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The ‘contagion of autocracy’ calls for a rethink of presidential security in Africa

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By Dr. Ismaila Ceesay,
Political Science Lecturer,
University of The Gambia

On 30 August 2023, shortly after Gabon’s election commission announced that President Ali Bongo Ondimba had been elected to a third term, officers of the Elite Republican Guard unit of the small petrostate in central Africa, became the latest men in uniform to announce on state television that they had usurped power. The junta, led by General Brice Oligui Nguema, placed the president under palace arrest, declared the vote null and void, dissolved state institutions and closed borders. The putsch effectively ended the Bongo dynasty in that country of 2.4 million people.

In similar fashion a month earlier, in Niger, some 2000km north of Gabon, the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by the very people who were supposed to protect and uphold his office – the presidential guards. President Bazoum was the first elected leader to succeed another in Niger since independence in 1960. There also, the putschists suspended the country’s constitution and installed Gen Abdourahmane Tchiani as head of state.

Over the past 24 months, there have been seven coups and coup attempts in African nations with a common pattern. In Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan military leaders succeeded in seizing power; in Guinea-Bissau a coup attempt was thwarted. As some of these countries were navigating democratic transitions, albeit tenuously, the resurgence of these coup d’états seems to lead to democratic backsliding underlying a troubling shift in the political landscape of the continent resultantly creating a new conundrum that Nigerian President Bola Tinubu called a “contagion of autocracy”.

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The recent spate of coups in West and Central Africa has ignited a debate on the contagiousness of military coups in Africa. Ruth First, the South African anti-apartheid activist and scholar, observed in her 1970 book ‘The Barrel of a Gun’ that ‘what the military of one state do today, their confreres next door may do tomorrow’ indicating that coups are contagious. However Naunihal Singh, associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College calls this ‘the myth of coup contagion’, arguing that there is no evidence of a contagious wave and that ‘what we are seeing is simply the coincidence of already coup-prone countries (mainly in Africa) having coup attempts in the same period’.

Once seen as a relic of the past, these blatant assaults to established governance structures and democratic institutions have reemerged with renewed vigor, jeopardising regional security and stability with far-reaching consequences for the democratic and development trajectory of the continent. At the start of the 21st century, The Economist relying on data collated by Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, two prominent political scientists, reported that ‘democratic transitions, shifting norms and stronger institutions led to a decline in the frequency of coups globally’. The data indicates that from 1960 to 2000 there was an average of 40 attempted or successful coups globally per decade. In the 2000s there were just 22; in the 2010s, 17. The 2020s have already brought 14. This data suggests a gradual increase in the frequency of coups.

In Africa, there were 71 military coups d’états between 1952 and 1990 resulting in the toppling of governments in 60 per cent of the continent’s states, according to Alex Thomson, a lecturer and researcher in African politics at Coventry University in the United Kingdom. During this period, countries such as Cape Verde or Equatorial Guinea experienced just one coup whilst most were subjected to two or three. Other states, such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria, ‘were locked into a vicious cycle of coups and counter-coups’. To reflect the mood of this unfortunate era when military rule became the norm instead of the exception, US diplomat George Ball reminisced his tenure at the State Department recalling that he was ‘awakened once or twice a month by a telephone call in the middle of the night announcing a coup d’état in some distant capital with a name like a typographical error.’ The military take-overs only subsided in the 1990s coinciding with the fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing end of the cold war ushering a ‘new wave of democratisation on the continent’. During this decade, the number of coups reduced significantly, with regime change now more likely to be prompted by popular uprising as demonstrated by the Arab Spring in the 2010s or democratic elections as in the case of The Gambia in 2016.

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Every military coup d’etat is different and has its own causes and affect all forms of governments from democracies, monarchies to military regimes. Though each case is unique, they share common characteristics and explanations. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent high inflation and global cost of living crisis have hurt African economies. According to The Economist, insecurity, especially in the Sahel, makes military leaders seem more palatable. And as with many illegal acts, when there are few consequences more people will try them.

Whether coups are contagious or not, the reality is that they prove to be of particular significance in the evolution of post-colonial African politics. And as Alex Thomson argues, ‘coercive agencies such as the police and the military may be a necessity of government’, but it is essential that they only act as the custodians of state violence and remain subservient to political leaders. This has not been the case in Africa. Many a time, soldiers have used their access to violence in order to instigate military coup d’état. Consequently, those who were employed and entrusted to manage violence on behalf of the state chose to turn this violence on the state itself, to capture political power for themselves with disastrous consequences.

After assuming power, the military soon came to realise that toppling the ‘Ancien Regime’ proved much easier than establishing an effective replacement government. Despite their initial populist rhetoric, many of these coup leaders woefully fail to deliver or bring any meaningful transformation because they are not equipped to govern as we have seen in Liberia, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Central African Republic to cite a few examples. Instead, military rule has been calamitous for the continent—contributing to and aggravating instability, corruption, human rights abuses, impunity, and poverty.

As already underscored above, each coup is different. It is, therefore, important that we recognise the unique vulnerabilities of each coup context. Categorising coups in Africa as a uniform, inevitable trajectory could be misleading and unhelpful for informed analysis and response, argues Archibald Henry and Elizabeth Murray of the United States Institute of Peace. A custom-made approach should be adopted in preventing, addressing and responding to coups — whether in Africa or beyond. Preventing coups in Africa, as in any region, requires a comprehensive, context-specific approach and a commitment to democratic values and principles. It also involves addressing complex political, social, and economic factors.

First of all, African countries must strengthen democracy through the development of strong democratic institutions, including free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press and encourage transparent and accountable governance. Second, economic development must be promoted by addressing economic disparities and root causes of poverty, promote inclusive economic growth, ensure the provision of basic services and create job opportunities for the population, especially young people. Third, strengthen the rule of law, promote human rights and ensure that security forces operate within legal boundaries. Fourth, foster regional cooperation and diplomacy and deepen engagement with the international community to provide diplomatic support when needed. Fifth, promote civic education and awareness of democratic principles amongst the population.

The above preventive measures, though by no means exhaustive, should be complemented by regional and international willingness to enforce anti-coup norms. Sanctions and other measures must be employed in response to coup attempts and real costs on coup makers must be imposed, including the possible deployment of military force to enforce a return to constitutional order. Finally, recent insurrections in Guinea (Mamady Doumbouya), Niger (Abdourahmane Tchiani) and Gabon (Brice Oligui Nguema) illustrate that in practice, presidential guards drawn from the ranks of the military frequently play a central role in the various coups and countercoups launched in Africa. Better equipped and trained and normally under the direct control of the head of state, they were meant to act as a deterrent to the rest of the armed forces. With heads of these security outfits, who were assigned the role of protecting the president and his family now turning the guns on the very people and institutions they were supposed to protect, perhaps it is time to rethink presidential security in Africa.

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