Africa is Changing?

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Africa is Changing?

Why ex-French colonies in Africa
seem beset by coups

Muhammad Sheraz

In recent years, several West African nations have seen the military seizing control of the government. The latest episode in this series came on Aug. 30 when a group of Gabonese military officers announced a takeover of power and an annulment of the results of recent election – which they claim lacked credibility – just minutes after President Ali Bongo was declared to have won a third term. The coup in Gabon represents the eighth since 2020 in West and Central Africa – the second coup in Africa this year – a region that in the last decade had made strides to shed its reputation as a “coup belt,” only for persistent insecurity and corruption to open the door to military leaders.

Military coups were a regular occurrence in parts of Africa in the decades after independence. But after a period of relative democratic stability, there are indications they are on the rise. It may be astonishing to some readers that the Dark Continent has witnessed eight coups in the last three years, with the latest military takeover announced in Gabon on Aug. 30, only a month after a military intervention in Niger ousted the president. Senior military officers in Gabon staged a coup in the Central African country, saying they seized power after President Ali Bongo was declared winner in the recent election for a third term in office.
Appearing on national television, the military cancelled the election results that declared Bongo, who has been in power for over a decade, the winner with 64.27% of the votes. They also announced that the 64-year-old leader was put under house arrest and one of his sons was arrested for “treason.”
Noureddine Bongo Valentin, the son of Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba and President of the National Assembly Richard Auguste Onouviet are being held, according to the junta known as the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI).
Gabon is generally considered more stable than other countries that have experienced unrest in recent years, but it now appears set to join a growing list of junta-led states — including Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan — that create a geographical belt of turmoil across sub-Saharan Africa.
The recent spate of coups suggests that there is a pattern to the problems in the region. Poor governance, conflicts and perhaps the environmental challenges of life in the Sahel are all part of the dangerous cocktail, but determining the reasons for such instability is never an exact science. Let’s have a look at some brewing problems that have led to recent coups:
1. Lack of democracy
After the Cold War, a neoliberal democratic programme was inaugurated in Africa. It promised to free the continent from authoritarianism and military seizures of power, in favour of political pluralism and the rule of law. Thus, many decades later, coups were supposed to be rare, if not a thing of the past, and dictatorships were supposed to be on the decline.
However, to avoid this “return” of coups, democracy in Africa must have made a forward move. To say African democracies are dying is to accept that they were alive. Some of the common observable traits include: limited tolerance of political opposition; restrictions on freedom of expression and an independent media; and a judiciary heavily influenced by the government.
A plethora of studies of the region’s political history show that democracy in the region tends to be superficial. Despite some gains, democracy remains largely cosmetic, and the conditions that cause coups persist.
2. Absence of the fear of accountability
There seems to be a lack of international interest in the countries concerned, while regional organisations seem to have limited power to do very much about them. The Economic Community of West African States did impose sanctions on Mali following its coup but has not been equally firm in its stance towards other countries affected by coups. The African Union has generally taken a firm line but lacks the power to impose the necessary sanctions.
3. Widespread poverty
With natural resources, especially arable land, rainforest, adequate sun, mineral resources and human resources, no African country should have been poor. But, it is an undeniable reality that Africa is still a largely poor continent. The average GDP of Africa is the lowest amongst the seven continents (Africa, North America, South America, Antarctica, Australia, Asia and Europe) at $9,700 (2021).
Although there are many reasons, e.g. dark global forces that exploit Africa, the damage caused by nearly 400 years of enslavement, the disruption and plunder during nearly 100 years of colonialism, etc., one reason that needs special mention here was pointed out by Burkina Faso President Ibrahim Traore, who came to power in a coup and became the world’s youngest leader, when he asked a very pertinent question at the recent Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg. “My generation does not understand this: how can Africa, which has so much wealth, become the poorest continent in the world today? And why African leaders travel the world to beg,” he said.
4. Russia-EU tussle
The countries are laid out like a belt hugging a northern stretch of the African continent. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, Africa has seen a domino effect of political uprisings across these six nations. Five of them are former colonies of France. They gained independence in the late 1950s and early 60s, but anti-French sentiment still runs high there today.
