Chad, Guinea, Mali, Sudan… Can a coup be a springboard for democracy?

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 Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Monday, 6 December 2021 11:53

sudan coup
A Sudanese national holds a placard during a protest to condemn a military coup earlier this week, in front of the Sudanese Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

The recent spate of coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan has sparked a flurry of media attention and concern.

The US Council for Foreign Relations says “coups are back in West Africa”, while the Wall Street Journal warns that “coups in Africa are at their “highest level since end of colonialism”. For its part, the Mail&Guardian carried an impassioned plea warning that “coups are always a bad idea, even the popular ones”.

In my September column, I was quick to jump on this particular bandwagon, asking whether there was such a thing as a ‘good coup’. Concerned with the growing toleration of coups, both domestically and internationally, I listed the problems generated by military intervention. Coups bring the army to the heart of power, and thus risk permanently displacing civilian leaders. They involve breaking the law, further undermining constitutional order, and they are much more likely to lead to further coups than to a stable democracy.

However, as I wrote the column, a question kept nagging at the back of my mind: Haven’t there been some ‘good coups’? Didn’t the overthrow of President Moussa Traoré by Lieutenant Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) in Mali in 1991 lead to a transition to democracy? And what about Jerry Rawlings, who took power in a coup in Ghana – now viewed as one of Africa’s leading democratic lights?

Not wanting to present a one-sided picture, I pledged to look at these ‘best case scenarios’ in a future column. When this came up on social media, readers suggested other examples. What about Thomas Sankara? Didn’t some coups in Niger ‘steer the country back towards democracy’? So today I ask which coups ushered in a period of greater democracy, and find that the answer depends on how you measure their legacy.

The numbers

Let’s start with the numbers. Sebastian Elischer, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, has a great working paper on when military coups lead to civilian rule. Topping up his data with the recent flurry of military interventions reveals some important trends.

The world has seen 37 coups since 1990. Of these, a remarkable 29 (78%) have been in Africa, making it the most coup-prone region of the world. Indeed, a quick look at history reminds us that 2021 is not unprecedented, even in the recent ‘multiparty’ era. There were four coups in 1999 in Niger, Comoros (two) and Guinea-Bissau. There were also six coups between 2010 and 2014.

Although almost all coup leaders promise to introduce civilian rule, most try to subvert this process to retain power.

Indeed, some 17 African countries – well over a third – experienced a coup since 1990. Still, seven of these (41%) have already experienced another coup, including Comoros, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Sudan. If you exclude countries that had a coup recently, and hence have had very little time to experience a second one, the figure rises to above 50%. This is exactly the problem I highlighted back in September: coups tend to beget more coups, not democracy.

When do coups have positive outcomes?

Do things look better if we look at the ‘best case scenarios’? According to Elischer, the armed forces ultimately withdrew from power in about half of the coups since 1990, paving the way for a civilian government. This sounds positive until you read further and see that in 14 out of 24 cases (58%) the military took steps to retain control. This is a stark finding with major implications for Guinea, Mali and Sudan: although almost all coup leaders promise to introduce civilian rule, most try to subvert this process to retain power.

Did these coups really set their countries on a path to more democratic government? The answer to this question depends on what time period you look at.

African cases that achieved a ‘gold standard’ transition include Lesotho (1991), Niger (1999 and 2010), and Guinea-Bissau (2004 and 2012). Four other cases, including Mali (1991), Guinea (2008) and Burkina Faso (2014), got a silver medal because although those close to junta leaders made efforts to derail the transition, they ultimately supported competitive elections. So far so good for Mali and Niger, the ‘good coups’, as suggested by the Twitterati.

Even so, is handing over to a civilian government enough? Given the risk that military intervention will lead to bloodshed, and that coups will be followed by further political instability, it makes sense to ask what happened next. Did these coups really set their countries on a path to more democratic government? The answer to this question depends on what time period you look at.

In search of a “good” coup

Mali looked great in the 1990s, with a competitive multiparty system that boasted some of the highest levels of civil liberties in Africa. However, within a decade, it became clear that this rested on extremely hollow foundations, partly because democratisation had been triggered by the military rather than won by deeply rooted civic groups and political parties.

Growing frustrations with the government, and a growing divide between politicians and citizens, exacerbated public discontent. Having relinquished power as head of the military junta in 1992, ATT returned as an elected president in 2002, but failed to restore public confidence. Amidst growing political instability and rebellions, a second coup returned the country to authoritarian rule in 2012. Two further coups followed, leaving the country as far away from democracy as ever.

The fundamental problem in many of these cases was that the logic of coups […] entrenched rather than challenged the authoritarian assumption that power is best won and sustained via the barrel of a gun.

Burkina Faso is a similar story. Thomas Sankara came to power in 1983 during an internal power struggle in President Ouédraogo’s authoritarian regime. Two years into Sankara’s leadership he had already enacted many of the policies for which he is now revered, including public health drives, the promotion of women to prominent government positions, and an anti-imperial foreign policy.

Although he talked about elections and set important precedents by expecting government officials to reject luxuries, Sankara had done little to institutionalise democratic government by the time he was killed in a 1987 coup led by Blaise Compaore. Instead, Sankara set up the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, which were accused of abusing their power to settle personal scores. Compaore subsequently presided over a highly authoritarian regime until he was forced out in 2014.

The fundamental problem in many of these cases was that the logic of coups, in which force is used to break the law, entrenched rather than challenged the authoritarian assumption that power is best won and sustained via the barrel of a gun.

Frighteningly bad odds

It could be argued that asking coups to have a long lasting positive contribution to democracy is too demanding. After all, they have often taken place in countries that are already prone to political instability and where the conditions for democracy are not favourable. Moreover, many democratic transitions led by civic leaders have also failed. This is a reasonable point. It is nonetheless striking that even some of the coups often cited as positive examples were quickly followed by further coups and authoritarianism.

Ghana and Niger are perhaps the cases for which the strongest case can be made for a positive legacy, but even here, things are far from straightforward. When Rawlings took power in Ghana in 1981, for example, he did not depose an abusive dictator, but rather a democratically elected leader, Hilla Limann. While he did allow for genuine transition to civilian rule a decade later, he was also one of the reasons such a transition was necessary.

Where does this leave us? Given that there have been well over 100 coups on the continent to date, it seems likely that less than 5% have had a positive and sustained democratic impact. In a context where the stakes are so high, these are frighteningly bad odds.

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