Are coups still a threat in Africa?

This is not a coup”. When the Zimbabwean military continuously repeated this blunt sentence while ousting Robert Mugabe from the presidency in October 2017, all the contrary seemed to be meant. Watching a man in military fatigues as an improvised TV anchor recalled old memories, from military interventions that happened in Latin America in the 1980s to more recent coups in Mali (2012) and Burkina Faso (2015). The presidential residence was surrounded by soldiers, who also controlled the main roads and the National Television. The elected president, ruling the country since its independence in 1981, was removed and replaced by a non-elected leader from the army.


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It is, however, worth noting how the efficiency of these coups seems to have gradually changed at the scale of the African continent. The aforementioned brutal shifts of power in Mali and Burkina Faso – to which we could add Guinea (2009), Niger (2010) and Guinea Bissau(2012) –all failed to impose a long-term military rule in these countries. In most of the cases, they did not manage to deeply renew the political elites and lasted only a few months, if not a few days: in Burkina, the 2015 putsch failed after only a week of negotiations. One of the rare exceptions is to see in Mauritania, where the President Muhammad Ould Abd al-Aziz is still ruling since his coup in 2008.

Compared to the past decades, this represents a significant shift. From the 1960s to the 1990s, coups were more frequent: a survey from the World Bank counted 99 coup attempts in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1970 to 1990, and 67 from 1990 to 2010, “still a high occurrence in comparison to the rest of the world, but nonetheless a decrease of about one third in two decades” analyses the commentator ObadlasNdaba (Huffington Post, 10.05.2015). Most of these coups were a way to dramatically renew the political landscape if not the institutions, as these were most often dissolved by the putschist powers. In some cases, they almost became the norm more than the exception, as if they progressively reshaped the political culture. Uganda only experienced coups since its independence (1962) when it came to alternate.

Should we conclude at the end of an era? Much is yet to be proven in the next years regarding this trend but looking at how the stakeholders evolved in the recent decades, the equilibrium of forces surely changed.

The most blatant evolution is international. Since the end of the Cold War, military and authoritarian regimes no longer benefit from the strong military and financial support of either of the two blocks. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, perpetrators of coups could get the support from the USA or the USSR by revendicating their values. This explains, for instance, the American endorsement of Togolese dictator Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who violently ousted his democratically elected predecessor, Sylvanus Olympio, who was assassinated in his attempt to flee at the American Embassy… Similar analyses can be drawn with Mobutu’s Zaïre, or the various military rules Nigeria experienced since its independence. Despite the multiple violations of the Human Rights observed in this period, and regardless of the internal tensions and possible counter-coups happening, the main priority for the West was to keep strong allies in the region, like the South African apartheid regime. The leftist stance of the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) was seen as a threat by the capitalist block, who gave their support to the racist rule in place.

Not only were the putschist guaranteed to get an ally if they aligned with socialist or capitalist blocks, but the latter was also sometimes directly at the origin of these military interventions. Coups against socialist leaders Patrice Emery Lumumba, in DRC (1961), Milton Obote in Uganda (1971) and Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso (1987) were more or less explicitly Western-led (BBC, 17.05.2016; Alpha history, 2018). On the other hand, so-called “socialist” attempts happened, with the support of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in DRC, in 1965. The relative “opportunism” of some of these regimes, who sometimes sought to ally with the opposed block also increased the likeliness of coups as they became fragilized by losing their international support and were also more prone to internal divisions. This is what happened in Somalia, where the socialist Mohammed Siad Barre had to face an Ethiopian-led rebellion after losing the support of the USSR.

This context gave a significant role to the military. Proxy wars were raging in countries like Angola, Nigeria (Biafra) or Mozambique, ensuring a constant provision of weapons to the army, which was then in a good position to intervene anytime and control the country on a long-term basis.

The end of the Cold War put an end to this kind of “ideological” coups. Fukuyama’s vision of a global convergence towards a western model of liberal democracy pushed Europe and the USA to urge their African counterparts to organize regular elections. Weakened by the US and USSR’s withdrawal from Africa in the 1990s, militaries had to adapt to a new context. The end of independence-born single-party regimes, combined to the generalization of elections, even if they very rarely led to political alternates, undermined the potential legitimacy of coups, that could be, in the past, the only way whereby an authoritarian rule could end. As states a 2013 policy brief of the Koffi Annan foundation:

“some coups d’étatare considered as acceptable whereas some are completely rejected. The Mauritania coup d’état of August 2005 received muted condemnation from the AU as the overthrown regime had contravened international norms of human rights and good governance”

Coups kept happening in the 2000s, though less frequently, but had thus to promote the quick restoration of democracy and elections to avoid international condemnations. Indeed, the post-Cold War years saw multilateralism blossom, and regional institutions get stronger on the ashes of the bipolar world. The African Union, established in 2002, ambitioned to be much more influent and committed to the respect of democratic principles. Putschist regimes were ensured to be suspended by the AU and regional organizations. In its Supplementary Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy of 2001, ECOWAS affirmed a policy of “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means” and has the power to impose sanctions and suspend countries. This happened for instance in Mali and Guinea Bissau in 2012.

