These days, a question crops up when African officials gather to discuss governance: Which president will be ousted by his military next? In the first two decades of this century, 13 successful coups took place in Africa. But from August 2020 to November 2023, seven African leaders were toppled by their own militaries. While these military takeovers have so far primarily occurred in a belt of instability that stretches from Niger to Sudan, the risk of broader contagion is real. In already fragile states, coups tend to reverse economic and political progress, and so stemming their rise may be the most urgent task for Africa in the coming decade.
To do so, however, both African policymakers and analysts outside the continent must better understand the shared dynamics that underpin these coups. In one sense, each recent coup has been different, driven by local problems. Some have emerged in response to government failures to control Islamist militancy. In Mali, for instance, before the ousting of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in 2020, years of Islamist violence—and a failed French-led military intervention to tackle the fighting—had sapped public trust in his government and offered an opening for the military. Unchecked Islamist violence also paved the way for Burkina Faso’s coup in 2022.
Yet in coups in Guinea and Gabon in 2021 and 2023, respectively, Islamist militancy was not a factor. In Guinea, which had suffered under erratic dictators for decades, an elected president’s moves to cling to power for life prompted a military intervention. In Gabon, blatantly rigged elections by a weakened longtime ruler provided the impetus for change. In Chad in 2021, military leaders used the opportunity opened by the long-ruling president’s sudden death to appoint his son the head of a military council—and then jettisoned their promise to limit the council’s time in power. That same year in Sudan, military leaders sought to consolidate their power in the face of a growing popular protest movement. The late July 2023 coup in Niger, meanwhile, appears to have stemmed from an internal power struggle between the president and a military chief.
The fact that so many different predicaments have ended the same way, however, suggests that the idea of launching a coup to resolve any manner of problems may indeed be becoming entrenched. And although local dynamics inspired each coup, discontent with governing authorities cuts across much of Africa.
Economic woes are the primary driver of popular frustration. An annual survey by Afrobarometer, a Ghana-based research group that assesses popular attitudes across the continent, found in 2022 that citizens of almost every African state, including inhabitants of relatively stable East African and southern African countries, believed that their country was headed in the wrong direction.
In years past, coups in Africa were often viewed negatively by the population. They were seen as greed-driven efforts by men in uniform to corner state resources. But today, particularly in the Sahel, military takeovers seem to enjoy popular support. In 2022, research by the UN Development Program found that eight in ten Malians backed their country’s military junta, although the same survey found that recent coups have tended to draw the most support shortly after they occur but then decline in popularity.
This shift in popular opinion appears alarming, suggesting that African citizens are becoming disillusioned with democracy or increasingly believe that authoritarian rule is the only solution to their countries’ problems. Multinational institutions are cracking down on junta-led countries. The African Union (AU) has suspended the membership of countries that undergo coups, West African nations have imposed harsh sanctions, and European donors are cutting support.
This zero-tolerance approach, however, misunderstands the roots of Africa’s new unrest and risks further immiserating a continent already hit hard by global shocks such as climate change and COVID-19. In fact, comprehensive surveys show that African citizens, even those who live in countries that have recently experienced coups, still have faith in democracy. They have been desperate to rid themselves of regimes that purport to be democratic but often fail to deliver on democracy’s most basic promises.
Faced with climate-change-driven catastrophes, sovereign-debt crises, and soaring inflation, populations in many African countries have nonetheless gathered the energy to protest for democratic reforms. But over the past two decades, leaders in fully a quarter of African countries have modified or discarded constitutional term limits to consolidate their own power. To many African citizens, a military takeover may look like a welcome break in a dispiriting status quo; any change, even a coup, at least cuts a window into an otherwise long tunnel of elite failure and repression.
