Soon after Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and his followers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali, countless western news outlets and specialized blogs resumed a perennial debate over the sustainability of Africa’s democracies. Although the public’s perception of sub-Saharan Africa as a fertile ground for dictatorships and civil conflict endures, a closer look at the continent’s recent history offers a different narrative: African coups and strongmen have been steadily declining since the mid-1990s.
While much of Central Africa and the Horn is subjected to conflict and authoritarian rule, the rest of the continent has made considerable progress in terms of stability and democratization. With the exception of Angola and Zimbabwe, in the last 18 years Southern African states have opened their political systems and improved their electoral process while keeping the region relatively free of violence. José Eduardo dos Santos and Robert Mugabe are today the only strongmen left in the sub-region.
West Africa has followed a similar path even though its geopolitical evolution has been more turbulent and less predictable. Except for Benin, Cape Verde, and Mali, which underwent successful democratic transitions in the early 1990s, West African states were either governed by semi-authoritarian regimes – albeit benign ones in the case of Senegal – or ruled by dictators for the better part of the decade. Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, Charles Taylor of Liberia, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, and Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo have all come to personify the African strongman paradigm still engraved in western minds.
But West Africans have since turned on these regimes, which were discredited by their gross mismanagement of the economy, falling living standards and massive human rights violations. Today, with former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo in custody, one could argue that only Burkina Faso, Gambia and Mauritania fit the paradigm. And in the case of Burkina Faso, President Compaoré has selectively liberalized the country’s political life to appease a divided opposition and ensure his survival.
Data collected by the World Bank, Freedom House, and other institutions have also suggested the steady decline of violent regime change and authoritarian rule on the continent. In his book “Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading the Way,” Steven Radelet reviews some of these indexes and notes that while only three countries met basic standards of democracy in 1989, by 2008 at least 23 met such standards. He also observes that in 1990, 36 out of 46 countries had an executive that was either self-appointed or elected in a contest where he was the only candidate. By 2006, only nine leaders had assumed power that way. Citing Daniel N. Posner and Donald J. Young’s article “The Institutionalization of Political Power in Africa,” Radelet further states that between 1960 and 1980 nearly 75 percent of African leaders were overthrown or assassinated, whereas between 2000 and 2005 only one out of five was forcefully removed from office.
Since then, only six coups were carried out in sub-Saharan Africa, including two military interventions in Guinea-Bissau, which many experts would qualify as a failed state. In Madagascar, a popular movement also forced out President Marc Ravalomanana in 2009, in a process that was deemed unconstitutional by the international community.
While Southern and West Africa has become more stable and democratic, no one is suggesting that coups and other sociopolitical upheavals will soon subside from the entire continent. And as events in recent years have shown, the fragile states of the Mano River and Sahel regions remain vulnerable to illegal regime change given these countries’ militaries have yet to fully accept the authority of their civilian leaders.
The trends, however, are undeniable and likely to continue. More Africans, supported by more assertive regional organizations – including the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States – have come to expect full-fledged political rights, along with accountable government institutions and a healthy respect for constitutional authority. Mali’s coup leaders conceded that much when they recently transferred some of their authority to a civilian transitional government. To consolidate recent democratic gains, and to prevent the reoccurrence of coups across the continent, civil-military relations will have to be addressed in a sustainable manner.