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AFRICA’S CRISIS OF COUPS: A FAILURE OF DEMOCRACY?

Mar-19-2024

BY VALERIE MORAA

In the 5th century BC, the city of Athens in Greece stood out among other early societies due to its model of governance. While most ancient societies at that time were ruled under the systems of aristocracy, for instance, the Roman Empire (509-27 BC) and oligarchy, for example, the city of Sparta in Laconia, Athens adopted the system of democracy. Democracy is a word derived from the Greek words “demos” meaning people and “kratos” meaning power, thus can be loosely translated into “power belonging to the people”.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of democracy as “a system of government by the whole population or all eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives” insinuates the existence of variations through which democracy may be carried out. Unlike in modern societies where the roles of governance such as decision and policy making are at most instances undertaken by a group of people chosen by the larger population to represent their interests, in the city of Athens in the fifth century BC, all people directly participated in decision and policy making, therefore justifying the existence of two main approaches to democracy: indirect (representative) democracy and direct democracy. However, most people subscribe to Abraham Lincoln’s definition: democracy is a government, “of the people, by the people, for the people”

Democracy is lauded for its characteristics of empowering the citizenry by involving the people in governance, promoting equality, encouraging self-determination and eliminating discrimination. This United Nations (UN) recognizes these positive characteristics of democracy through the UN General Assembly Resolutions on Promoting and Consolidating Democracy[1] and encourages the member states of the UN to advance and further democratic practices.

UN General Assembly, ‘Promoting and Consolidating Democracy’ (28th February 2001) 55/96

As aforementioned, democracy may be carried out indirectly whereby the people choose representatives to carry out governance roles on their behalf through the process of election. One of the most important elective posts is the seat of the President. It would be expected that since the President is voted in by the people, he would receive full support from them. However, over the past few years, there has been a surge of military-orchestrated coups to oust democratically elected presidents from power especially in the African continent. The following list gives the names of countries which have experienced military coups within the last three years in Africa and the names of presidents ejected as a result of the coups

1. Gabon, October 2023- Former President Ali Bongo

  • 2. Niger, July 2023- Former President Mohamed Bazoum

  • 3.Burkina Faso, January 2022- Former President Roch Kabore

  • 4. Sudan, October 2021- A military takeover by Army General Al-Burhan due to conflict between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and civilians.
  • 5. Guinea, September 2021- Former President Alpha Conde

  • 6. Mali, August 2020 and May 2021- Former Presidents Ibrahim Boubacar and Bah N’daw, respectively
  • Chad, April 2021-Former President Idriss Deby

A number of the above listed coups have occurred as a result of the governed being fed up by the continuous perpetual rule of their presidents, take for instance the three-decade long rule of Former President Idriss Deby of Chad. Others are owed to the tampering of election results like in Gabon where the electoral process characterized by a lack of international observers, suspension of foreign broadcasts, the disabling of internet services and the imposition of a nighttime curfew after the poll.

Therefore, is it wrong to conclude that the fortes of democracy have been deeply flawed? Has democracy become a crisis instead of a solution? What is the role of the international community through the UN in curbing this situation of an upsurge of political instability resulting from coups?

- On Whether the occurrence of coups d’état should be attributed to the exercise of democracy

“No one pretends that that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,”-Winston Churchill, 1947.

Despite its preeminence and wide application as a method of governance, democracy has been critiqued by a number of scholars in the past and even in present time. These include Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas who advocated for a blended form of government combining elements of different types of government rather than a purely democratic government, Plato who expressed that the most effective government was a government by the most qualified, and Thucydides who witnessed the fall of Athenian democracy. I would argue that democracy, in some manner, is related to, but isn’t the cause of the several counts of anarchy, political instability and disorder in the African Continent.

The UN General Assembly Resolutions for Promoting and Consolidating Democracy while encouraging the international community to bolster democracy, states the various ways in which democracy is exercised. Despite the most common practice of democracy involving the participation of the electorate in the leadership of a country, democracy also involves the empowerment of citizens through the freedom of “…peaceful assembly and association, as well as freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and free, independent and pluralistic media.