Coups only worsen countries’ problems. But leaders who hope to stem their rise must recognize the deeper context in which they are emerging. If they do, they will see that a markedly different approach is necessary. Foreign governments and institutions such as the AU may at first need to work, temporarily, with some coup leaders to encourage them down a more democratic path. More important, Western actors must shift their habitual approach to the continent, moving away from security assistance and military action to backing governance reforms and boosting the kind of economic support that improves ordinary families’ chances of securing stable livelihoods.
Few regions have been as badly hit as Africa by recent global shocks, and leaders on the continent have often been at a loss to address the damage. Climate change has brought hunger to swaths of the eastern Horn of Africa, unprecedented flooding to Libya and South Sudan, and deadly storms to southern Africa. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine reduced grain exports to Africa, elevating food prices just as many countries were trying to chart a path toward reviving economies battered by COVID-19.
Over the past few years, China has become Africa’s biggest lender. But its loans to Africa have recently fallen tremendously, from a USD 28 billion peak in 2016 to just under USD one billion in 2022. And the rise in U.S. interest rates has triggered the flight of capital from key African economies as investors eye better returns at home.
On average, inflation on the continent stood at 16 percent in the summer of 2023, far higher than the global seven percent average. In Nigeria and Ethiopia, Africa’s two most populous countries, inflation has topped 25 percent; as of September 2023, Nigeria had witnessed ten months of consecutive rises in inflation. African countries also rely on oil from the Middle East, and if the new war between Israel and Hamas expands, that could send already steep energy prices higher.
This gloomy picture marks a turn from the relative optimism that characterized the beginning of the twenty-first century on the continent. During the Cold War, both Moscow and Washington made Africa a proxy battleground, warping its politics and fueling wars. Economically speaking, however, many African countries also received generous support from Western governments and Western-dominated international institutions in exchange for not running into Moscow’s embrace. Others got support from Moscow.
When the Cold War ended, much of Africa was plunged into a decade of political and economic uncertainty. As democracy spread in Eastern Europe, some African authoritarian rulers were also driven out of office; meanwhile, economic trouble in Africa deepened as Northern Hemisphere countries cut financial support. Many African countries sought loans from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As a condition for these loans, the lenders required African governments to institute painful market reforms.
These reforms were controversial. But after 2000, some began to yield dividends. The first few years of the century brought surging growth in many parts of the continent: on average, African countries’ real GDP had grown 2.5 percent throughout the 1990s, but between 2000 and 2010, that growth surged to 5.0 percent. Political stability deepened, too. Elections became routinized in many countries.
The 2002 founding of the AU symbolized the continent’s surge of confidence. The AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, founded in 1963, had for decades been considered toothless; it ignored autocrats’ abuses and horrors such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Before his own authoritarian turn, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni famously called the OAU the world’s “trade union for dictators.” When a set of young, ambitious African leaders moved to replace the OAU, they decided it was time to hold member states to a higher standard.
The new AU committed itself to “non-indifference” to human rights abuses, departing from the OAU’s state-centric focus on “non-interference.” Its leadership also emphasized the need to forbid unconstitutional changes of government. Early on, pan-African leaders such as South African President Thabo Mbeki and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo used the new body to champion effective initiatives such as the African Peer Review Mechanism, a program in which African governments periodically assess one another to gauge their performance on good governance, transparency, democracy, and political accountability.
Behind the scenes, however, vulnerabilities persisted. Many African countries continued to suffer a major deficit of democratic governance. The first decade of this century was a period in which Western predominance went largely unchallenged, and authorities in Africa had to be careful not to fall afoul of powerful Western actors. Some countries made serious strides toward democratic consolidation. But in others, strongmen cultivated a performative democratization, ushering in the pretense of multiparty politics to appeal to Western capitals.
Too often, even in countries that staged elections, incumbents often tried to tilt the playing field in their favor. They restricted the ability of opposition parties to mobilize support, frequently suppressed civil society, and curtailed freedom of the press. Multiple countries—including the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, and Zimbabwe—ended up under “electoral authoritarianism,” a kind of regime in which presidents fix elections and change the constitution so they can serve beyond their mandated term limits.
