- The failure of democracy to produce change is a major factor that invites coups.
- In countries that have a history of military rule, coups are more acceptable by the masses to address democracy’s failures.
- The UN, AU and other regional stakeholders are failing to deter coups.
In 2004, a coup was set in motion in Equatorial Guinea to dislodge strongman Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, spearheaded by British mercenary Simon Mann and his band of mercenaries drawn from South Africa’s apartheid-era 32 Battalion.
The financier was Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
It dead-ended when Mann, travelling in a Boeing 727, made a stop in Harare to refuel and load guns procured from the Zimbabwe Defence Industries.
Mann would later serve time in Zimbabwe while Thatcher was arrested in 2005 under South Africa’s anti-mercenary laws for funding a coup to the tune of R1.8 million.
He was found guilty and jailed for five years, with a fine of R7 million in today’s money.
In 2011, Mann appeared at Chatham House, also known as The Royal Institute of International Affairs, a think tank headquartered in London, England, to talk about the failed coup.
Giving Mann a platform was supposed to provide a cautionary tale, said Alex Vines, director of the Africa programme at Chatham House – but it went wrong.
“The purpose of doing the meeting was to show what a bad idea [the coup] was, not to be repeated,” he said.
“To my horror, I then received all sorts of emails from Equatoguineans asking for [Mann’s] phone number and contact details to try again.”
Vines told the story at another Chatham House debate, about coups and democratic renewal in Africa, on Monday, which dealt with civilians supporting coups where democracy had failed to bring the change they expected.
That was the case in November 2017 in Zimbabwe, when the opposition, civilians and ruling party Zanu-PF all converged in support of the army to remove the late president Robert Mugabe after 37 years in power.
Most recently was the case in Gabon, where the army stopped President Ali Bongo from extending his run after a controversial election.
It’s also an emerging phenomenon across the Sahel region.
Coups with many causes
A new UN Development Programme (UNDP) report titled Soldiers and Citizens: Military Coups and the Need for Democratic Renewal in Africa was explored at the Chatham House debate.
The report is based on research among 8 000 citizens across Africa.
Among the respondents were 5 000 African citizens who lived through coups or equivalent unconstitutional changes of governments in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan.
Their views were contrasted with those of 3 000 citizens from countries on a path of democratic transition or consolidation, namely Gambia, Ghana and Tanzania.
Jide Okeke, coordinator of the regional programme for Africa at the Regional Service Center for Africa at the UNDP, said they realised through research that there was no single driver of coups.
There were numerous triggers, including the death of an incumbent, behind-the-scenes politico-military dynamics and security incidents.
In the Sahel, proximate factors such as insecurity in the region, rising frustration with government performance and democracy found themselves at an inflection point.
He also raised long-standing structural factors such as the historical involvement of the military in politics, persistent social inequalities and fragility, and questions of legitimacy.
The UNDP research had an average age of 35 for respondents; those who somewhat supported coups did so because “of democratic abuse. The outcome of democracy may not necessarily be consistent with the investment made in democracy over the last two decades.”
Coups with many costs
There’s a marked loss of gross domestic product (GDP) in coup countries because economic activity under military regimes is suppressed.
Okeke compared the Guinea coup of 2008 and that of Mali in 2012; by 2019, the countries had lost the equivalent of R228 billion and R256 billion in GDP, respectively.
The five African countries that have had coups in the past four years have a long history of military rule rather than democracy.
As such, when democracy fails, civilians are more receptive to coup governments.
You cannot discount or suspend this important influence in terms of understanding the socialisation and political culture that make coups receptive in the countries. 49% [of respondents] said they would tolerate military takeovers.
Since 2020, eight of the 11 coups in Africa have played out in the Sahel.
Among those countries, 80% are below the continent’s average measures of good governance, political fragility, gender and youth indices.
One interesting factor raised by the UNDP report is that, as of last year, the UN peacekeeping budget stood at US$4 million per annum in those regions, yet the security situation was failing.
Changing the way of doing things
For Okeke, coups have been reflecting one thing: The cry for inclusion of the youth in decision-making.
According to the UNDP report, 80% of respondents agreed that youth and women should be integrated into leadership positions.
Hence, it’s not a surprise that coup leaders in these countries are relatively young, with ages ranging between 35 and 45.
The report also found that regional bodies have had negative impacts during coups. As such, they need to go beyond political condemnations and sanctions.
“Thirty-one percent made a clear case that regional actors do more harm than good. There’s a need for a restart.
“The role of the UN specifically had a negative impact … From our side, it simply meant the wider UN system should do things differently,” he said.
Okeke added that, guided by the research findings, there should be early warning systems in place to monitor coup risks on the continent.
Six countries have been suspended from the African Union (AU) in the past three years over coups, but that doesn’t work because it won’t stop them from recurring.
“Sanctions are not enough; they don’t deter plotters from plotting new coups. We have seen it in the case of Niger,” he said.
There’s a conversation that needs to be had beyond coups, particularly in civilian-military relations.
Okeke said borrowing from the case of Nigeria, a one-time coup capital of Africa, would be valuable. It took the president at the time, Olusegun Obasanjo, in 1999, to “reset”.
Obasanjo had earlier, in the period from 1976 to 1979, been a coup leader.
He came back in 1999 to lead a democratic Nigeria.
“It took the president at the time [Obasanjo] to do a strategic reset, which redefined the relationship between the civilian administration and the military in a country.
“Which hopefully, fingers crossed, would mean that the likelihood of a military coup in Nigeria in comparison with what it was in the 1980s and 1970s is much lower today,” he said.
The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
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Publish date : 2023-09-15 15:23:01