The recent military coups in Gabon, after Ali Bongo won a disputed election, and just a month before in Niger, which ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, shed light again on the critical issue of such events in Africa. The continent has been through several military coups in the last three years. In nine years, it has actually recorded 24 coup attempts. But since 2020, it has recorded a sharp increase in attempts with eight succeeding and five failing. Historically, since 1950, 214, or nearly 45% of the 486 coup attempts recorded in the world, occurred in Africa. In fact, some countries of the African continent did not know a way to change power except through a coup.
Most of the coups during the 2020-2023 wave coincided with the buoyant public climate in which many people welcomed the military, which is exceptional. We have seen, for example, many Nigerians celebrating in the streets. In Mali and Guinea, thousands welcomed the coup leaders as “liberators”, and in Burkina Faso, there were strong supportive rallies. This may be what forced the African Union to move at the continental level during times of high rates of military coups, that is, during the nineties of the last century and also during the year 2021, when the continent witnessed a new spring of military coups, as in three years eight coups took place in the Central African region only, starting from Mali through Burkina Faso, passing to Guinea, Niger and finally Gabon.
Critical Questions and Issues
The high rate of coup attempts in Africa raises critical questions: Why is this the case? What about the factors behind it? What about the bond between political elites and military leaders? Such questions become more critical when we know that those who carried out these coups were mostly young army officers. This increases doubts about the nature of influence within the military and the external connections or support. All of these raise concerns regarding the real causes of the large number of military coups that occur in Africa more frequently than in any other region of the world, and the role played by regional and international competitiveness in igniting this wave of coups. Here, the more pressing issue is that the return of the military raises genuine concerns about its spread within or even outside the continent.
Considering all this reality and these critical questions, it is worth examining the reasons for the spread of military coups. Is it a purely African responsibility or are there motives related to international politics? in a way that would produce a state of political instability, to preserve its interests, especially those related to resources.
Coups were common in post-colonial Africa. The continent has experienced significant coups and political instability since gaining independence from colonial powers in the mid-20th century. Africa has had the most coups in the world since 1950. Out of the 486 attempts that have taken place since 1950, Africa accounts for the largest number with 214, of which at least 106 have been successful. This is followed by Latin America with 70 successful and 76 failed; then Asia Pacific with 27 successful and 22 failed; and the Middle East with 21 successful and 23 failed.
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report released shortly after the coup in Niger titled “Soldiers and Citizens: Military Coups and the Need for Democratic Renewal in Africa,” the continent witnessed six successful military coups between 2020 and 2022, two of which were “coups within coups,” in addition to three coup attempts. This represents an approximately 229% increase in coups over the previous 20-year period. The report hinted at an increase in so-called “constitutional coups,” in which presidents amend constitutions to open term limits and allow third, fourth, and even fifth terms. According to the report, Africa witnessed 98 coups d’état in 70 years (1952-2022), with an annual average of 1.4 per year.
However, a wave of transition to democracy has spread across the continent since the early 1990s. Since its inception in 2000, the African Union has made some progress in adhering to democracy as a criterion for governance, as its constituent law and the “African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance” affirm the continent’s commitment to common values and principles for the peaceful change of power through free, fair and credible electoral processes. The African Union has established an early warning mechanism, and other regional economic groupings have put in place similar instruments that reflect these standards across the continent.
Despite all this, the continent has once again woken up to coups d'état and witnessed a wave similar to what happened after independence, which has raised questions once again about the reasons for this trend and the factors that led to it.
Driving Factors or Forces
There is no doubt that coups in Africa, or even in other areas of the world, are complex events driven by a range of factors, including governance issues, ethnic tensions, economic problems, and power struggles. While the specific causes can vary from one coup to another, almost most, if not all, of the coups that took place from 2020-2023, and even before share common factors or causes, both internal and external. The recent UNDP report analyzes the factors that contributed to this wave of coups and indicates the structural and institutional motives, as well as the emergency incentives that could ignite the coups. The report poses four main questions of great importance: What are the development drivers of military coups in Africa? What explains the apparent popular support for such coups today, including in contexts where democratically elected leaders have been ousted? What policy options should regional and international actors consider to effectively prevent military coups? What can these actors do to restore and maintain constitutional order, reset the social contract, and promote inclusive democratic governance in affected countries in the Sahel?