Such groups, like the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) also set up a military force able to quickly intervene in crises (ECOMOG), as it was the case during Liberian, Guinea-Bissauan and Sierra Leonean civil wars in the 1990s. Direct foreign interventions, mostly French in francophone countries also disrupted domestic crises, like in Chad (2008), Côte d’Ivoire (2010-11), Mali (2012) or Central African Republic (2013). In the two latter cases, they supported post-coups transitional regimes.

Despite a relative inefficiency and/or contestation of the legitimacy of these regional and foreign military interventions, their growing presence on the continent removed much agency to national armies and rendered coups less efficient. The settlement of Western military bases and their training to African national armies put them under more pressure and hampered any potential coup.

But it would be misleading to only focus on the international dimension of the trend. The end of the Cold War also coincides with the emergence of an urban and politicized middle-class, often (vaguely) coined as “civil society”. The Structural Adjustment Plans that took place all over the continent in the 1980s pushed African states to privatize a significant part of their public services and to strengthen their security forces, replacing social care with repression (Piot, 2010). The shared discontent among the population federated its various components around clandestine political parties, NGOs, newspapers in a context of single-party systems.

The end of the Cold War was also the one of the imperative to keep allies against communist threats. The West adopted a more progressive attitude towards the opposition and pushed for the adoption of multi-partyism. For instance, at the occasion of the 1990 La Baule summit, a few weeks after civil society groups organized “National Conferences” in Benin and Gabon, France encouraged the process of democratization by conditionalizing its aid to political reforms, strengthening, even more, the structuration of civil societies.

Their growing influence in the 1990s reached a new milestone, multipartyism being followed by an extended liberalization of the press. This process complicated the task to convince the public opinion of the long-term legitimacy of coups. In 1999, a coup occurring in Côte d’Ivoire failed to establish a long-term military rule: the perpetrator of the putsch, General Robert Guei, had to name members of the opposition parties in his government and proposed a new constitution for a referendum after having met representatives from civil society. He was pushed to organize elections the following year, which he lost, and finally accepted to leave power under the pressure of strong citizen movements and demonstrations.

The generalization of social media in the 2010s, coupled with the growth of African middle-classes, reinforced the weight of civil society organizations. The most blatant example occurred in 2014 in Burkina Faso: Blaise Compaoré’s27 years rule ended after a few days of massive protests against his will to reform the constitution, reportedly to allow himself to be the candidate once again at the presidential election. This revolution federated the population around independent structures such as the “Balaicitoyen”, mostly composed of representatives of the civil society.

The following year, a coup fomented by a General who was close to ex-president Compaoré was the occasion to test the strength of such groups. Coupled with an international pressure exerted by ECOWAS and the African Union, strong demonstrations and protests from the revolutionary movements managed to convince the army to oust the perpetrators of the coup after a few days only. Although this episode is the most iconic one, similar movements also appeared in the rest of the continent, from DRC to Senegal.

In other words, in the last two decades, forcibly taking the power is no longer a way to keep it in the long-run in Africa. The end of the Cold War reduced exogenous support for potential putschists, while the generalization of an international stance condemning and sanctioning coups made harder the task to make military regimes last. The growing influence of civil society movements represents a threat for any regime willing to take or keep power by unconstitutional means.

It would be presumptuous to proclaim, as one could read in the media, the definite end of coups. But the conditions leading to them significantly changed and transformed the nature of the military interventions still happening in the 2010s. They seem doomed to become transitions instead of shifts of power and happen under the close watch of a growing civil society and the international community.


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However, the absence of coup, or their short life, is in no case the proof of the existence of democracy. Despite a general improvement, one could observe in this regard since the 1990s, much remains to be done to ensure free, fair and competitive elections and a constant respect of rule of law and Human Rights in Africa as in the rest of the world. Authoritarian regimes still exist on the continent and sometimes benefit from the financial and/or technical foreign support, sometimes from the West. Armies are yet to become fully professional and acting against its interests might be a risky policy from any president. The growing terrorist threat and the security-led response brought by the powers tend to undermine the democratic stance asserted since the 1990s while giving more space to the army. “Old-school coups” might be a phenomenon of the past, nothing can guarantee they would never happen again.



Noé Michalon

M Sc in African Studies,

University of Oxford




African Development Bank, 2012, Political Fragility in Africa: Are Military Coups d’Etat a Never-Ending Phenomenon? By Habiba Ben Barka&Mthuli Ncube’Etat%20a%20Never%20Ending%20Phenomenon.pdf

Alpha History, 2018, Cold War Coups and Proxy Wars

BBC, 17.05.2015, Four more ways the CIA has meddled in Africa

Koffi Annan Foundation, 2013, Coup d’état in Africa – A Thing of the Past?

The Huffington Post, 2015, Military Coups See Beginning of Their End in Africa, by ObadiasNdaba

The Washington Post, 2015, Taking Stock of “Good Coups” in Africa, by Sebastian Elischer

Wiking, S. 1983, Military Coups in Sub-Saharan Africa – How to justify illegal assumptions of power, Uppsala, Scandinavian Institute of African Studies

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