Lessons from Africa: Is there such a thing as a ‘good coup’?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Monday, 20 September 2021 16:34

Residents cheer at army soldiers as they celebrate the uprising in Conakry, Guinea September 5, 2021. REUTERS/Souleymane Camara

Is there such a thing as a good coup?

Ten years ago this was a fairly academic question. The average number of coups a year in Africa fell by half following the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the early 1990s, sparking optimism that a new international “anti-coup” norm would bring an end to military regimes.

In these heady days, the hope was that the Lome Declaration of 2000, and the promise of the African Union and regional bodies such as ECOWAS to reject unconstitutional changes of government, meant that civilian rule was here to stay.

The costs and benefits of coups in Africa are no longer an academic question. Following a spate of military interventions, first in Zimbabwe in 2017, and then in Chad, Mali and Guinea this year, (a coup was also narrowly averted in Niger in March), there are a host of recent examples to look at.

This trend has triggered an urgent discussion about the nature of coups in the African context that has focussed on two main issues. First, why are coups back on the agenda and will the three this year encourage further military intervention? Second, do coups actually deliver better government?

A lot has been written about the first issue, including a number of blogs that have argued that if military leaders realise they can take power with minimal consequences, “there will be more coups before the decade is out”. Others have cautioned that this trend is likely to be limited to those countries that have history of military interventions. The countries that have experience coups recently represent less than 10% of all African states, and – with the notable exception of Zimbabwe – have suffered coups before. Many other states have never experienced army rule, including Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia, and there is no reason why military takeovers thousands hundreds of miles away should dramatically change that.

Much less has been said whether coup actually “work”. The best way to answer this question is to review the impact of coups over the past 80 years.

Sadly, whether we look at the Democratic Republic of Congo or Nigeria – or Guinea, Mali and Zimbabwe themselves – there is a little evidence that coups deliver anything that citizens actually want. Although they are often hugely popular to begin with, coups beget more coups, not economic growth and democracy.

What is a good coup?

There are many ways that we could define a good coup. Given the range of options available – stability, jobs, GDP per capita, quality of democracy – it is perhaps best to evaluate coup leaders on their own terms.

When I was researching Democracy in Africa, I read as many of the statements that coup leaders made just after taking power as I could get my hands on. Most justified their actions on the basis of the need to protect the country from some form of threat – often said to be the former civilian government itself, which had become corrupt and divisive while failing to deliver development and stability. In some cases, coup leaders explicitly argued that they had intervened to save democracy from itself.

While there was considerable variation in the language and priorities of these statements, there were also some common themes, the most notable of which included:

  • Restoring the rule of law and “discipline”.
  • Rehabilitating national pride and unity.
  • Strengthening national infrastructure and the economy.
  • And in most cases, a promise to restore democracy in a short (though tellingly usually unspecified) amount of time.

So if we evaluate coups on the basis of these promises, has Africa seen many “good coups”?

In search of a good coup

Let’s start with the most obvious point. Countries rarely experience just one coup.

Look at Benin. Following an initial coup in 1963, shortly after independence, the country went on to see four more successful coups before 1972, after which there appear to have been no less than five unsuccessful attempts. Burkina Faso has a similar story to tell, with a first successful coup in 1966 and then further coups in 1980 1982, 1983, and 1987.

Other countries to have witnessed multiple coups include Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros,  Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Togo.

You might think this is just a feature of a more authoritarian and less stable past, but the pattern also holds true for the countries that experienced coups this year. The most recent coup in Guinea overthrew President Alpha Condé.

What many of those who posted online to celebrate the coup conveniently omitted was that Condé had come to power in elections in 2010 organised by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, who had himself taken power in a coup in 2008. Similarly the most recent coup in Mali served to bring power back to Colonel Assimi Goïta – the same man who had removed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in a coup just one year earlier.

READ MORE Guinea Coup – the Fall of Alpha Condé

In other words, most coups do not serve to draw a line in the sand and usher in a new period of stability and prosperity. In almost none of the countries mentioned above did coups actually restore the rule of law, strengthen infrastructure, and introduce democracy – at least for any significant period of time. Instead, coup leaders often proved to be just as self-interested, irresponsible and corrupt as the regimes they had replaced.

The best case scenarios

This is not to say that coups never create opportunities for more effective government. There have been some coup leaders who, like Captain Camara, removed abusive presidents and delivered on their promises.

In my next column, I will look at the some of the best candidates for a “good coup”, including the removal of President Hilla Limann by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in Ghana in 1981 and the overthrow long-term dictator President Moussa Traoré by Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré in Mali in 1991.

Even in some of these cases, however, it is clear that coups generated as many problems as they solved. Take the Malian coup of 1991, where a short transition led to multiparty elections and the emergence of a political system that delivered some of the highest levels of civil liberties on the continent.

This was a boon for democracy. However, the fact that the dictatorship was removed by the army and not a popular uprising led by civilian leaders meant that a strong connection between political parties and the citizenry was never formed. Partly as a result, Malian democracy rested on the weakest of foundations, which facilitated its later collapse.

It is therefore important not to underestimate the long-term damage that coups can generate, even where they are seen to deliver. By undermining the constitution and demonstrating how easily power can be taken through the barrel of a gun, coups weaken existing political institutions and encourage political violence. They may also set in motion a cycle of counter-coups and conflict that can increase the prospects of civil war, as in the DRC and Nigeria.

In turn, this facilitates the militarisation of the state, undermining core democratic processes while enabling former military leaders to continue to dominate the political scene for decades by swapping their fatigues for civilian clothing.

This is not only true of coups – it is also the case for unconstitutional strategies more generally. If your real aim is to strengthen the rule of law, taking power by breaking it is a self-defeating way to start.

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