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Coups in West Africa: A reflection of deficiencies in Africa’s electoral democracies?

11th June 2012

By: In On Africa IOA


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In the early hours of 22 March 2012, news of a military coup d’état in Mali spread across the world. Claiming a lack of adequate means and resources to fight Tuareg insurgents in the north of the country, military officers announced on state television that they had seized control and deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure. No more than three weeks later, on 12 April 2012, Guinea Bissau’s Government was toppled by elements of the country’s military after alleged plans by the former to downsize the military. Interestingly, both coups occurred only a couple of weeks prior to scheduled presidential elections. In Mali, outgoing President Toure had made clear his intention to hand over power to a democratically elected president after the 29 April 2012 elections.(2) In Guinea-Bissau, a second round of presidential elections was also scheduled for 29 April 2012, although the leading opposition candidate had opted to boycott the polls, claiming fraud in the first round.(3)

Although accession to power through elections has become the norm in Africa, the two recent coups d’état in West Africa have underscored lingering deficiencies in Africa’s contested electoral democracies and their influence on the reoccurrence of coups, particularly in their historical bedrock - West Africa. This paper discusses this apparent resurgence of military takeovers as a preferred mechanism for accessing political power in Africa. The paper contends that the deficiencies in electoral democracies, including electoral disputes and violence, corrupt civil-military relations and a lack of socio-economic development, have a significant impact on the rising incidence of the unconstitutional takeovers of power by the military in some parts of Africa.


Electoral democracies steadily become entrenched in Africa, but not all democracies are equal

The 1960s were once called the “the military decade in Africa,” given that the continent was plagued by coups during this period.(4) In West Africa, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Mali all experienced one or more successful coups between 1960 and 1963 alone.(5) In the 1960s and 1970s, three-quarters of African leaders were assassinated or forced from office by coups d’état. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, only five countries in Africa held competitive elections on a regular basis.(6)



Source: Economist Intelligence Unit (7)

However, in recent decades, violent conflicts and coups have been steadily displaced with regular multi-party elections across the continent. By 2011, multi-party elections rose to 18, and 15 countries held presidential, legislative and/or local government elections during that year. Furthermore, 23 countries have polls scheduled for 2012.(8) According to Afrobarometer, support for electoral democracies among voting-age citizens across the continent is underpinned by a belief that democracy will improve development and the accountability of governments.(9) Accession to power through elections is now widely accepted as the norm in Africa.

Inter-governmental regional bodies, such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have played a critical role in supporting this democratic trajectory on the continent. For example, the AU’s Peace and Security Council has consistently opposed illegitimate transfers of power. During the 2000s, the AU suspended the membership of six states.(10) In the same vein, since 2005, ECOWAS has suspended and sanctioned coup leaders that refused to commit to holding elections.(11) The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, put into effect in February 2012, constitutes another welcome development for both the AU and ECOWAS’s democracy and governance architecture. It is the latest legal framework that condemns military coups as unconstitutional changes of Government and promotes electoral democracies as the preferred alternative.(12)

Nevertheless, the quantitative gains in the organisation of elections have not been matched by a steady improvement in the quality of electoral democracies. According to Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank, between 2005 and 2006, Sub-Saharan Africa had 24 electoral democracies; the highest figure since the inception of the study in 1989.(13) By 2011, this figure had dropped to 19, with 10 of the 19 countries considered “Partly Free” democracies.(14) This trend, indicative of rising democratic shortcomings on the continent, cannot be disconnected from the recent coups witnessed in West Africa. This regression signals dissatisfaction with the wavering pace of democratisation and the resultant lapses in socio-economic development. As such, they provide incentives for rogue elements in the military to usurp political power.

Incumbents subvert democratic processes to hang on to power

On a continent where patronage politics is widespread, elections have become a mechanism to further entrench the power of the incumbent and his kin and kith. The determination to hang on to power, in one form or another is usually driven by a leaders’ total dependence on state power and the access to economic wealth and the social dominance that this power provides. A good example of this trend is in Cameroon, which boasts one of the highest levels of corruption in the world. The abolition of presidential term limits in 2008 enabled Paul Biya to gain his sixth consecutive term in office.(15) In nations such as this, state institutions are instrumentalised and electoral processes manipulated. Consequently, electoral dictatorships masquerade as electoral democracies, sowing the seeds of instability that rogue elements in the military are willing to exploit.