In too many places, voting came to be seen as a meaningless ritual. And many governments on the continent did not widely share the dividends of economic growth in the boom years. Some presidents made bargains with powerful elites, extending them access to state largesse in exchange for not challenging their hold on power. Providing services to the wider public was viewed as a low priority.
This fragile but still optimistic outlook truly began to erode when the 2008 global economic crisis sent commodity prices crashing, cutting a vital source of income for many African governments.
Then, in 2011, NATO-led troops invaded Libya to enforce a UN Security Council resolution. This was a cataclysmic development for West Africa. The intervention released streams of sophisticated weaponry from Libyan armories into the Sahel, empowering an assortment of nonstate armed groups, shifting the balance of power against ill-equipped and poorly motivated state security forces, and igniting violence across a vast expanse of territory from Mauritania to Chad.
The price for civilians was colossal. Even though many of the countries caught in the crossfire had never been wealthy, citizens in rural areas had lived in relative normality and peace. Today, many rural communities in the central Sahel have been upended by strife. Fully ten percent of Burkina Faso’s inhabitants have been displaced from their homes. The failure of a series of French-led military interventions, beginning in 2012, to reverse the rise of militancy incurred further civilian casualties. These French misadventures also inflamed deep resentment at the perceived arrogance of governments in Paris that still seek to call the shots in their former colonies and generated a strong wave of nationalism across much of West Africa.
Even in the wake of these disruptions, some African countries still appeared to be on the cusp of establishing more representative governance.
For three decades, Ethiopia had been led by the same iron-fisted political coalition. But in 2018, Abiy Ahmed, a relatively unknown figure, came to power following a wave of protests. He quickly released political prisoners and announced a set of sweeping political reforms; his peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. That same year in Sudan, an inspiring protest movement—with women in prominent roles—succeeded in driving the autocrat Omar al-Bashir into an undignified retirement in prison.
But soon, these two transitions went off the rails. In 2021, the Ethiopian government and allied forces from neighboring Eritrea became embroiled in a civil war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had formerly led the coalition that governed Ethiopia. The generals who replaced Bashir in Sudan, eager to enjoy unchallenged access to state resources, sent their country into its own exceedingly pointless civil war.
The unipolar moment appears to be over, and the emergence of new powers pursuing interests in Africa—China most prominent among them, but also Russia and middle powers such as Brazil, India, Turkey, and the Gulf monarchies—gives African leaders more choices of partners. They no longer feel an acute need to bend to Western demands that they democratize. Some of those middle powers are feeding new conflicts by supplying arms to favored leaders and factions in areas in which they have commercial and geostrategic interests. The fighting in Sudan alone has killed thousands of people, displaced seven million others, and driven 19 million students out of school. Ethiopia’s recent civil war left hundreds of thousands dead.
It is hardly surprising that many recent coups have been followed by celebrations in the streets. But Africa’s outlook is not unremittingly gloomy. A number of countries in East Africa and southern Africa have escaped the specter of coups and remain headed toward democratic consolidation. In 2007 in Kenya, claims of vote rigging after a presidential election devolved into ethnic violence, killing over 1,000 people and displacing up to 600,000.
By 2017, however, allegations of election fraud were met very differently: the Kenyan Supreme Court overturned President Uhuru Kenyatta’s declaration of victory and ordered a new election. It was the first time a top court in Africa had ever insisted that a disputed election be rerun, and Kenya’s candidates and officials respected the decision.
In 2019, the Malawian Supreme Court followed Kenya’s lead, annulling President Peter Mutharika’s electoral win after the opposition party complained that the race had been marred by irregularities. An opposition leader won the court-ordered repeat vote. And in Zambia in 2021, an opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, won the presidency despite the incumbent’s determined efforts to tip the scales in his favor. After Zambian electoral officials announced Hichilema’s win, the incumbent accepted the outcome and left office peacefully.
