While recent coups are cause for concern, autocratic governance is not inevitable—nor is it irreversible.
Coups are back in Africa. Men in green wearing boots and berets, toting guns, and donning sunglasses. Since 2020, soldiers have pushed out democratically elected governments in six countries. From Mali in 2020 to Sudan in 2021 to Niger in 2023, military rule is in vogue.
Many of the takeovers represent actions of self-seeking soldiers and other adventurers weaponizing longstanding (and mostly legitimate popular resentment) against the neo-colonial exploitation of western nations. There is also a growing human security crisis driven by violent extremism and jihadist insurgencies—conditions that enable coups—especially in the Sahel region of West Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of Central Africa. External anti-democracy forces, notably Russia and its Wagner Group, exacerbate this instability in their pursuit of geopolitical, ideological, or purely mercenary goals on the continent.
Unfortunately, autocratic rule—civilian and military—is also back in vogue. Many of the coups are in response to the misdeeds of democratically elected leaders and governments: election manipulation, corruption, human rights abuses (sometimes in the name of countering violent extremists), and brazen unconstitutional changes in government as seen in Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, and Togo, among other African countries. These offenses are often committed with impunity. Support for democratic governance is slipping as supply of democratic governance lags.
We currently stand at a precipice. Africans prefer democratic governance, but democratic dividends are backsliding due to misgovernance.
Whereas the machinations of breaking constitutional term limits burn slowly, coups cause an explosion to the system. The spate of coups concentrated in the Sahel over the last three years has justifiably sent alarm bells ringing from Abuja to Paris to Washington, DC. The response of West Africans, as captured by TV cameras, appears to be jubilant. Whatever the cause, coups bode ill for Africa—even if they appear to enjoy popular support, real or engineered. We’ve seen this picture before: Coups usually end in misery and three decades of authoritarian rule hardly produced meaningful stability or socio-economic development on the continent. After independence, founding leaders abridged the liberal democratic constitutions they inherited. The centralized political and administrative structure under authoritarian leaders was deemed necessary for political stability, national unity, and rapid socio-economic development. But it led to widespread political instability and socio-economic decay in the region. The continent’s numerous coups—as many as 171 from 1960 to 1989, and about half of them successful—were part of the story of the continent’s persistent political and socio-economic chaos.
By 1990, the average score for Sub-Saharan Africa on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI), a statistical composite index that measures key development achievements primarily in health and longevity, education, and standard of living, was 0.404 (one a scale of 0 to 1), compared with 0.6320 for Latin America and the Caribbean, and 0.7860 for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries.
Born Again: Africa Rising
By the 2010s, Africa was “rising,” as the era was often called, a consequence, in part of the democratic transition that had swept the continent beginning in the 1990s. The frequency of military coups subsided substantially which helped foster some economic and social development. Job-creating foreign direct investment flew into countries, and Sub-Saharan Africa’s average HDI scores saw a steady increase, eventually reaching 0.549 in 2020. The percentage of citizens living on $2.50 a day was cut nearly in half between 2000 and 2015.
The Afrobarometer—a pan-African, non-partisan research network that surveys public attitudes about democracy, governance, the economy, and society—may offer a simpler example of the benefits that democratic governance has brought to Africa. I co-founded Afrobarometer in 1999 with the explicit democratic goal of giving a voice to the people. The political environment that prevailed in much of Africa at the time was hardly democratic. From 1999-2000, only 12 African countries were sufficiently politically open and some 14 African countries remain outside of Afrobarometer coverage to date. Surveys and related activities have been suspended in some countries because of hostile political conditions, and there have been a few instances of our national partners facing negative political reprisals—with one of them fleeing into exile. However, that Afrobarometer has been able to conduct surveys and disseminate its findings in close to 40 countries is a significant measure of the progress in democratic governance over the past two decades.
Successful surveys require some level of cooperation and buy-in from the government. In a majority of countries, a government permit must be secured in order to undertake research. Secondly, we derive our survey samples from the national population census frame, which is normally sourced from the government’s statistical agency, an accomplishment both in system transparency and integrity.
