Are Military Coups Back In Style In Africa?

By Sean Zeigler

The recent seizure of power by the Sudanese military, and the arrest of prime minister Abdalla Homdok, several of his ministers and civilian opposition leaders, may be part of a continuing and disturbing trend in Africa. This year also saw military takeovers elsewhere on the continent in GuineaMali and Chad. In a region that had been recently lauded for its democratic advancement, this backsliding suggests the military coup may be dangerously back in fashion.  

These events resemble and reflect much of what scholars understand about military seizures of government. In 1962, Samuel Finer produced a definitive scholarly work on the role of the military in politics. In The Man on Horseback, Finer described in detail various lasting truths about military coups. Several of Finer’s insights are reflected in the military takeovers this year. 

First, coups breed coups. The claim to rule by virtue of superior force invites challenges. This is akin to what Finer describes as “riding the tiger.” The coup in Chad this year marks the sixth coup or coup attempt in that country since 1975. The coup this year in Guinea by Colonel Mamady Do Doumbouya marks the country’s third military takeover since its independence from France in 1958. Mali, too, has now suffered five military power grabs since its independence in 1960. In fact, this year’s coup by former colonel Assimi Goïta in Mali was the second in less than a year. 

Second, governments achieving power by force are confronted with a crisis of legitimacy. This dilemma forces them to justify their actions – or risk falling to further coups. This need for legitimacy in the face of political weakness manifests in several ways. Most often, soldiers present themselves as saviors of their countries, accusing deposed regimes of corruption, perfidy and malfeasance. 

For example, Col. Doumbouya claimed to be saving Guinea from a debased and brutal regime. 

In a televised address to his country this year, he noted that “poverty and endemic corruption” had compelled his troops’ actions against the former government. In Mali, Goïta followed a similar script. “We had to choose between disorder and cohesion within the defence and security forces, and we have chosen cohesion… because it is in the nation’s best interest.” He further decried the “decay of governance” in Mali since 2012 and justified his actions as an intervention “to make the people’s wish for change a reality.” 

Third, military seizures are nearly universally accompanied by statements that the movement is purely temporary. Thus, they often paint their regimes as “caretaker” governments necessary before the ultimate restoration of an elected government. In many cases, transitional military councils are formed to oversee smooth transitions to democracy, some of which do not materialize. 

Chad offers a recent example of this process at work. Swiftly upon the death of President Idriss Deby in April 2021, the military assumed power. It installed Deby’s 37-year-old son, himself a military commander, as interim president. The younger Deby is to oversee an 18-month Transitional Military Council. The constitution was suspended while parliament and the government were dissolved – measures ostensibly intended to maintain stability and ensure a democratic transition of power. 

Doumbouya executed a nearly identical process in Guinea, dissolving the parliament, suspending the constitution and promising a return to elected governance after an 18-month transition period. In this interim, the military is also to craft a new constitution. Developments in Mali this year are along nearly the same lines: Col Goïta was installed as transitional vice-president while an 18-month deadline was set for presidential and parliamentary elections.

In the face of other similar events elsewhere in Africa, the chances of flourishing democracies in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan look dubious. The 2017 coup to oust Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe has left the military firmly embedded in the county’s governance. A 2013 military takeover in Egypt against a democratically elected Mohammed Morsi has resulted in a military state. In fact, the relationship between coups and democracy – how and under what conditions do military takeovers bring about free and fair elections – remains at the center of an open academic debate

Looking forward, it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for democracy in Sudan, or any of the other countries recently afflicted by military grabs. In Khartoum, protestors returned to the streets and were met with live fire. Nearly three years after mass demonstrations helped oust President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan is sadly back where it started. 

History and indeed much academic research suggest the men on horseback are not easily or quickly persuaded to return to the barracks.  

Sean Zeigler is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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