The 2010 coup in Niger offers a glaring example of how attempts by incumbents to subvert the democratic process create conditions for the military to usurp power. The coup followed growing discontent with President Mamadou Tandja following a controversial referendum in 2009 to abolish limits on presidential terms of office.(16) Despite the established norm against military takeovers in Africa, thousands of Nigerien citizens took to the streets in the wake of the coup in celebration of the overthrow of President Tandja and the dissolution of his Government. No doubt, it is this sense of popular dissatisfaction with President Tandja’s supposed democratic rule that served as an opportunity for soldiers to successfully undertake the coup.

The case of Niger suggests that the failure of the state and democratic institutions to mitigate the abuse of power that patronage networks enable and to ensure free and fair elections are held, is to a large degree to blame for the occurrence of coups. Scholars accordingly argue that the very abuse of the electoral process is one of the root causes of coups.(17) When the principal democratic avenue that could be used to change power is corrupt and mistrusted, demand for power by other, often violent means, is the logical alternative.

Lack of socio-economic development stokes instability

In his works on coups and civil wars in West Africa, Patrick McGowan of Stellenbosch and Arizona Universities has argued that underdevelopment and profound state weakness are the major structural causes of coups and violent conflict in the region.(18) Political analysts and scholars alike, agree that there is a syndrome of “developmental strains and stresses” in African political systems that provoke the military to seize power.(19) Military role-expansion is hence viewed as a function of “systemic disequilibrium.”(20) Therefore, in contexts where corruption, patronage politics and high levels of inequality and poverty are pervasive, the likelihood of coups is even greater.

This is particularly the case in most African countries where the holding of regular elections does not necessarily translate into good governance in between elections. In most cases, corruption, mismanagement and attempts by rulers to entrench their hold on power have the effect of undermining socio-economic progress, which in turn creates frustrations and instability in the polity. As the recent coup in Mali suggests, these structural disturbances resulting from the weakness of the state to address legitimate socio-economic and political grievances can easily be exploited by the military to disrupt the democratization process and impose their will on the people. For instance, in the lead up to the Malian coup, Malians were tired of the high levels of unemployment, the soaring cost of living and the rebel problem in the north. The feeling was that President Toure’s time, steeped in corruption, was up. Ordinarily, the presidential election that was soon to be held would provide an opportunity for Malian citizens to cast their vote and be counted. But in the lead up to the coup, there were fears that the planned elections would be rigged.(21) Suspicions that President Toure had chosen a successor and the overriding sense that it would be impossible to hold a fair election while the country was split in two prompted the coup.(22)

Destructive civil-military bedfellows fight for power

The military retains significant influence in most African countries, even those that carry the label of electoral democracy. Close alliances – political and commercial – with civilian elites are commonplace as politicians try to seek the backing of the military to consolidate their hold on power. This often significant share in politics leaves the military with a permanent incentive to interfere with the democratic process to protect its own interests. The recent resistance by the Egyptian military to subject its economic ventures to civilian oversight in the wake of the ousting of Hosni Mubarak is illustrative of the growing anti-democratic civil-military alliances in Africa. It is, however, in Guinea-Bissau that the connection between this alliance and the incidence of coups in Africa is brought into sharp focus.

Since its independence from Portugal in 1973, Guinea-Bissau has undergone waves of violence and instability, which have seen a dictatorship, four military coups, a civil war and the killing of four military chiefs of staff.(23) Before the death in office of President Malam Bacai Sanha in January 2012, every one of Guinea-Bissau’s elected presidents had been removed by a military coup d’état.(24) Most recently, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes was becoming increasingly unpopular due to his efforts to downsize the bloated and ill disciplined army – thus strongly relying on a contingent of Angolan troops, 200-strong, sent in to support a US$ 30 million security sector reform program.(25) This overt threat to the army’s power could not to be tolerated and inevitably led to the April 12 coup.

