Military takeovers in Africa: When will the AU bare its teeth?
It was late 1987 when Blaise Compaoré became president of Burkina
Faso in a coup d’état. Michael Jackson was atop the charts with his
album “Bad” and the Berlin Wall would stand for another two years.
years later, Mr Compaoré lost power the same way he had taken it.
Burkina Faso’s military hijacked a wave of popular protest and toppled
the long-time strongman from his Ouagadougou throne on November 1st
2014. Mr Compaoré’s convoy of tinted-window sport-utility vehicles
snaked south-west to Côte d’Ivoire, following the path to exile trampled
by so many post-independence African leaders chased from office at the
barrel of a gun.
As news spread of the departure
of “Beau Blaise”, as he was known, euphoric celebrations filled the
streets. But in the blur of the following days’ hangover, another
realisation set in: who had taken his place? Had Burkina Faso traded one
bad government for a worse one?
So long as the
military remains in power—or the military at least retains the post of
prime minister—the answer is yes. Burkina Faso’s recent coup, like all
illegal takeovers, is a disaster for the country. Zapping decades of
dictatorship may appeal to Africans desperate for a lightning strike of
political change after protracted stagnation. Unfortunately, the damage
inflicted by a coup d’état in a single day almost always takes years,
sometimes generations, to repair.
putsch throws national economies into recession for three full years,
according to coup expert and political scientist Jay Ulfelder, former
director of the CIA’s Political Instability Task Force. On top of the
drop in growth rates, illegal regime change often prompts international
isolation, a severe drop in foreign investment, and the loss of
international aid that is often crucial to funding social support
Prior to Madagascar’s 2009 coup, for
example, the government relied on international donors to cover 40% of
its bills, according to its 2008 budget. After the takeover, a
coordinated isolation campaign yanked that money away from
Madagascar—eliminating $4 out of every $10 from the government’s planned
expenditures. The country faced total quarantine from the global
stage—even though the military handed control back to a civilian (albeit
unelected) almost immediately.
The African Union
also suspended Madagascar for almost five years. During that period
essential donors such as the US and France cut off bilateral aid, and
the World Bank closed its multilateral aid tap.
damage persists more than five years later, as Madagascar’s growth
rate—above 7% in 2008, according to World Bank figures—has still not
come close to its pre-coup levels, only reaching 2.1% in 2013.
is not alone on the continent. While governments are overthrown
everywhere in the developing world, Africa is uniquely afflicted.
coup d’état is an unconstitutional transfer of power originating from
within the state, usually involving the military. This is in contrast to
a rebellion or civil war, which involves groups of fighters that are
distinctly outside the state apparatus. Between 1960 and 2013, 386
alleged, planned, failed and successful coups d’état disrupted the
African continent—an average of more than seven per year, according to
the Center for Systemic Peace, a non-profit think-tank based just
outside Washington, DC.
have sometimes pointed to “alleged” and “planned” coups against their
regimes as a pretext to crack down on internal opposition. For example,
in 1991 Tunisia’s ruthless strongman, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali,
fabricated a plot by Islamists and a few hundred military officers that
he viewed as major threats. He used the pretext of this conspiracy to
jail and torture hundreds of men from both rival groups. As a result,
accurate counting of coups that includes “alleged” and “planned”
attempts is problematic.
Leaving aside these
take-over attempts, in the 54 years since most of Africa became
independent, 85 successful coups, including the recent one in Burkina
Faso, have removed the ruling regime—an average of 1.6 per year since
Moreover, the absolute numbers are high
relative to other regions. The Center for Systemic Peace reports that
Africa has been home to 53% of all coups d’état in the world—a
distinctly disproportionate share.
So we know that takeovers happen in Africa with alarming frequency. But have the trends changed over time?
the first three decades of African independence, “successful” coups
took place at almost metronomic intervals: 20 in the 1960s, 19 in the
1970s and 20 in the 1980s. During the wave of democratisation in the
1990s, fewer governments (14) were overthrown, but military takeovers
still persisted as a common way for regimes in Africa to rise to power.
takeovers have declined in the new millennium with just seven
“successful” coups. But they may be making a comeback as militaries have
taken over five governments in sub-Saharan Africa since 2010: Burkina
Faso in 2014; Egypt, 2013; Guinea-Bissau, 2012; Mali, 2012; and Niger,
2010. In addition to these clear-cut examples, the Arab spring’s
unconstitutional transfers of power demonstrate the sometimes murky
distinctions between coups and revolutions. The 2011 transfer of power
in Egypt is rarely called a coup, but this classification is debatable
because Egypt’s military retained de facto authority. The Libyan case is
far clearer and was certainly not a coup. The regime was toppled by
outside intervention and a series of militias that were not part of the
Regardless of their frequency or
how they are counted, one major change has made it less tempting for
soldiers to seize power in Africa: the international community, at the
urging of the African Union, is taking a much firmer stance against
regimes that arrive in power by unconstitutional means.