South Africa is enduring an economic crisis born of the ruling African National Congress’s lamentable fiscal mismanagement, but it remains a strong democracy with robust institutions, including courts widely viewed as independent; these courts serve as a powerful guarantor of the country’s post-apartheid constitution, one of Africa’s most progressive. Overall, African countries that have invested in affording citizens more responsive governance and built credible institutions such as independent judiciaries have fared better.
Free and fair elections do not uniformly correlate with stability. In Rwanda, for example, authorities govern with a heavy hand but still deliver services effectively. Generally, however, democracy and stability appear to be correlated. An annual survey by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that champions improvements in African leadership, found in 2022 that countries that receive the highest ratings for “overall governance” from their citizens also tend to be the most peaceful.
It may seem counterintuitive, but in less stable countries, citizens may hope that coups will eventually lead them down a route that more closely resembles Kenya’s. African citizens’ general warm reception of recent coups, in the Sahel in particular, does not signal a loss of faith in democracy. Earlier this year, the UN Development Program conducted a study of Africans’ views on coups and constitutional manipulation. The study surveyed 8,000 Africans, 5,000 who live in countries that have endured recent coups and 3,000 living in countries headed toward democratic consolidation.
Sixty-seven percent of people living in the solidifying democracies said that democracy was their preferred form of governance. But 55 percent of people in the countries now ruled by juntas also said they preferred democracy, nearly triple the amount who preferred nondemocratic rule. The finding that African citizens still have faith in democracy was supported by another recent major survey, this one conducted by the Open Society Foundation. Aggregating the views of 36,000 people worldwide, it found particularly strong support for democracy as a mode of governance among African respondents.
African citizens’ apparent support for military juntas seems to signal public fatigue with failed elites, not a distaste for democracy. In essence, militaries are stepping in where political classes have run out of ideas, failed to renew themselves, and proved incapable of providing their people with solutions to immediate problems, whether related to security, public services, or the redistribution of wealth. Often, civilian rule has meant bad rule, and desperate citizens view military rule as a ready-made alternative.
The way that Western governments, the AU, and subregional organizations have responded to the unrest, however, has exacerbated instability. These institutions have generally reacted with stock outrage, insisting that any coup simply abrogates rules and norms. The AU, for instance, has suspended Burkina Faso, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, and Niger from its ranks until constitutional rule is restored.
The Economic Community of West African States imposed harsh sanctions against Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali; its sanctions have severely curtailed Niger’s access to electricity. In some cases, external actors have insisted that the only possible proper response to a coup is to reinstate an ousted leader, even when the real prospects of reversing a coup are dim. This past summer, ECOWAS, with France’s eager backing, spent weeks demanding that Niger’s president be reinstated and issuing threats to intervene militarily. This punitive approach hurts civilians while failing to substantially change the behavior of juntas.
The first step to reversing this political instability in Africa is to embrace a more nuanced understanding of it. Many Burkinabe, Guinean, Malian, and Nigerien elites have ready retorts to the outrage expressed in Western capitals and at the AU in response to military takeovers: Where were you when we were struggling with jihadists killing our people? Where were you after our incumbent presidents organized sham elections? When African leaders have modified or discarded presidential term limits, the AU, in particular, has not been nearly so quick to condemn this kind of power grab.
Institutions such as the AU can make a stronger case against military coups: they simply do not work. Putschists come to power promising to restore security and improve lives but typically wind up making things worse. The Sahel offers an example. Its security situation today is grimmer than it was before military generals seized power. In 2007, only one percent of deaths caused by jihadi violence worldwide occurred in the Sahel.
In 2022, that proportion had climbed to a staggering 43 percent. According to the Global Terrorism Index, maintained by the Institute for Economics and Peace, in 2022 Burkina Faso saw more fatalities from jihadi attacks than any other country in the world.