Critically, khaki-clad cliques are more likely to resort to violence and fight their civilian counterparts in countries where state resources are the principal, to most easily accessible, repository of economic opportunity. For example, with a society steeped in perpetual abject poverty, combined with an interventionist military and a profoundly weak state, Guinea-Bissau has become easy prey for drug cartels which have transformed the dysfunctional nation into a narco-state, of which several senior military figures have been accused of involvement.(26) Dr. Zounmenou of the Institute for Security Studies argues that drug trafficking and the army offer better opportunities to some generals and political actors than a democratic and well-governed state in Guinea-Bissau.(27) The symbolic and material benefits for those who control the state are such that attempting a coup is a risky but nevertheless rational political strategy for military rent seekers.


The struggles inherent in the pursuit of a stable, free and fair electoral democracy far outweigh the long-term democratic and developmental setbacks that coups engender. Coups must be avoided and elections, however faulty and unfair, must be the sole alternative to accessing political power in Africa. The recent coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau should not be seen as stand-alone exceptions within the broader democratic development of Africa. They are in fact critical forewarnings that if long-term investments are not made in strengthening state institutions, stemming corrupt civil-military relations and patronage politics, and promoting socio-economic development for all, Africa could quickly revert to the political state of the “military decade” of the 1960s.

Written by Helidah Ogude (1)


(1) Contact Helidah Ogude through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Election Reflection Unit (
(2) Zounmenou, D., ‘Mali’s unfortunate military coup an unnecessary setback for democracy’, Institute of Security Studies, 25 March 2012,
(3) ‘Ecowas imposes sanctions on Guinea-Bissau junta leaders’, BBC News Africa, 30 April 2012,
(4) Zolberg, A., 1973. The military decade in Africa. World Politics, 25(2), pp.309-31,
(5) McGowan, P.J., 2006. Coups and conflict in West Africa, 1955-2004 Part II, empirical findings. Armed Forces & Society, 32(2), pp.234-253,
(6) Greenblatt, A., ‘Democracy steadily takes root in Africa’, National Public Radio,
(7) ‘The democracy bug is fitfully catching on’, The Economist, 22 July 2010,
(8) ‘Diehards and democracy: Elites, inequality and institutions in African elections’, Africa Research Institute, Briefing Note 1201, April 2012,
(9) Kerr, N., ‘Perceptions versus reality: Assessing popular evaluations of election quality in Africa’, AfroBarometer, Working Paper 137, 2011,
(10) ‘Diehards and democracy: Elites, inequality and institutions in African elections’, Africa Research Institute, Briefing Note 1201, April 2012,
(11) Ibid.
(12) Affa’a-mindzie, M., ‘The crisis in Guinea-Bissau: In search of a sustainable solution’, IPI Global Observatory, 25 April 2012,
(13) ‘African Elections Database: Electoral democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Freedom House, 19 January 2011,
(14) Ibid.
(15) ‘Diehards and democracy: Elites, inequality and institutions in African elections’, Africa Research Institute, Briefing Note 1201, April 2012,
(16) ‘Thousands rally in support of Niger coup’, BBC World Africa, 20 February 2010,
(17) Agyeman-duah, B., 1990. Military coups, regime change, and interstate conflicts in West Africa. Armed Forces & Society, 16(4), pp.547-570.
(18) McGowan, P.J., 2006. Coups and conflict in West Africa, 1955-2004 Part II, empirical findings. Armed Forces & Society, 32(2), pp.234-253,
(19) Decalo, S., 1973. Military coups and military regimes in Africa. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 11(1), pp.105-127,
(20) Ibid.
(21) ‘Mali: Sanogo no go’, The Africa Report, No. 4, May 2012,
(22) Ibid.
(23) Affa’a-mindzie, M., ‘The crisis in Guinea-Bissau: In search of a sustainable solution’, IPI Global Observatory, 25 April 2012,
(24) ‘Diehards and democracy: Elites, inequality and institutions in African elections’, Africa Research Institute, Briefing Note 1201, April 2012,
(25) Affa’a-mindzie, M., ‘The crisis in Guinea-Bissau: In search of a sustainable solution’, IPI Global Observatory, 25 April 2012,
(26) Ibid.
(27) Zounmenou, D., ‘Double political assassinations in Guinea Bissau: What does the future hold?’, Institute for Security Studies, ISS Seminar Report, 10 March 2009,



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