Within a space of 9 months, two military coups have taken place in Mali; one in August 2020 and the other in May 2021 as a result of anti-government protests in the West African State. It seems that military takeovers in Africa have become the norm when civilian leaders fail to respect presidential term limits and stick to power by changing the constitutions in their favour. In other words, coups become the option in Africa when it becomes difficult for power to change hands through the ballot box.
Between 2010 and 2021 only, 37 military coups have been carried out in Africa. Military interventions are usually triggered by dictatorial regimes, corruption, mismanagement of public funds, embezzlement, nepotism, tribalism and/or ethnic struggles inside the military and inside civilian governments. Other factors may include the failure of political institutions that can regulate power struggles, the absence of an elite capable of settling political differences in a civilised manner and regularise political competition.
The Institute for Security Studies for instance associates military coups in Africa to the continent’s poor quality of democracy and governance. The two recent coups in Mali for example is a consequence of disagreement around unconstitutional changes of government in Africa. Although the Lomé Declaration of 2000 and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance of 2007 consider a military coup against a democratically elected government as the unconstitutional change of governments, little has been done to check the refusal of an outgoing government to relinquish power with most elections often considered not to be free, fair and transparent.
It can be argued that the focus on unconstitutional changes of government reflects a rather simplistic approach to governance crises facing African countries becuase ‘legality’ is often privileged over legitimacy for sitting heads of state. This has made military interventions over the years strategic in determining “who gets what, when and how”.
Military coups in Africa usually halt the functioning of political systems, disrupts economic activities, leads to death and displacement of people all of which slows down the development of the continent. For a continent that survives mostly on foreign aid, military interventions affect this process. Two contrasting examples include the West African states of Niger and Benin. The two countries began the 1990s with newly formed democratic governments. By the close of the decade, Benin had further consolidated democracy while Niger experienced a series of destabilizing events culminating in a coup d’état. These differing trajectories are due largely to a sequence of key political reforms implemented in Benin that insured continued donor assistance and support, according to Gazibo.
African coups occasionally prompt upbeat assertions that, though unconstitutional, such actions may conveniently remove ineffective governments. But standing African Union (AU) declarations protect constitutional governance in Africa, not effective governance. To better protect both constitutional and effective governance, AU agreements should consider more specific guidance on executive term limits and institutional checks-and-balances.
Eboe Hutchful analyses the history of the political activity of Africa’s armed forces. Many African militaries have assumed a range of political roles since independence, and, consequently, transition to democratic control of the armed forces will likely be a long-term process that mere constitutional structures cannot guarantee. Rather, budgetary, institutional, training, and doctrinal devices will be needed to prevent military coups and political infringement in the short- and medium-term.
In an effort to combat military coups in Africa, the Organization of African Unity formed in 1963 bucked its traditional posture of non-interference in the domestic affairs and changes in political control of its member states by condemning several unconstitutional changes in African states during the 1990s. This marked a turning point in the continent’s organising body. The. In Lomé, Togo, this declaration was adopted to define those types of unconstitutional changes of government that would prompt its response. Though yet to be adopted by all AU member states, this charter adds more depth to the continental body’s official stance on democratic electoral conduct in member states. Once ratified by 15 of the AU’s 54 members, its authority will take effect.
That notwithstanding, it is not entirely wrong to argue that military coups will continue to serve as an alternative to political transition in Africa. The disappearance of military coups from the African continent will very much rely on the respect of constitutional term limits by civilian leaders, reduction in conflicts and political instability with the possibility to attract economic development and progress.