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The decline (and occasional revival) of the military coup in Africa 0

The new millennium African states suffered more than their fair share of military takeovers, the last case in Burkina Faso. No less than one in two of all military coups recorded in the world since 2000 occurred south of the Sahara. So, plus ça change? Is the military coup part of the African political landscape as much as it has always been – and maybe even more? An analysis by the Italian Senior Researcher, Giovanni Carbone.

Soldiers have always had a penchant for power. Over the past fifteen years, army interventions led to the ousting of elected civilian governments in places as far away as Honduras in Latin America, Egypt in North Africa and Thailand and Fiji in Asia. On the face of it, the use of guns, or the threat to use guns, by army officers who want to capture control of a presidential palace knows no borders. Yet in the new millennium African states suffered more than their fair share of military takeovers, the last case in Burkina Faso. No less than one in two of all military coups recorded in the world since 2000 occurred south of the Sahara. So, plus ça change? Is the military coup part of the African political landscape as much as it has always been – and maybe even more?

Since the 1960s, military coups accounted for a very large share of leadership changes in Africa. Overall, soldiers ousted incumbent heads of states and governments on 90 different occasions in sub-Saharan countries. The 1963 military ejections of Sylvanus Olympio in Togo e Hubert Maga in Benin were early signs that the army was not going to stay put. Rather, soldiers would soon gain centre stage in the region, shaping political developments in places as far away from each other as Ethiopia and Nigeria, Congo-Brazzaville and Ghana, the Comoros and Liberia.

To date, as many as thirty-one countries – or about two out of three sub-Saharan states – experienced at least one. In some capital cities this happened relatively soon after independence (Togo and Benin, as mentioned, but also Congo-Kinshasa and Somalia), in others this occurred much later (Côte d’Ivoire was the latest place to suffer its “first ever coup”, back in 1999). In a number of cases, an initial military takeover set the scene for a chain of counter-coups that unfolded across the decades: out of 90 coups, on 29 occasions the guns were directed against former golpistas. This was particularly typical of West Africa, and Burkina Faso was the most extreme case. Sangoulè Lamizana, who had been the first to rise in arms to capture power in Ouagadougou back in 1966, was ousted by Saye Zerbo (1980), who was in turn overthrown by Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo (1982), himself replaced by Thomas Sankara (1983) who was ejected by Blaisè Compaoré (1987). A very skilful and resilient power-holder, the latter stayed on far longer than any of his predecessors, but Compaoré ultimately shared their fate when he was expelled by a fellow soldier, Lt. Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida, following a popular uprising in 2014. It was only between 2014-2015, and not without further uncertainties, that power was handed over via peaceful and eventually electoral means. The election of a new president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, thus marked a historical new dawn for the Burkinabé people.

With about three dozen African rulers holding office for two decades or more, for many years after independence military takeovers had been one of the few mechanisms for expressing dissent and bring about some kind of leadership rotation in office. A rare way for achieving political change or adjustment. The frequency of army interventions in Africa peaked in the 1980s, when 17 coups accounted for over 51% of all leadership turnovers: more than one in two of all sub-Saharan power-holders who obtained the top job during that decade did so through the barrel of the gun.

But the 1990s marked a period of widespread – if not always deep – reforms. In the space of a few years, constitutional changes and multiparty elections were introduced in most countries in the region, and African states gradually appeared to find better and less violent ways to rotate power among their leaders. This is not to say that political regimes had properly nor fully “democratized”. Indeed, this was rarely the case. Yet elections and constitutional term limits became the “new normal”. Under the new arrangements, leadership successions among leaders belonging to the same party (as in Mozambique or Tanzania, for example) or alternations in office among opposite political forces (as happened twice in Ghana, Zambia or Kenya, for example) have become more and more common in a region where they had previously been a rarity.

The number of coups decreased dramatically in the new millennium (see Figure). Since 2000, the army took power eleven times in nine distinct countries (Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania suffered two coups each), with an average of less than one per year, well below what was registered in previous decades (see Table). All the nine countries involved had previously suffered at least one military takeover. Some had a long tradition of soldiers’ capturing the top job, including Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Niger.

Most notably, after each and every one of the eleven post-2000 coups, arrangements were made to hold fresh elections within a relatively short time span. Except for Madagascar, where a very atypical crisis unleashed following a Andry Rajoelina’s “civilian coup”, in all other cases a vote was organized within no more than three years, and in a number of them during the very next year following the coup. In some case, such as with Ely Ould Mohamed Vall in Mauritania and François Bozizé in the Central African Republic, the poll was managed from the top to ensure the perpetuation in power of the incumbent military leader. In others, such as Burkina Faso – who shared with Mauritania a record of rotation in power only through the threat of arms – the election was an important turning point as it eventually ushered in a new, elected civilian ruler. If the current trend continues, future African generations may learn what a military coup is only by reading their history books.

By Giovanni Carbone – Afronline.org, in partnership with Addis Fortune (Ethiopia)

Giovanni Carbone is Senior Associate Researcher, Head for Africa Program at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), as well as Associate Professor of Political Science at the Università degli Studi di Milano.

This article was published in the framework of an editorial project co-financed by Directorate General for Globalization and Global Issues (DGMO) of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MAECI), gathering 25 African independent media.

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