By Jeffrey Smith, Vanguard Africa Foundation, 03 October 2023
Today on the continent of Africa there is an unbroken expanse of territory – from Sudan in the east stretching to Guinea in the west – in which military-led regimes have seized power from civilian heads of state. It is clear that leaders clad in military fatigues are feeling more emboldened than ever. Over the past decade, since 2013, there have been twenty-two coups and attempted coups across the continent, with fourteen of them taking place in the past three years alone. The success rate is staggering: nine military putsches have ultimately succeeded, the latest of which occurred in the central African nation of Gabon on August 30. Leaders in a number of African capitals are not sleeping easy these days, knowing full well that another coup before the end of this year is more than likely.
In many of these countries, the first day of a coup is almost always the most euphoric. This is because there is a gaping fissure between Africans’ resilient demands for democracy – and its multitude of positive downstream effects – and the woeful lack of supply. As this gap continues to swell, so too does the volatility of an already young and restive region that is fed up with the empty promises of its leaders, many of whom were imposed not by military fiat, but rather by rigged elections, the manipulation of democratic institutions, and a feckless regional and international community that has failed miserably to hold the line on democratic standards.
In the aftermath of each of the recent military coups in Africa, we have been inundated with images of citizens, mainly young people, celebrating in the streets. Once the new reality sets in, however, people are inevitably forced to ask whether they are getting something better, or simply trading one oppressor for another. The mislaid confidence that coups will somehow lead to genuine democracy, and a better quality of life, has been the hope of many activists from the 1970s onward – but this pipe dream almost never materializes. The simple fact is that military coups, even if they oust a longtime dictator, rarely usher in a stable democracy.
Of course, there is an understandable appeal and a cathartic rejoice in the toppling of a tyrant. But this optimism is too often reliant on some major misperceptions.
First, we must not confuse military coups for popular uprisings; the latter has a much better track record at ushering in both stability and genuine democracy. Recent studies unequivocally show that nonviolent civil resistance has been far more effective in producing substantive change in the long term. This is because popular uprisings – especially those grounded in nonviolent resistance – promote and safeguard democratic values at their very core.
Similarly, coups are not a replacement nor a fill-in for free and fair elections in which the will of the people is effectively represented and elected leaders held accountable. In sum: political power shifting from one autocrat to another is not a 'win' for the people. The worsening security and human rights situations in a number of post-coup countries across Africa, from Mali to Zimbabwe, highlight this enduring, altogether tragic reality.
Second, we must not accept the charade that today’s coup leaders represent ‘the people.’ That today’s military spokesmen are more eloquent – insofar as they cleverly justify their takeovers in extravagant populist ideology – does not deflect from the fact that coups are often elitist, self-serving endeavours. As such, their illegitimate rule merely perpetuates the oppressive and corrupt status quo. The recent coup in Gabon is a prime example: the junta leader now in power is a cousin of the ousted president who thrived off the regime’s largesse for decades, accumulating massive wealth (and million-dollar properties abroad). In Gabon, and in many other contexts, what often takes place is a ‘continuity coup’ in which very little changes other than the figurehead benefiting from state resources.
Third, democrats in Africa and worldwide must consistently and vocally push back against the cynical notion that democracy – and democratic governance more broadly – is somehow a Trojan Horse for neocolonialism or somehow part of a nefarious ‘western agenda.’ It is both highly misleading and patronizing to suggest that democracy has been ‘imposed’ on Africans when wars have been fought, and countless lives lost, in the course of the struggle for human freedom. Pan Africanism, in fact, flourished out of the continent’s long-enduring democratic demands and aspirations. African citizens, like all of us, desire to be free and prosperous, and not sit idly by while old oppressors are replaced by new ones in combat fatigues.
Lastly, the troubling spate of coups across Africa have not been caused by a 'failure of democracy,’ as many pundits and recent coup leaders have claimed. This suggestion is both dishonest and misleading. This is because sham elections rigged by often-aging autocrats do not amount to democracy. Here, we must accept the fact that the meaning of democracy has indeed been warped, and thus called into question, by those who have experienced plenty of Election Day hoopla, but exceedingly little – or perhaps even reversals – in the way of political choice and accountability. Relatedly, we must acknowledge the prevailing bigotry of low expectations that has produced a failure to address rising instances of electoral coups in Africa. Why does this matter? Because electoral coups – or patently rigged elections – pave the way for military coups down the line as the cases of Zimbabwe, Guinea, and Gabon make clear.
We cannot deny the fact that military coups, in certain contexts, represent a glimmer of hope, albeit fleeting, for the masses living under crushing dictatorship or dynastic rule. There is much blame to go around, including a generation of African leaders who have failed to live up to the democratic standards that they, themselves, have drafted, signed, and ratified. Washington, too, has been woefully ineffective and inconsistent in their responses to military takeovers. A common theme in each of the recent coups, in fact, has been emboldened militaries knowing full-well that they are likely to face little to no resistance for their actions in the form of targeted sanctions or diplomatic isolation.
What can be done in this prevailing vacuum of leadership and misunderstanding, then, is to empower the masses – average citizens and civil society, the democratic opposition, even leaders in the diaspora and those living in exile – to seize and swiftly act on any opportunity, including a military coup, to rise up peacefully and to demand dignity and build institutions that safeguard the fundamental tenets of democracy. To be strong and resilient, government effectiveness must necessarily grow in strength alongside citizen power.
Washington, in particular, can play a pivotal role here by investing in and helping to enhance the capacities of African political institutions – legislatures, judiciaries, and the independent media. Of course, this also requires independent electoral commissions that are properly equipped and supported to enhance citizen trust in and the legitimacy of electoral outcomes, which in the due course of time improves the prospects of long-term stability and safeguards against an emboldened military stepping in to ‘save the day.’
We are making a grave mistake if we write off the importance of democracy, while remaining flippant and passive about democratic governance, and all that it entails for stability and quality of life. The longing for democracy is poignant – for Africans, this a quest that spans six decades. The empirical evidence is also clear: when Africans have a voice, they choose democratic governance over every other option, including military rule. If we can concentrate on fixing the supply side of democracy – and unapologetically support democratic governance and leadership – that is where the solution inevitably lies.
Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of Vanguard Africa and the Vanguard Africa Foundation.