. Nguema, at the time, had been in power for thirty-eight years, now forty-two. In spite of the authoritarian regime and the absence, for the population, of benefits deriving from the oil fields present in the country, there have never been any particular episodes of demonstration of dissent. Only the coup attempts, all unsuccessful, of 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2017 demonstrated relative political instability.

After a quiet 2018 for African heads of state, 2019 saw two failed coups in Gabon and Ethiopia, and one successful one, in Sudan.

According to BBC reports, in Gabon, five young officers, after taking control of the national media, asked for the support of the population to replace Ali Bongo. The incumbent president had been absent from the country for some time due to his precarious health conditions and was no longer able to govern according to the young officers. Ali Bongo, still in power today, is the son of Omar Bongo, who ruled the country for forty-two years until his death in 2009. The transition from father to son makes the role of president of Gabon seem hereditary.

The Ethiopian coup plotters did not target the central government in Addis Ababa, but that of Amhara State, in the north of the country. General Asamnew Tsige was accused of orchestrating the attempted coup, which led to the killing of, among others, the president of Amhara State and the head of the armed forces.

It is easy to believe that the underlying reasons were the same as those of the protests that had already led to the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn and that denounced the political and economic marginalization of the Amharas.

After the deposition of Mugabe, the Sudanese one is the first successful coup d’état, at least in removing the president in office, Omar al-Bashir. Sudan was a country impoverished by sanctions and the loss of oil revenues (many oil fields had passed to independent South Sudan) and governed for almost thirty years by Omar al-Bashir.

The protests organized by the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) against high prices, and then against the government of al-Bashir, filled the streets of Khartoum with young people and women for months, until the intervention of the military.

The seizure of power by the group led by Vice President and Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, was not what the protesters hoped for, however: the risk was that the coup plotters were too close to al-Bashir and that his ousting would bring no change.

After the events of 2019, military and civilians attempted to coexist and carry on the process of transition to democracy. Last September 21, however, an attempted coup reignited the confrontation. In the days that followed, some protesters took to the streets demanding the return of the military to government, which, on Monday, October 25, “arrested” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, dissolved the government, and declared a state of emergency.

The last two years have been particularly heated: the military has, in fact, intervened twice in Mali and then in the Central African Republic, Niger, Chad, and Guinea, in addition to the events in Sudan previously mentioned.

Mali featured one coup in 2020 and one in 2021. The first, which led to the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, came, again, after months of protests against government corruption, the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic conditions of the country, and the alleged irregularities of the parliamentary elections a few months earlier. The transitional government formed following Keïta’s dismissal was supposed to last eighteen months, following which elections would be called.

However, in May 2021, the president and prime minister of the transitional government, Bah Ndaw and Moctar Ouane, were arrested and had to resign. The cause of the arrest was the government reshuffle they had implemented to avoid new discontent among the population, with which, however, the military, in particular Colonel Assimi Goita, among the coup plotters of the previous year and now Vice-President, would not have been satisfied.

In 2020, in the Central African Republic, forces loyal to former President François Bozizé were accused of attempting to enter the capital, Bangui, after Bozizé’s candidacy in the elections to be held a few weeks later had been rejected.

In 2021 there was also an attempted coup in Niger, just days after the swearing-in of the new president Mohamed Bazoum, who replaced with a peaceful transition (the first in the history of independent Niger) Mahamadou Issoufou, at the end of his second term.

His challenger, Mahamane Ousmane, defeated in the runoff, has not accepted the results, and his supporters have organized demonstrations in the streets of the capital, Niamey. The tensions that followed the elections probably created fertile ground for the intervention of some air force officers. Having foiled the coup and allowed the new president to be sworn in a few days later is a positive result, in terms of democratic transition, for a country in which coups have marked 1974, 1996, 1999, and 2010.

In April of the same year, in Chad, the opposition denounced a “dynastic coup d’état”, as a military junta, upon the death of the newly re-elected Idriss Déby, appointed his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, as president, who will lead the Military Transitional Council for eighteen months, until the elections.

The last coup, in this case, a successful one, was in Guinea. Last September 5, special forces put an end to the presidency of Alpha Condé, elected in October 2020. The last presidential elections had been controversial and had fueled dissent against the president, now in his third term.

The reaction of many citizens, convinced that there was no other way to remove Condé from office, was positive. On October 1, the head of the military junta, Mamadi Doumbouya, was sworn in as the new president at the head of the transitional government, promising to draft a new constitution, fight corruption and organize free elections.

The reasons for the coups in Africa

Powell and Chacha claim that Mugabe’s ousting is “the latest chapter” in the era of coups to end decades-long governments. However, the above examples tell us otherwise: the cases of Equatorial Guinea and Sudan, and to some extent, even the failed attempt in Gabon, demonstrate this. Therefore, following the thinking of Ndubuisi Christian Ani, popular uprisings against longstanding governments are one of the reasons for the return of coups in Africa.

Just as in the decades following independence, today as well, corruption, poverty, unemployment, and the ineffectiveness of public policies are at the center of the protests that precede coups, also fueled by the effects of the pandemic. The weight of these factors in the protests had diminished since the 1970s when it was perceived that a progressive improvement was underway.

On the contrary, the perception is that corruption is increasing, economic conditions are worsening, and governments are less and less respecting the constitutions they have sworn. There is a growing conviction that elections are rigged and will not bring about change. In this climate of distrust towards democratic institutions, military actions, terrorism, and extremism are frequent.

Therefore, the military who come to power presents themselves as spokesmen for the demands of the population and promise change and a rapid return to democratic management of the State. Common is the practice of dissimulation: the military often claims that they are not carrying out a coup d’état but are designing a peaceful road to democracy. For example, by obtaining the support of parliament or, when all institutions are dissolved, the support of certain parties, or by calling elections in a relatively short time, they manage to gain not only the consent of the population, but also the inaction of the international community.

Even if and when the military makes themselves spokesmen for the demands of the population, their effective satisfaction is never guaranteed. Moreover, the use of non-constitutional means for the transfer of power and the establishment, even if temporary, of a military government, alters, if not interrupts, at least momentarily, the processes of democratization.

The probability that we will continue to see frequent coups in the coming years is high. The reasons that drive populations to demonstrate and the military to seize the opportunity to intervene are becoming more acute, and the consequences of the pandemic (e.g., mismanagement of funds received, inefficient health sectors, and lack of support measures for affected economic sectors) will be an additional burden for the governments of the most fragile countries.

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