Wave of coups and street celebrations by civilians: A reality check for African leaders

The current wave of coups began in Mali in August 2020. Then in March 2021, a failed coup happened in Niger. This raised concerns that coups are contagious – and may spread to other countries – which they indeed have.
In April 2021, an unusual coup was reported in Chad after the death of President Idris Derby who was killed on the battlefield and was quickly replaced by his son in a total disregard for the constitution.
On the 24th May 2021, there was “a coup within a coup” again in Mali following the toppling of President Bah Ndaw who presided over the transitional government after the 2020 coup. He was arrested and overthrown along with his prime minister Moctar Ouanne.
In September 2021, the wave moved to Guinea as President Alpha Conde government was overthrown. In October 2021, it was Sudan’s turn as the junta led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan deposed Prime Abdalla Hamdok.
On 23 January 2022, another coup occurred in Burkina Faso after the military-led by Paul-Henri Sandogo Damiba deposed the Roch Marc Christina Kabore led government. This event heightens concerns that the year 2022 could be even more dramatic.
According to a study, there were a total of 80 successful coups and 108 failed coups in sub-Saharan Africa between 1956 and 2001. This represents an average of four coups in a year. But the continent enjoyed a relief for the past two decades as more African countries embraced democratic rule.
But given the resurgence in the past months, this viral epidemic of military takeovers could spread to many more nations if African leaders do not re-examine their leadership style.
For political observers in the continent, it is not surprising that this is happening at this time. This is because many African leaders have failed to demonstrate true democratic rules in their dealings with their citizens. Though they claim to be democratic, their leaderships offer no true elements of democracy.
A recent survey reveals that many Africans do not have confidence in their countries’ electoral systems. This shows that functional democracies are not implemented in many parts of the continent. Less than half of the respondents in the survey believe that elections guarantee accountability and true representation, which are key elements of true democracies.
The rule of law is hardly respected by many African leaders, with some having the judiciary in their pockets. They sometimes dubiously extend term limits and rig elections to hold on to power. Muzzling opposition leaders, conniving with security officials to intimidate members of the press and the electorates are some of their common election-rigging tactics.
Many have become authoritarian and are alienated from the masses. They move about in expensive convoys, sponsor their children’s education in elite foreign schools, fly abroad to enjoy the best healthcare systems while the living conditions of their people deteriorate by the day.
This can be linked to the frequent surge in political instabilities in many African nations. Clear examples include Nigeria, where the current government has been battling with separatist movements, insurgency, banditry for the most part of its term; Ethiopia, where there has been civil war since November 2020; and many others with similar experiences.
The rot has left the continent in heightened security problems leading to many violent deaths and millions of forced displacements. The past few years have witnessed a surge in Africans seeking asylum and refugee status in foreign nations like UK and US. Millions are also internally displaced.
Economically, it has exponentially reduced foreign direct investments in many of those countries and worsened the already unemployment crisis and poor living standards. According to African Union Commission, “about 600 million young people in Africa are unemployed, uneducated or in insecure employment,” a situation that could be described as a recipe for disastrous security threats.
While foreign governments and African regional blocs condemned the takeovers and have been working to restore civilian rules in those places, the feelings among the masses are surprisingly different.
For instance, in Mali, hundreds of people took to the street in jubilation celebrating with soldiers who overthrew and imprisoned the deposed president. They even rebuked ECOWAS for imposing sanctions on the junta whom they believe are serving their interests. Similar street celebrations also occurred in Guinea and in Burkina Faso after the coups.
The reason for this is not farfetched, given the poor economical and humanitarian ramifications experienced across the continent in the past few decades. People are fed up with the so-called democratic public holders whose governments seem to have worsened their living standards.
Decades ago, the continent experienced the euphoria of the third wave of democratisation, and those who were old enough to understand the true meaning of a democratic rule were full of hope of a new dawn. It is hard to imagine that an era like this would come when people would be celebrating military coups.
But are military coups the answer to poor leadership? Sadly, a look back into the past shows that military coups, though may appear rosy at the beginning, hardly give the heart desires of the masses.
But the governance styles of most of the current African leaders are so discouraging and daily increases their citizens’ carvings for just any form of alternative. This presents a great opportunity for power-seeking soldiers to assume the helms in the guise of ‘rescuing the day’.
Their penchant for sit-tightism is another worrisome side of military rules. Though they usually say their aim is to save democracy from itself and restore democratic governance within the shortest possible time, that is hardly fulfilled without extending their hold on power for much longer. For example, the current Malian leaders have recently requested for five years more before returning to democratic rule, which is against the earlier promise to conduct elections this February.
Military rules also have a long history of coups upon coups, which usually delay a return to civilian rules. The Benin Republic 1963 coup is a perfect example. After the initial coup, the country experienced four more coups before 1972. Similarly, Burkina Faso experienced coups upon coups between 1966 to 1983. Instances like these justify the belief that military rules are never the answer to poor democratic rules. Unfortunately, many Africans have found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea, and it is hard making the right choice.
That brings to fore the argument that the international community should be more focused on the key ingredients of democratic rules in African democracies rather than just periodic organised elections, which are in many cases rigged. In July 2000, African leaders gathered at Lome Togo and came up with a declaration to reject “unconstitutional changes” of government in any part of the continent.
The African Union (AU) and regional bodies like ECOWAS have been true to this by condemning the recent coups and even sanctioning some of the juntas. But they have failed to address the underlying cause of these frequent instabilities, which are inherent in bad governance. Indicators like freedom of the press, equity, accountability from officer holders and other citizens-focused dividends should get more attention. Only then will the civilians heartily trust in their elected officers and stop viewing military rules as an alternative to democratic rules.
Olusegun Akinfenwa is a correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, a UK based firm that offers global immigration services, including the US Citizenship and Immigration Process. Most of his works create awareness about the harsh socio-political realities confronting African society, with a view to bringing lasting solutions to them.

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