Russia, meanwhile, has capitalized on that attitude, spreading anti-Western propaganda throughout the region. The mercenary Wagner Group, run by former Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin until his death, has fighters on the ground in Mali and Sudan.
However, focusing on foreign influences ignores each country’s internal politics and security, as well as the effects they have on each other.
Opportunities for the putschists
There are common factors that have, at the very least, created conditions in which soldiers have felt they can step in with relative impunity, and often with the support of a large slice of the urban population, especially frustrated young people. Across much of West and Central Africa, younger citizens have become widely disenchanted with the traditional political class, even with those who have been legitimately elected to office.
Such disillusionment is fuelled by a raft of issues – a shortage of jobs and even informal economic opportunities for both graduates and those less educated, perceived high levels of corruption and privilege among the elite, as well as resentment at the persistent influence of France in the many countries where it is the former colonial power.
But there is also deep resentment at the way many civilian rulers manipulate electoral processes or constitutional rule to prolong their hold on power. The scrapping of presidential term limits – after controversial amendments to constitutions – is a source of especially sore feelings.
And such abuses also undermine the moral authority of bodies such as the African Union – or the Economic Community of West African States, often labelled an “incumbent presidents’ club” – in seeking to force coup leaders to restore elected civilian rule.
The Central African regional bloc to which Gabon belongs does not even have serious pretensions to establish or sustain governance standards across member states.
But while all these factors create a climate in which soldiers have felt increasingly emboldened about seizing power, claiming to offer a “fresh start,” each coup has also been driven by specific national or narrow local motivations – and the takeover in Gabon is no exception.
The wider context
Coup leaders often benefit from the fact that they overthrow unpopular leaders. In some cases, coups merely represent a younger generation of army officers overthrowing an older generation. Whether or not a military man is actually head of state, the army often exerts too much political power behind the scenes. Indeed, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo has laid much of the blame for recent coups at the door of the overbearing influence of the military in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, where, in each case, the army overthrew democratically elected leaders.
Coups are not the only sign of shallow democratic roots. Many countries have placed constitutional restrictions on those in power, only to have those restrictions overturned, most notably two-term presidential limits. The constitutions of both Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire were changed to allow Alpha Condé and Alassane Ouattara to stand for third terms following referenda that were criticized by observers. Economic growth may help to placate part of the Ivorian population but the ability to overturn such limits is generally a sign of a frail democracy, so Côte d’Ivoire’s position is far from secure.
Six of the seven attempted coups since 2019 have occurred in Francophone countries. However, it is difficult to decipher whether there is anything significant in the fact that recent coups have been concentrated in Francophone countries, as Anglophone West Africa had its fair share in earlier decades. Nigeria has remained thankfully coup-free since 1993, although there had been eight in the previous 27 years. Ghana suffered a similar level of instability until 1981.
Some sources claim that Russian influence encouraged the 2022 Burkina Faso and 2020 and 2021 coups in Mali. Indeed, Russian influence – particularly through the mercenary Wagner Group – has increased greatly in many of the affected states. However, it seems more likely that they have merely exploited political and military weakness in the coup states than actually directly causing established governments to be overthrown.
Similar accusations of external interference could also be levelled against former colonial power France, as it forged ties with several post-coup leaders.
The way forward
The conditions under which coups occur are dynamic. To avert future coups and respond to current ones, there must be a radical change of direction. Countries, with the help of regional and global partners, must address governance deficits in the form of non-fulfilment of the entitlements of citizenship, socio-economic frustration, and growing insecurity.
Regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union must also be firm and unbiased in their show of contempt for all types of coups. International avenues for punishing putschist must be supported by global powers. Global intergovernmental bodies must equally check — and African regional organisations must resist – foreign interference in African countries that leads to political instability.
Democratisation in Africa also requires a re-orientation to suit local circumstances.
Finally, a more sustainable response to coups is to eliminate the adverse socio-economic and political conditions in national and international politics that allow immediate causes of political instability to hide behind a democratic façade.

The writer is a member of staff.

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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