Are there too many coups in Africa lately?

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Burkina Faso's interim President Ibrahim Traore attends a session of the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 28, 2023. Donat Sorokin/TASS Host Photo Agency via REUTERS/File Photo

Burkina Faso reported the arrest of four army officers on Wednesday, following an announcement by the country’s ruling military junta that they had successfully prevented a coup attempt. The military junta had stated that intelligence and security services had effectively thwarted a confirmed coup attempt. This event follows the August coup in Gabon, the July coup in Niger, as well as coups in Burkina Faso and Mali in 2022.

The Arguments

We kept hearing about coups in Africa on the news this year and last year. Factors such as historical context, foreign intervention, economic conditions, and the politicisation of the military all play distinct roles.

Despite the recent surge in coups in the last two years, the motivations and outcomes differ. The coups in Mali and Burkina Faso were legitimised due to serious security threats from Islamist terror groups alarming the military that the fight against terrorism was failing. In Gabon’s case, the coup leaders use the former president family’s corruption and disputed election results to justify their actions. The Bongo family, who was in power for over five decades, had profited from Gabon’s oil wealth but had not invested in essential state institutions, leaving the majority of the population in poverty.

Coup outcomes vary widely, and not all lead to positive changes. Some coups, like those in Gabon and Zimbabwe, maintain the ruling elite’s interests without instituting genuine democratic reforms or free and fair elections. Western and international bodies often accept post-coup elections as a sign of progress, even when they lack real competitive democracy. Democratisation can occur after a coup, but it is not always a deliberate goal; other factors, including social and international pressure, may lead to civilian governments taking over.

The Facts

Even if we think that coups are happening often in Africa, researchers say that are not so common. Coup attempts are relatively rare, with political scientists Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne’s research counting 214 attempts from 1950 through January 2022.

The African continent has a history of colonialism, ongoing economic challenges, high inequality, and the influence of Cold War-era proxy battles. However, the most significant predictor of a coup attempt in any given country is precedent. If a country has experienced a coup attempt in the past few years, the probability of another coup in the current year significantly increases, ranging from 25 to 40%. This precedent can inspire coup plotters in similar contexts.

These coups or coups attempts should be viewed as part of a broader global shift away from democracy, particularly within the context of the ongoing great power struggle between the Western world and authoritarian governments like Russia and China. In countries heavily reliant on foreign aid for economic and security stability, democracy is challenging to sustain without substantial investment in national institutions and economic development. Unfortunately, in some African countries, the institutions either no longer function properly, or they no longer function at all. Also, polarization and societal division further complicate the establishment of civilian institutions capable of resisting military rule and negotiating for people’s needs.

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