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The African continent is grappling with a disturbing surge in military coups, with eight recorded in central and west Africa since 2020. France’s influence in its former African colonies is diminishing, and while the rise in coups can be attributed to various factors, the underlying issue lies in the quality of African democracies. Too many leaders manipulate elections or cling to power indefinitely. To prevent further coups, African nations must strengthen their democracies and regional organisations like the African Union must take a more active role in promoting democratic values and condemning abuses of power.
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Africa’s contagious coups
From the Editorial Board of the Financial Times of London
Another day, another coup in Africa. This week’s military takeover in Gabon marks the eighth putsch in central and west Africa since 2020. The overthrow of Ali Bongo follows July’s ousting of Mohamed Bazoum in Niger, France’s strategic ally in the Sahel. Before that there were coups in Chad, Guinea and two each in Mali and Burkina Faso. The risk of contagion is real.
France’s ability to influence events on the ground in countries it once dominated is draining month by month. That in itself is no bad thing. Gone are the days when Paris could install a favoured leader or send an uppity general packing. After two decades in which African coups were in decline, the military path to power has come dangerously back into fashion. But the spate of coups is primarily an African problem, not a French one.
The coup in Gabon was different from the one in Niger. In the latter, an elected president doing a reasonable job in tough circumstances was overthrown. In Gabon, the Bongos, first father and then son, have ruled the petrostate as a family concern for more than five decades. Ali Bongo sought to extend his rule with another rubber-stamp election. Many Gabonese celebrated the end of the Bongo dynasty.
There are many reasons for the upsurge in coups. Covid has hit economies hard, increasing popular discontent. Democracy looks more wobbly worldwide, even in the US. Western powers are in less of a position to lecture African governments on its virtues. Besides, African governments have other non-democratic partners to turn to, including China and Russia.
The fundamental problem, however, is the state of Africa’s democratic offering itself. Poll after poll shows that an increasingly urban population sees democracy as the best system for advancing their societies. But legitimate democracies are few and far between.
Too many leaders have learnt to game the electoral process by using the powers of incumbency to ensure re-election. Many, like Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president for an embarrassing 41 years, or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (37 and counting), simply rewrite the constitution to ensure perpetual rule. Only this month, the aptly nicknamed “Crocodile” of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, oversaw a brutal electoral exercise with only one possible outcome. With democracies like these, who needs dictatorships?
Even among those who win fair and square, the continent lacks enough serious governments with coherent policies to set their countries on a sustainable path to development and eradicate poverty. The very best thing that African democrats can do to prevent coups is to get their own houses in order.
The situation is not hopeless. Many countries, including Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Mauritius, Senegal and Zambia, have regular and more or less credible democratic contests. Leaders come and go and ruling parties vacate power. The African Union was once a more active champion of democracy. It should rediscover its zeal and call out abuses of power.
Regional heavyweights should also hold up a democratic mirror to surrounding states. South Africa through its silence has been complicit in Zimbabwe’s dictatorial travesty. At least Nigeria, under recently elected president Bola Tinubu, has rediscovered its appetite to defend democracy.
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