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Military Coups in Africa: A failure of Post-Colonial States or Politics By Other Means?

Niger joins the list of 45 countries on the continent out of 54 that have encountered one or more coup attempts since gaining independence.

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In the early hours of Wednesday, July 26, 2023, the presidential guards of the Republic of Niger kept President Mohamed Bazoum hostage in the presidential palace. A few hours later, a group of soldiers appeared on the national television of the West African nation, declaring the military takeover of the government.

The statement, read by Colonel Amadou Abdramane of the Nigerien Air Force, one of the coup plotters, stated that the defense and security forces of Niger had decided to put an end to the regime marred with bad governance and deterioration of the security situation in the country.

The ousted President Bazoum became Niger’s president in February 2022 after defeating ex-President Mahamane Ousmane. Before the presidency, Bazoum was the Minister of Interior under his predecessor, Mahamadou Issoufou, who was elected in 2011 following the 2010 coup in the country.

According to some analysts, the ousted President Bazoum’s government was among the remaining hopes of France as a strong economic and security ally in the Sahel region after Mali and Burkina Faso expelled French military presence from their countries.

This is the fifth military coup in the history of Niger since the country gained independence from France in 1960. Niger joins the list of 45 countries on the continent out of 54 that have encountered one or more coup attempts since gaining independence.

The Niger coup is the 8th successful coup in Africa within a short period from January 2020 to July 2023. Others occurred in Mali on August 18, 2020, and May 24, 2021; Chad on April 20, 2021; Guinea on September 5, 2021; Sudan on September 21, 2021; and Burkina Faso on January 24, 2022, and September 30, 2022.

Regarding the case of Francophones in West African countries, the justifications for the coup, as stated by all military leaders, are similar to what was presented by their counterparts in Niger on July 26, 2023, with openly sentiments of anti-France involvement in their countries.

In Mali, Colonel Assimi Goïta overthrew Malian President Bah Ndaw and his Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, citing corruption and the government’s failure to address the security problems the country had been experiencing since the early 2010s due to attacks from religious extremists, rebels, and terrorist groups in the country. Almost all parts of the Maghreb and Sahel regions suffer from these terrorist attacks, which originated in Libya after the 2011 crisis.

In Guinea, a country that also experienced autocratic regimes and military rulers, on the eve of September 5, 2021, the military, led by Special Forces Commander Mamady Doumbouya, ousted President Alpha Condé following a series of demonstrations protesting price hikes, increased taxes, and bad governance.

The Burkinabes’ military also took power on January 24, 2022, due to dissatisfaction with the government’s role in combating terrorist groups attacking the country. The same reason led junior officers of the army on September 30, 2022, led by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, to overthrow their senior officers after failing to resolve the issue of insecurity.

In justifying their coups, you will find that these military leaders have a deep understanding of the immediate problems and weaknesses within their governments. One must also possess incredible maneuvering skills to mobilize the soldiers effectively in order to achieve the goal of attaining political control of the country.

Military as a Political Instrument

As the main institution among state coercive apparatuses that holds the state’s monopoly power for violence in bourgeois theorization, its mandate is ideally to safeguard the nation-state against external and internal aggression.

The military’s significance comes to the forefront during inter-state wars or domestic insurgencies. This implies that the primary role of the military becomes prominent in times of war, whether between differing political entities or nations.

In this context, according to Prussian Army General and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, war is simply an extension of politics. Consequently, the military resides at the core of this extended political activity.

The great Chinese revolutionary, Mao TseSung, during his time of struggle in the mountains, expanded on Clausewitz’s conception of war and politics, asserting that war is a political action that arises when politics reaches a stage beyond which it cannot proceed through usual means between classes, nations, states, or political groups.

Being so, the military has been used as an instrument of politics by the ruling class to impose whatever it fits for their interest domestically or in foreign countries. In another way, the military  sometimes comes after the apex of political power by taking full control of states using barrels of guns, just as the democratically elected political units do through democratic processes highlighted in the constitutions.

