Good coup, bad coup: the army is not always the enemy of democracy

Military coups can perform a positive function for society in certain circumstances, according to former senior European diplomat Nick Westcott.

The former Managing Director of Africa at the EU’s foreign service says that the armed forces can sometimes provide a check on overreaching politicians.

“It’s in the nature of democracy that politicians tend to promise more than they can deliver”, leaving populations disillusioned with democratic institutions, he told Qonversations.

In countries where elections are far from free and fair or an autocratic leader has been seen to be manipulating the outcome, and constitutional limits are quite weak, Westcott argues that it leaves force as the only resort, giving coups a degree of public legitimacy.

Westcott cites Niger in 2010-2011, when President Tandja, was struck by the curse of the third term, a coup removed him from power and but enabled a transition to democratic elections, “so that, if you like, was a good coup” suggests Westcott. In Guinea, President Alpha Condé also set his sights on a third term, and the military intervened.

In Gabon in August, a clearly manipulated an election result again presented an opportunity for the military, or some would argue duty, to attempt a coup as was that experienced by Ali Bongo after he and his father had ruled Gabon for over 56 years.

Transitioning back to a civilian government has been less timely in some instances which Westcott believes is inherent to taking power as it becomes addictive which can also be witnessed in relation to coups in Mali. Good or bad, the coup caveat remains that they only work for the people, he says, “if the military then do manage to transition back to a freer, more independent electoral system…And that doesn’t always happen”.

Before joining the EU External Action Service, Westcott served as British ambassador to five African countries. He now works as a professor of global diplomacy at SOAS, University of London

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