Coup season in Africa: Why is there no end to coups?

Written by Staff Writer

Hassan Mohamed, CNN

Just three years after Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza called a snap election, won the election, and said he was leaving office, Burundi has erupted in violence. At least 300 people have died and 3 million have been forced to flee their homes.

“We got to a point of tipping the balance of power,” says Harri Lakatos , an associate professor of political science at the London School of Economics . “If there were three men in power, none of them wanted to give up their post and push a third one out. But then they got bored and power was no longer necessary.”

“There has never been a time when it was so easy to get rid of a president through coups,” he adds.

“These coups seem to be replacing a variety of resources by traditional strongmen. People are getting used to easy capture and quick change, including the same people that were elected or found themselves in the position earlier in the year,” Lakatos says.

Coup leaders are, like opposition leaders, “collectively bound to play some role” in the peace process that now seems set to only further the regime’s staying power, he says.

One of the most infamous examples of coups is in Guinea-Bissau, where the army ousted President Joao Bernardo Vieira in April 2016 in order to pursue, or take on, a rival political figure.

Next door in Mali, an uprising by Touareg separatists led to a coup by coup leaders in 2012, ultimately installing a military junta whose leadership is still in power.

Even when coups are high on the agenda, things rarely end as smoothly. In January 2017, the military in the African state of Mali carried out another coup. Malian soldiers were ordered to hold onto power by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after a military-backed elections board ran off people who voted for his rival.

Do coups foster democracy?

While democratic events following coups are rare, they are on the rise, say people like Dr. Catherine Melkman , of the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

“In many ways, we saw the return of the counter-coup back in the early 2000s, until we got the Moamer Kadhafi revolution,” she says. “The spread of democracy was a bonus in terms of its broad appeal. Despite some bumps in the road, they are very much a strong development success.

“But you have seen very clearly with developments in Latin America how counter-coups have the capacity to hurt the democratic process, including the retrenchment of democracy in Venezuela,” she adds.

Cases of electoral fraud and violence that result in some electoral defeat can also lead to coups, say Melkman and others. “Political leadership by default is very common, and this has people in both foreign countries and in South Africa concerned,” she says.

A war around institutions

Dr. Chika Ayuba, a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Nigeria’s University of Lagos, notes that coups often drive towards authoritarian rule that tends to weaken the institutions that hold the state together.

“You are seeing a kind of crossroad where people are really thinking about what kind of democracy we want, but they are not keen to take to the streets at all. The political class has managed to keep it pretty quiet,” she says.

“The definition of an ideal democracy isn’t necessarily the strongest or is there going to be this ‘fierce commitment to democracy,’ but that is the way the debate is headed,” she says.

Does democracy in Africa depend on these coups?

People like Melkman, Ayuba and Lakatos all suggest that coups don’t guarantee democracy, but they do boost certain type of democracy, and certainly reduce the institutional constraints that can inhibit democracies.

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