Africa: The Changing Style of African Coups

Something of a democratic recessional is underway in sub-Sahara, with a weakening of civil society and democratic institutions. This both reflects and facilitates assaults on civilian, secular governments by domestic insurrections–as well as jihadi and criminal elements–against the backdrop of an economic slowdown and COVID-19.

As the August coup in Mali shows, military seizures of power have not disappeared entirely. Nevertheless, the old style of coups–occupation of the state radio and television stations, the presidential palace, and perhaps the central bank, with the arrest of the deposed chief of state by military units based in the capital, all accompanied by martial music–has become rare in Africa. Old-style coups as methods of transferring power face international opprobrium. More common now are incumbent chiefs of state, often with an authoritarian bent, using different, more subtle methods to stay in power rather than seize it, often justifying themselves by the need to counter insurgencies or even COVID-19.

The new playbook often includes somehow overturning constitutionally mandated presidential term limits and then winning rigged or managed elections. However, as Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló told the Economic Community of West African States, third terms “count” as coups. Nonetheless, the abolition of term limits often has a veneer of legality, while the subsequent elections, represented as expressions of the will of the people, confer international legitimacy, if much less so at home. In Mali, a military regime, by appointing a civilian, fig-leaf prime minister and promising elections in the future, has largely satisfied African and international opinion. In other African countries, incumbents make it all but impossible for challengers to campaign.