1997 the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had a policy of
non-interference in the affairs of member states. After all,
long-standing incumbents had written the rules and were not eager to
have a supranational body dictate their internal affairs.
precedent began to change when the army deposed the president of Sierra
Leone in May 1997. The OAU’s secretary-general, Salim Ahmed Salim,
condemned the coup and demanded that the international community
repudiate the subsequent government. They did: Nigerian troops of the
west African intervention force, Ecomog, drove out the rebels and paved
the way for the reinstatement of the deposed president, with about 100
casualties, according to press reports.
years later, the continent’s leaders signed the Constitutive Act of the
African Union—a replacement for the Organisation of African Unity. The
Act’s article 30 censures illegal takeovers and establishes that
“Governments which shall come to power through unconstitutional means
shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the Union.”
was a major change from the previous policy of non-intervention. It
compelled the African Union to suspend the memberships of Madagascar
(2009), Mali (2012), Egypt (2013) and the Central African Republic
(2013, still in effect), owing to their unconstitutional transfers of
power. A strict reading of the African Union’s article 30 should have
led to the suspension of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in 2011 as the new
governments were certainly not put in place using constitutional means.
But, if they had been barred, these countries would have each earned
reinstatement (at least initially) by their attempts to hold elections.
leaders can now be certain of the immediate costs: perpetrating a coup
is a nearly sure-fire way to lose membership in the club of African
states (though alarmingly, Burkina Faso and its coup leader and new
prime minister, Yacouba Isaac Zida, a lieutenant-colonel, seem to be
getting away with it). Worse, it also is likely to lead to a complete
loss of bilateral assistance and international recognition (again,
Burkina Faso may be a troubling exception). The spoils of many African
governments are still alluring but that attraction is diminished when
aid dollars are shut off completely and diplomatic ties are severed.
a result, the battlefield in the aftermath of coups has now changed; it
is no longer about securing non-intervention after unconstitutional
takeovers. Instead, African leaders that seize power illegally are now
playing a branding game, trying to label their palace revolutions as
“popular insurrections” aiming to “restore democracy” rather than
This tendency is as old as
African coups themselves. As Ruth First, a South African coup scholar,
put it in 1970, “It is as though, in the army books and regulations by
which the soldiers were drilled, there is an entry: Coups,
justifications for; and beside it, the felicitous phrases that
coup-makers repeat by rote.” But at least back then, everyone knew it
was a farce and did not take the coup justifications seriously.
marketing was on display in Burkina Faso in November 2014 when soldiers
deposed a civilian leader who had won four disputed elections. They
welcomed the protestors’ labelling the event the “Black spring”, hoping
to attract the goodwill that was generated by the Arab spring. Tens of
thousands of people had taken to the streets calling for the ousting of
Mr Compaoré. But as soon as the military deposed a civilian and made a
soldier the prime minister, the event became a textbook coup. Now, they
are trying to package it as a “civilian transition”. A man in uniform,
however, would not be guiding a genuine civilian changeover.
lies the paradox: many people in Burkina Faso may be elated at the
demise of the Compaoré regime, just as many people in Egypt were
recently delighted to see General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian
military overthrow Muhammad Morsi in 2013. But both events were steps
backward, not forward. On a continent that has been rife with military
takeovers since independence, the time has come to intensify, not
lessen, the pressure on regimes that seize power in unconstitutional
The African Union threatened Burkina Faso
with suspension if it did not return to civilian rule swiftly, but
backed off when the military agreed to cede power to a civilian-led
transition. That is too lenient. This regime change is unconstitutional
and contravenes article 30, which binds the AU to immediately suspend
Burkina Faso until it holds fresh elections. This “civilian transition”
is a sham.
If the AU wants to stop coups it must
respect its own rules, which deem military takeovers unacceptable
transgressions, even if the deposed government was unpopular.
the African Union proves it has teeth, military takeovers will persist
on the continent. Soldiers were once tantalised by coups that propelled
them to power without any negative consequences. Today, despite more
penalties, soldiers are still tempted. Why? Because as in Burkina Faso,
the AU is looking the other way.
unconstitutional takeovers are to be made aberrations of the past,
armies that depose governments must face isolation, sanctions and loss
of aid until clean and fair elections are held. In Burkina Faso, that
message has been lost and the African Union has been duped.
Brian Klaas us a Claredon scholar at Oxford University. His research
focuses on democracy building in Africa through improving elections and
preventing violent conflict. He has also worked with Somali-Americans as
the policy director for the campaign of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.
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