African Citizens Want Democratic Governance
In multiple surveys spanning two decades, ordinary citizens across Africa have consistently expressed their desire to live under governments that are both democratic and accountable. In the latest surveys (2021-2022), an average of two-thirds of the respondents (66%) expressed a preference for democracy over any other system of government. They also rejected non-democratic alternatives like one-man rule (80%), one-party rule (78%), and military rule (67%). Even more reassuringly, support for media freedom increased by 12% between 2014 and 2022; preference for accountable governance over effective governance went up by 7%, and the need for the president to comply with court decisions rose by 5%.
We should take lessons from the past, when Western nations and international finance institutions worked together with African governments and civil society, continental and sub-regional bodies, and international partners to secure debt relief, reduce poverty, and end civil wars.
Faith in democratic governance has waned only when the country’s elected leaders and governments have failed to deliver, or are perceived as perverting the democratic political order. In South Africa, for instance, where the level of perceived integrity of the presidency dropped by 20% between 2014 and 2022, citizen’s preference for democracy has correspondingly dropped by 21%. Indeed, the gradual but alarming drops in levels of popular opposition to military rule in Mali and Burkina Faso between 2014 and 2022 seem to be related to declining levels of citizen satisfaction and the decline of functioning democracy in the countries.
What Should be Done Now?
We currently stand at a precipice. Africans prefer democratic governance, but democratic dividends are backsliding due to misgovernance. We must restore faith in the dividends of democracy. While democracy is desirable on its own merit, it’s not edible. Considering Africa’s problems, democracy must deliver tangible goods.
First, we must support African pro-democracy and accountable governance reformers. Governments hardly change on their own unless pushed. Often, strides have been made in good governance not because of the government, but in spite of it. For decades, African civil society organizations have been pushing hard to force the transition to democratic governance, to ensure the integrity of elections, to help enact laws for best practices in good governance, and to hold governments accountable. A good example of this is Ghana’s civil society-driven Right to Information Act (Act 989). Enacted in 2019, it has given Manasseh Azure Awuni and The Fourth Estate investigative journalist group for which he is editor-in-chief, the constitutional right to access information held by public institutions.
Second, let’s go back to what works. We should take lessons from the past, when Western nations and international finance institutions worked together with African governments and civil society, continental and sub-regional bodies, and international partners to secure debt relief, reduce poverty, and end civil wars. This was sometimes achieved through reform-conditioned development aid and other expressions of “soft power.” The design of the US’ Millennium Challenge Compact stands out for its power to motivate democratic governance.
The Government of Togo remains a good contemporary example. Having demonstrated adequate progress in the rubrics for democratic rights and control of corruption, it has received $12 million from the Compact Development Fund toward poverty reduction. This is on the heels of receiving $35 million for land reform to improve agricultural development and to expand affordable information and communications technology access nationwide.
Western and other internationally backed security and stabilization initiatives, as well as development programs in Africa, must tackle the underlying gaps in democracy and accountable governance alongside military and police force build-up. African civil society and the private sector must be included in planning security initiatives with African governments; this will help to promote citizen buy-in and ensure program accountability and sustainability.
First, we have to deal with Niger. At the time of writing, leaders of the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, appeared to be making progress in talks with the military leaders. Whatever the outcome, the sub-regional body has shown newfound resolve, even if late, to push back against the scourge of military usurpation of the people’s choices. Whatever form the pushback takes, it is crucial for the leaders to continue to communicate to citizens that ECOWAS’ motivation is to uphold democratic governance standards and apply those principles to all unconstitutional, and quasi-constitutional, changes of government.
E. Gyimah-Boadi is co-founder and board chair of Afrobarometer and the co-founder and former executive director of Ghana Center for Democratic Development in Accra.
Cover photo: Supporters of Niger's ruling junta gather at the start of a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference in Niamey, Niger, August 3, 2023. AP Photo/Sam Mednick.