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Making Sense of Coups and Democratic Renewal in Africa

For too long, some states in the continent have ruled behind a façade of democracy while deploying innately exclusionary governance models.

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Africa has experienced an uptick in Unconstitutional Changes of Government (UCG) over the past three years, with Gabon recently joining a fray host of countries – Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan and Guinea – who have all experienced successful coups.

These latest developments in the widening ‘coup belt’ across the Sahel, West Africa and Central Africa underscore the need to understand better the underlying socio-economic drivers of this rise in coups and how to address them.

A new research paper by UNDP entitled Soldiers and Citizens: Military Coups and The Need for Democratic Renewal in Africa, published in July 2023, examines these structural drivers and finds that persistent insecurity, stagnant growth, exclusionary economic governance and low development indicators are associated with higher coup risk.

The research findings in this report were based on a vast perceptions survey, which captured the views of 8,000 citizens across Africa. Among the respondents, 5,000 are African citizens who lived through coups or equivalent UCG events 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 The Gambia, Ghana and Tanzania.

Although I have trouble agreeing with the study’s categorisation of Tanzania as being on the path of democratic transition and consolidation, I will only stick to some of the general observations made by the study report.

Flawed democracies

Suffice it to admit that coups and military rule were common features in earlier Africa’s post-colonial history. This was, however, followed by a sudden wave of democratisation that spread across the continent in the early 1990s.

This yielded progress in favour of constitutional order. In a number of countries, “democratic governments” were established, and the peaceful change of political power through elections increased.

Democratic governance became a continent wide norm projected by the African Union (AU) through, for instance, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which many African countries signed but don’t respect even today.

READ MORE: Why Tanzanians Should Be Against Military Coups

And even during these intervening periods, many elections lacked credibility, transparency and fairness.

Against this backdrop, the recent resurgence in coups has sounded a warning alarm to a number of key players, particularly the AU and UN. It has raised the spectre of democratic backsliding, turbulence and the close involvement of the military in political life.

When power is seized through military means, it is most likely to represent a critical risk for peace and democratic progress in each affected country, along with potential spill-over effects and wider destabilisation.

The AU has denounced the trend with high-level statements and communiqués signaling renewed efforts to tackle unconstitutional government changes (UCG).

The UN, on its part, through its Secretary-General António Guterres, lamented the “epidemic of coups d’états” unfolding on the world stage and urged “effective deterrence” from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

Questions to answer

But to respond to the question as to why there is this resurgence of coups, these other important questions need to be addressed by everyone who claims to be committed to the cause of ensuring  democratic governance in Africa:

What are the development drivers of military coups, as a form of UCG, in Africa?; What explains apparent popular support for such coups at the moment — including in contexts where democratically elected leaders were ousted?; and what policy and programming options should regional and international actors consider to prevent military coups effectively?

Another question is, what can these actors do to restore and sustain constitutional order, reset the social contract and boost inclusive democratic governance in UCG-affected countries?

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

The UNDP study found that underdevelopment is prominent among the hybrid circumstances that shape vulnerability to coup risk.

Other key drivers included limited inclusivity of the masses, which usually creates a crisis of legitimacy of governments and governance institutions, lack of confidence in electoral processes, corruption, and poor public service delivery.

But despite all these military coup drivers, a huge chunk of those surveyed in UCG countries and those presumably in democratic transition still prefer democratic governments to military rule.

Better governance

For example, 55 per cent in UCG countries think democracy is preferable to military rule, while 67 per cent in transition countries think so. However, for African governments to be able to build coup resilience, better governance, deeper democracy and inclusive development should be the founding pillars.

The quality of democracy and the prevalence of wider dysfunction in governance systems must be brought to the forefront. For too long, some states in the continent have ruled behind a façade of democracy while deploying innately exclusionary governance models.

READ MORE: NDI President Ambassador Derek Mitchell: Solutions Lie in More Democracy, Not Less

A social contract reset is needed to assist coup-affected states in moving forward and to help prevent future coups. To achieve this, governments should focus on practical delivery that directly improves the quality of life and opportunity for all segments of society.

The initial popularity of coup leaders should serve as a rallying call for governments to do better in demonstrating inclusive and principled governance.

John Kitoka is a development consultant and political commentator based in Dar es Salaam. He is available at 0755-622697 or These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.


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