Armed soldiers move on the main artery of Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau
Armed soldiers move on the main artery of Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau

The resurgence of unconstitutional government changes

There have been nine attempted or successful coups d’état in Africa since 2020 and the most recent coups differ in some key aspects from the coups that were seen on the continent in the past, especially during the immediate post-independence period.

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Forcibly imposed military rule has a long and widespread history in Africa. Since the independence of most African states during the 1960s, the number of coups across the continent’s 54 countries ranged every decade between eight and 26, by one count. 

In each case, military strongmen were fully aware of the illegality of their actions and take pains to construct a facade of legitimacy as soon as possible. 

Coup phenomenon

The coup phenomenon also appears permanent, bound to resurge once a new crisis arises. Historical evidence shows, however, that neither of these propositions are true. Coups d’état generally have devastating effects on social and political culture, a trend that has continued in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. Yet, at the same time, it is clearly possible for West African nations to move beyond the coup cycle towards a more sustainable citizen-focused tradition.

The takeover in Gabon is just the latest in a string of coups that have taken place in recent years and comes just a month after soldiers took control in Niger.

The leader of the coup that ousted Gabon's President Ali Bongo was sworn in as interim President and cheered by jubilant supporters in a televised ceremony designed to cast the military as liberators of an oppressed society.

Eight coups

In West and Central Africa's eighth coup in three years, army officers, led by General Brice Oligui Nguema, seized power on August 30, minutes after an announcement that Bongo had won an election they annulled and said was not credible.

There were two in Burkina Faso in 2022, as well as failed coup attempts in Guinea Bissau, The Gambia and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. In 2021, there were six coup attempts in Africa, four of them successful.

Out of the 486 attempted or successful military coups carried globally since 1950, Africa accounts for the largest number with 214, of which at least 106 were successful.

Based on data compiled by two US researchers, Jonathan M. Powell and Clayton L. Thyne, at least 45 of the 54 nations across the African continent have experienced at least a single coup attempt since 1950. 

The overall number of coup attempts in Africa remained fairly consistent at an average of around four a year between 1960 and 2000. Jonathan Powell says this is not surprising, given the instability many countries experienced in the years after independence.

Conditions common for coups

"African countries have had conditions common for coups such as poverty and poor economic performance. When a country has one coup, that's often a harbinger of more coups," he said.

In July 2023, members of Niger’s presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum inside his palace and appeared on national television saying they had seized power to end the “deteriorating security situation and bad governance”.

In 2021, there were six coup attempts in Africa, four of them successful and in April 2021, after the death of the Chadian leader, Idriss Déby, the army installed his son as interim President, leading to a transitional military council. His opponents called it a "dynastic coup". "Coup leaders almost invariably deny their action was a coup in an effort to appear legitimate," says Jonathan Powell.

Africa coups

In the years after 2000, there was a noticeable decline in military interventions but is only in the last couple of years that coups have become more prevalent. 

In 2020, there was just one coup (in Mali). Then in 2021, five countries experienced military interventions (Chad, Mali, Guinea, Sudan and Niger).

In 2022, there were also five attempts, with two — both in Burkina Faso — succeeding.

Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno succeeded his father as Chadian leader in April 2021 and Ndubuisi Christian Ani from the University of KwaZulu-Natal says popular uprisings against long-serving dictators have provided an opportunity for the return of coups in Africa.

"While popular uprisings are legitimate and people-led, success is often determined by the decisions taken by the military," he says.

Countries with most coups

Sudan has had the most coups and attempted takeovers, amounting to 16 — six of them successful. 

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In 2019, long-serving leader Omar al-Bashir, was removed from power following months of protests. Bashir himself had taken over in a military coup in 1989.

Burkina Faso in West Africa has had the most successful coups, with nine takeovers and one failed coup, while Nigeria had a reputation for military coups following independence with eight between January 1966 and the takeover by Gen. Sani Abacha in 1993. However, since 1999, transfers of power in Africa's most populous nation have been by democratic election.

Ghana has also had its share of military coups, with eight in two decades. The first was in 1966 when Kwame Nkrumah was removed from power and in the following year, there was an unsuccessful attempt by junior army officers.

Since the last coup by Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings in 1981, transfers of power in in Ghana have been by democratic election.

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Burundi's history has been marked by eleven separate coups, mostly driven by the tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi communities. 

Sierra Leone experienced three coups between 1967 and 1968, and another one in 1971. Between 1992 and 1997, it experienced five further coup attempts.

In 2021, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said "military coups are back," adding that "geo-political divisions are undermining international co-operation and...a sense of impunity is taking hold," he said.

Overall, Africa has experienced more coups than any other continent. Of the 18 coups recorded globally since 2017, all but one — Myanmar in 2021 — have been in Africa.

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Conclusion

African coups occasionally prompt upbeat assertions that, though unconstitutional, such actions may conveniently remove ineffective governments so to prevent further coups on the continent economies must perform well to lift people out of poverty and Presidents must show leadership.

Dynasty governance should end while third term bids should be condemned and the African Union as welll as the regional blocs should come out with punitive measures against it.

There is the need for the continental body’s official stance on democratic electoral conduct in member states.

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