While participatory governance in form of elections is geared towards empowering elected leaders to make decisions on behalf of the larger population, the freedoms of expression, opinion, free media, association and assembly are aimed at empowering the citizens to hold the democratically elected leaders accountable for their decisions and resulting actions. High levels of accountability discourage democratically elected government officials from taking part in unlawful, illegal and corrupt transactions.

Guinean coup leader Col. Mamady Doumbouya, center, leaves a meeting with high-level representatives of the Economic Community of West African States in Conakry on September 17, 2021. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A democratic nation that exists within the practice of high accountability due to high levels of the exercise of the freedoms of expression, media, opinion, assembly and association would be described as a strong democracy. On the contrary, a nation in which the practice of these freedoms is minimal would be a fragile democracy.

Therefore, my argument is that the issue causing the upsurge of military coups in West African countries isn’t the practice of democracy, but rather, the practice of fragile democracy. As a case in point is the Republic of Chad whereby the government of Former President Idriss Deby banned the carrying out of protest marches of citizens questioning the credibility of elections and mishandled the members of civil society campaigning against the president.

In Guinea, a journalist by the name Diallo was beaten up by a member of the presidential guard after taking photos of Former President Alpha Conde while he was leaving the then ruling party’s headquarters where he had gone to attend the party’s weekly general assembly. He was also asked to delete the photos that he had taken and his camera’s memory card was destroyed. Conde’s presence at the meeting was an unlawful act since Article 38 of the Guinea constitution prohibits the president from engaging in party activities . This is an example of an attempt to deny the people of Guinea the ability to hold their president accountable for an action inconsistent with the law.

Thus, the people in such fraught democracies, upon getting fed up by the infringement of freedoms that should enable them to check their government, have no choice but to oust their democratically elected presidents forcefully by means of military coups.

WHAT STEPS CAN BE TAKEN TO REGULATE THE SITUATION?

In spite of the fact that military coups are staged to protect the interests of the populace, it cannot go without notice that they have extreme effects on the socio-economic state of a country and its neighbours. Events surrounding the occurrence of a coup lead to, among other things, drastic fluctuation of the economy, political instability, absence of the rule of law as well as distrust and dissatisfaction within the society. They also provide a loophole for radical terrorist groups to thwart interim military governments. For instance, in Mali after the May 2021 coup, it was being feared that the violent and extremist jihadi groups might take advantage of the state of instability and start a war, threatening international peace and security.[1] In Niger, prices of basic commodities shot up by up to 20% just days after the ousting of Former President Mohammed Bazoum by military. To add insult to injury, The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed sanctions on Niger that prevented the movement of people and goods in and out of the landlocked country that depends fully on neighbouring nations for the importation of supplies such as rice, a staple for Nigeriens. What moves then should African nations make in light of the sudden upheaval of coups seeing as the Constitutive Act of the African Union aims to “…promote peace, security, and stability on the continent[1]; and promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance…”

First and foremost, African countries should focus on building strong democracies that encourage transparency between the elected and the electorate through strengthening of accountability mechanisms. This is through allowing free exercise of democratic freedoms such as those to expression, opinion, association, peaceful assembly and free media that have been granted to all people by international, regional and national laws through instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and local constitutions. African nations should ensure that the people

enjoy these rights without fear of hostile treatment from the government. This will empower the people to check the government thus discouraging leaders from furthering selfish and corrupt actions which stir up coups. in addition to that, African countries should embrace the system of checks and balances which originates from the principle of separation of powers. French social and political philosopher Montesquieu came up with this very critical jurisprudence that encourages the division of governmental responsibility into three arms (legislature, executive, judiciary) to prevent the concentration of power within one arm and enable the three arms to audit each other. A president, who is a member of the executive, should be subject to scrutiny by members of the legislature and the judiciary. However, in circumstances where the system of separation of powers is not applied in a rightful manner, a president may seem to consolidate too much power, for example by being a member of the other arms of government therefore blockading the ability of these arms to check him. The president is therefore almost at full liberty to do as he wishes, which should not be the case.

Finally, African countries should adopt diplomatic methods to solve internal democratic and governance issues. For example, during the 2007/2008 post-election violence period in Kenya, Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan used mediation to solve the internal crisis, hence saving the country from the “brink of collapse.