In Africa, the return of the putschists

In Africa, the return of the putschists

“There is an epidemic of putsches throughout the Sahel,” lamented Emmanuel Macron on August 28, before the French ambassadors summoned to the Élysée. It did not take two days for this diagnosis to find new confirmation, albeit further south this time. On the night of August 29 to 30, General Brice Oligui Nguema, commander of the presidential guard, announced “to put an end to the regime in place” in Gabon and to cancel the August 26 election. Just re-elected President of the Republic, Ali Bongo, whose family had held power since 1967, is “retired” at the age of 64.

Emmanuel Macron is not the only one to worry about the irruption of the praetorians on the African scene. Already in 2021, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, was saddened by the situation on the black continent: “Military coups are back.” And to incriminate “geopolitical divisions (which) undermine international cooperation” and lead to “a feeling of impunity spreading”.

That year, Africa saw six attempts to overthrow constitutional legality, four of which succeeded. In 2022, Burkina Faso experienced two consecutive putsches, while others failed in Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, and Sao Tome and Principe. In July 2023, a junta seized power in Niger. Is there a resurgence in recent years? And, if so, how can we explain it? In an exhaustive study*, researchers Jonathan Powell (University of Central Florida) and Clayton Thyne (University of Kentucky) have identified the coups d’état carried out around the world between 1950 and 2022. If in the first years, it is in Latin America as the pronunciamientos take place, Africa, since its decolonization from the 1960s, becomes the privileged theater of destabilization. For twenty years, putsches followed one another at an average rate of one every fifty-five days.

*Authors of the Coups in the World database – 1959 – Present (Examples of coups around the world from 1950 to today).

An absolute record

In 1966, nine coups d’état shook seven countries (twice in Burundi and Nigeria). Prominent figures came to power through arms: in November 1965, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which he renamed Zaire; in January 1966, the chief of staff of the Central African army, Jean-Bedel Bokassa overthrew, in Bangui, his cousin, President David Dacko; In January 1971, in Uganda, General Idi Amin Dada replaced President Milton Obote. In total, between January 1950 and January 2022, Africa became, with 210 coups d’état, the most troubled area in the world.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, the trend has been decreasing. Between 2015 and 2019, only one putsch succeeded, in Zimbabwe, in 2017 with the dismissal of Robert Mugabe, who had been in power for twenty-nine years. The era of a postcolonial Africa dominated by ethnic antagonisms, where the armed incursion to the presidential palace was the mode of alternation, then seems to be over. The change of course over the past three years is all the more striking. “Africa brings together the factors conducive to putsch, such as poverty, sometimes the existence of a conflict, a terrorist threat difficult to stem, poor economic performance and a political power with contested legitimacy,” explains the researcher. Jonathan Powell. Other reasons come into play. Russian propaganda directed against the West, accused of all evils, has thus served in Mali and Niger, although its field of action remains circumscribed.

A ripple effect

The monopolization of wealth by an incompetent micro-elite and the restriction of democratic rights fuel frustration, especially among the youngest who, failing to share with their elders the memory of the juntas in power, often welcome the interference of the army . However, the average age of the African population is 18 years and a few months (43 years in the EU). 40% of Africans are under 15 years old, 60% under 25 years old: how can they recognize themselves in much older leaders whom they have always known at the helm? Even though “the new military leaders quickly use the “transition periods” to their own advantage and reproduce the same governance practices that they had denounced,” notes Gilles Yabi, political analyst and doctor in development economics.

The mimetic effect works with diabolical perversion. A successful putsch arouses a desire for a putsch elsewhere. “There was not a sufficient reaction, including from France, when there was the first in Mali,” denounced François Hollande. But Paris has renounced its policy of military interventionism, deemed incomprehensible by public opinion. And Africans remain hesitant to themselves assume the risk of operations intended to reestablish institutional order in their neighbor. The military therefore has the way clear.

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