The effects that coups have on economies are no less dire. In 2020, University of Munich researchers published a study of coups and coup attempts in 180 countries over 70 years. They found that a successful coup slows a country’s GDP growth by two or three percentage points. After a coup, soldiers not trained to handle economic affairs tend to set unpredictable policy, and investors hold back; cuts to donor programs deal a further blow.
Even before Niger’s mid-2023 coup, leaders there managed to raise only 52 percent of the revenue they needed to run their government programs. The subsequent cuts to donor assistance mean that its new leaders will struggle to meet the public’s needs.
Efforts to reverse coups once they have happened, however, rarely succeed. In Niger, for example, the chances that military rulers would return President Mohamed Bazoum to power were close to nil. A hard-line stance only limits the capacity of foreign governments and multilateral institutions to influence the new leaders and deepens insecurity. In June 2023 in Mali, putschists, citing the need to protect national sovereignty, demanded that a UN peacekeeping mission exit the country. The peacekeepers’ departure contributed to the resumption of hostilities between Malian forces and armed rebel groups as both sides vied for control of the military bases the UN left behind.
In this complex context, a more astute response would aim to improve the situation in the countries where soldiers have seized power. The role of the military in recent African coups needs to be understood in less stereotypical terms. West African militaries, and many other armed forces across Africa, now generally boast well-trained corps led by officers who have often received instruction in elite Western military institutions. Many ordinary citizens in countries such as Mali believe that despite ongoing security challenges, military leaders stand the best chance of restoring stability.
The United States’ response to the coup in Niger offers a loose template. Unlike Paris, which immediately cut diplomatic relations with the new military rulers, Washington signaled that it would keep troops stationed in Niger contingent on the military transitional authorities’ accepting a transition to civilian rule and rejecting help from the Russians. This pragmatic approach is not without risks. There is no guarantee that Niger’s junta will consistently yield to U.S. demands. But the approach is worth trying. It is more likely to yield fruit than a censorious stance that forecloses the possibility of any engagement with a country’s new leaders after a coup and may even encourage them to seek partnerships with authoritarian actors such as Russia.
In the future, other leaders and policymakers should be more open to working with coup leaders, encouraging them to take steps toward hybridizing their government so they incorporate political parties and civil society organizations, including women’s groups. Military leaders may consider these steps less threatening. But they could allow regional actors, as well as external partners, to discreetly support civilian groups that can agitate for an eventual return to a constitutional order.
The AU must go beyond suspending countries that suffer unconstitutional changes of government. In principle, suspending a country’s membership after a military junta is sound; it is in line with the AU charter. Merely suspending military-led countries, however, will do little to achieve a change of tack in their capitals. The AU must have sustained engagements with new military authorities to encourage a transition back to civilian rule. Moreover, the AU should show greater consistency to avoid the charge that it suspends countries selectively: it made an exception for Chad in 2021, ruling that the transition there did not amount to a coup.
The United States and Norway have also maintained substantial humanitarian aid to Sahelian countries hit by coups. In response to coups, other Western governments and the UN should continue to offer targeted economic and humanitarian assistance. ECOWAS must rethink the damaging sanctions it has imposed on its military-run member states, at a minimum exempting essential commodities such as fuel, medicines, and electricity. Many citizens support coups out of despair over their economic and security difficulties. Avoiding punishing them is the only way that outside actors can keep these citizens’ trust.
Prevention is better than cure
Using a different approach with putsch leaders will, of course, not be sufficient to stem an epidemic of coups in Africa. Much broader concerted action is needed to prevent economic pain from evolving into political unrest. Just this year, protests have broken out over the high cost of living in countries as disparate as Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa. Throughout much of the continent, anger is palpable, especially among the urban poor.
Local authorities are not blameless. But global conditions severely limit even the best-intentioned African leaders’ capacity to respond to their economic difficulties. A significant problem is the debt crisis now afflicting the developing world. Africa’s debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 65 percent, 10 percent higher than the IMF’s maximum recommended limit. In 2017, the World Bank considered 15 sub-Saharan African countries to be in debt distress or at high risk of it; that number has since climbed to 23.