Experience from the various coups in Africa indicates that for a military to be enticed into assuming a political role, several supporting factors should be present.

Firstly, a complete disregard for democratic constitutional values is observed, where the political class blatantly ignores the will of the people and often resorts to violence to suppress them. In order to establish understanding between the military and political class, corruption and embezzlement are employed to ensure a sense of contentment among all parties involved.

Secondly, by completely disregarding the people, the leaders’ popularity will remain fragile, despite the use of propaganda in many cases to portray the leader as revered by their subjects. In this scenario, the military or factions within the military will recognize that they also hold significant power, akin to the leader in question.

Thirdly, there is the aspect of opportunity, encompassing both material and conditional dimensions. Material opportunities encompass the resources and support available to the group. Conditional opportunities involve the circumstances on the ground, including weak or non-existent governance institutions, security and economic conditions of the people, among others. What’s important is that these factors can be influenced by internal or external forces.

Fragility of Post-Colonial States

The modern African states were inherited from colonial states built with the intention of dominating the subjects economically, politically, and socially. Legitimacy was based on imperialistic desires and decisions from the ‘mother country.’

Both the colonial coercive state apparatus, including the military, police, courts, and prisons, and the colonial ideological state apparatus, like education and religion, were designed to serve the purpose of domination.

The state structure and organization imposed by colonialists on the Africans living within the boundaries drawn during the Berlin Conference of 1884 did not consider the social and political organization of the societies at the time.

The military, police, and prisons were not connected to the people in any way that Africans could perceive as their institutions. The governing institutions operated under the assumption that the master knows best, enforcing order upon the subjects and expecting their compliance and praise. This attitude caused the colonial state to lack affirmation from Africans.

Even during the ‘wind of change,’ which led to most African states attaining independence through constitutional means and armed struggle, many of the politico-bureaucratic elites maintained colonial state structures, institutions, and mindsets inherited from the past.

With few exceptions of progressive African leaders who questioned the inherited state structures and institutions, most politico-bureaucratic elites continued to disregard the complexity of societies within their territories. They maintained centralized governments with power vested in the executive, initially through single-party authoritarianism and later through multi-party politics that often favored political elites and foreign nations to the detriment of the masses.

The fragility of these modern African states can be understood in other ways through the prism of neo-colonialism. As Kwame Nkrumah, one of the founding fathers of post-colonial Africa, argued, its essence is that the state may be independent in theory, but in reality, its economic system and political policies are directed from outside.

Like its predecessor, the modern African state is influenced not only by international arrangements and institutions, but also by a sort of mother country and colony relationship. This was clearly evident during the height of the Cold War when many coups in Africa were a result of superpower chess games in geopolitical contests.

There are numerous foreign military bases established in the so-called independent Africa, with the majority being operated by the US, France, Britain, and China. Additionally, there is a growing presence of foreign military private companies engaging in various activities. This situation, coupled with the ongoing economic subjugation that has marginalized the majority from benefiting from available resources, has led to increased dissatisfaction among many Africans with their respective states.

In this context, along with other contributing factors, an opportunity has arisen for military and other security forces to exploit the chance to attain the pinnacle of political power.

Undoubtedly, these unconstitutional changes of government might be undesirable to many of us. However, an important aspect they offer is the opportunity for Africans to reconsider the phenomenon of neo-colonialism and the inherited state structures and institutions.

While acknowledging the heterogeneity of the African continent, based on the broad overview of ongoing military coups provided above, it is imperative to comprehend Frantz Fanon’s stance on the formation of a new Africa.

We should embrace the idea of turning over a new leaf, adopting fresh concepts, and striving to establish states, structures, institutions, and societies that draw inspiration from our rich historical context, struggles, and the desire for humanity and just world.

Joel Ntile is a Pan-Africanist and socio-economic analyst based in Dar es Salaam.He can be reached through his e-mail address or you can follow him on Twitter at @Ntilejoel. These are the writer’s own opinions and they do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries. 

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