In late 2020, Zambia defaulted on its sovereign debt, thanks, in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2022, Ghana, too, failed to meet its debt obligations. It now suffers a 38 percent inflation rate, one of the highest in Africa. In 2024, numerous African countries’ eurobond loans will come due, and governments will have to divert resources from service delivery to debt payments, a step that will inevitably anger citizens. For some other countries, the risk of default is climbing.
African countries’ sovereign debt burden is no mere accounting problem. Debt defaults immiserate millions, threatening security and democratic governance. A major World Bank study found that after a country defaults on its sovereign debt, infant deaths spike by 13 percent, and poverty rises by 30 percent, remaining elevated for many years.
Wealthier countries have proposed steps to help alleviate these economic challenges. But follow-through has been sluggish. EU states, for example, pledged to recycle their allotment of Special Drawing Rights—an asset created by the IMF to boost its member states’ national reserves—to low-income countries to help them recover from the pandemic. According to African leaders, however, this help has been too slow in coming.
In an era of restless geopolitical competition in which great powers are vying for influence in Africa, the United States could win friends by helping African countries evade economic collapse. In a promising move, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen joined a June 2023 summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron to assess solutions to the debt crisis that plagues much of the developing world. But Washington should do much more. It can urge the IMF to lengthen borrowers’ repayment periods and offer more concessional financing to poorer countries. Such moves might prompt China to seek goodwill by taking more concrete steps to help address African countries’ debt distress.
The bloom of youth
A final key to improving African security and livelihoods is to pivot away from a security-based approach. After 9/11, Western governments diverted energy and funding previously directed at alleviating poverty over to the security sector, channeling billions of dollars toward building up African militaries’ capacity.
The perception that military actions in Africa—from coups to armed jihadist uprisings—ought to be met with a military response became entrenched. But this approach has yielded paltry returns. Security operations remain vital in the effort to push back militancy. These must be accompanied, however, by strong political efforts to engage with groups that might be willing to renounce violence in exchange for incentives such as invitations to join their country’s formal security services or local governance structures.
Addressing the deeper socioeconomic conditions that militants exploit to recruit discontented youth may help authorities turn the tide against jihadists. The example of Côte d’Ivoire is worth emulating: over the past decade, the country has implemented a comprehensive economic development program that includes apprenticeships and credit facilities for young people in its northern region. Compared with many of its neighbors, however, Côte d’Ivoire is relatively wealthy. Poorer countries will need external support to muster such initiatives, including from international financial institutions and Western governments.
Decision-makers in Western capitals, already struggling with domestic challenges, may be reluctant to try to sell taxpayers on the idea of sending more money abroad. But helping Africa in its season of strife may be easier to frame than many Western leaders imagine: for developed countries, investing in Africa is an act of enlightened self-interest.
Working with African leaders to create plentiful opportunities for young people to thrive and receive a good education will carry benefits well beyond Africa. Indeed, it is a necessary task. If population trends continue, by 2050, four in ten people between the ages of 15 and 24 worldwide will be African. When the rest of the world is graying, young Africans will form a growing part of the workforce of the future. If the global economy is to remain dynamic, Africans must have the skills and resources to drive that dynamism.
At a recent gathering of the AU, one of its officials posed a provocative question to fellow leaders: In how many countries on the continent would they see popular celebrations if their citizens woke up to find the government toppled? The season of coups in Africa may not be over. But the long-run solution to ameliorating the strife on the continent lies in making the investments required to improve governance and build stronger states. This is hard and painful work. Encouraging good governance is much more onerous than launching showy military interventions. But it is nevertheless necessary. Those who wish to promote peace and security in Africa have no other option than to do it
(Comfort Ero is the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Murithi Mutiga is the director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group.)
Contributed by Comfort Ero and Murithi Mutiga