However, the report's treatment of these critical questions remains limited. For example, when it talks about the factor of "insecurity in the Sahel region" as a cause of coups, it quickly passes over the negative effects of Western intervention to focus on local issues; but it does not mention an example, who was primarily responsible for this? What is the effect of what the major colonial powers did? What are the reasons for the fragility of states in light of the existing world order and the policies adopted in it, such as the policies of loans, aid, trade, work, and so on? In the following section, we refer to the most important factors influencing the process of coups in Africa.
Internally: There are several domestic factors that contribute to the frequency of corpus in Africa. Among them are:
Weak governments: Weak governments may top the list. A serious decline in good governance is linked to the corruption that plagues state institutions. Weak governments are often characterized by a lack of accountability, which can embolden coup plotters. Indeed, the focus in Africa has always been on elections rather than the rules of good governance. In most cases, the ‘elected leaders’, and their governments failed to achieve even a minimal set of people’s desire for a good life. The weakness of the state or the failure of governments in achieving development and providing public services or even the basic needs of people, especially with the outbreak of the coronavirus, significantly contributed to the popular anger against them. This might explain why people welcomed coups and even looked at those who carried them out as heroes.
Political Instability: Political instability, often resulting from weak institutions, corruption, and contested elections, can create an environment conducive to coups. When political leaders fail to address grievances and maintain order, military or other power-hungry actors may see an opportunity to seize power. The 2008 coup in Mauritania occurred in the context of political instability. Indeed, the president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, had been facing mounting opposition, including within his own government. The military staged the coup, citing dissatisfaction with Abdallahi's leadership and his handling of political crises. In Mali’s recent coups, political instability was a justification also. Mali has been struggling with an insurgency for many years, which has led to widespread insecurity. This has created a climate of fear and instability that has made it easier for coup leaders to seize power.
Economic Tribulations: Economic factors, including high unemployment, inflation, and economic inequality, can lead to widespread dissatisfaction among the population. “Lack of comprehensive economic growth,” is a primary cause of coups. Politics and development are largely shaped by wealth and natural resources so that mineral wealth is exploited in a way that leads to harmful development outcomes. When people are struggling to make ends meet, they may be more willing to support a coup in the hope of a better future. This is especially true if they believe that the current government is to blame for their problems. When there is a large gap between the rich and the poor, it can create resentment and anger that can lead to instability. In addition, high unemployment can also lead to instability. When people are unemployed, they may be more likely to join a coup in the hope of improving their economic situation. Coups may be seen as a means to address economic woes.
In recent years, there have been a number of coups in African countries that have been attributed to economic hardship. All may be except Gabon to a certain degree; economic factors are causes or at least mentioned as one of the driving forces of justification for the movements of the military. For example, in 2014, Burkina Faso saw a coup attempt driven, in part, by economic grievances. The military, led by General Gilbert Diendéré, staged the coup in response to discontent with the country's economic challenges and perceived corruption within the government. The most recent round of coups was the same. In addition, the coup in Mali in 2020 was partly motivated by the country's economic problems. The coup leaders argued that the government was not doing enough to address the country's economic problems. The coup in Guinea in 2022 was also motivated by economic hardship. The coup leaders argued that the government was not doing enough to improve the lives of ordinary Guineans.
Military Discontent: Dissatisfaction within the military can be a significant catalyst for coups. This discontent may stem from issues like low pay, poor working conditions, or perceptions of corruption within the military leadership. Mali experienced two coups in 2012 and 2020. The 2012 coup was led by disaffected military officers who were dissatisfied with the government's handling of a rebellion in the north of the country. The 2020 coup was carried out by junior officers who expressed frustration with the government's inability to address security challenges. The UNDP report also touched on the “history of military interference in politics” as a cause of coups, considering that the failure to reform the army and the absence of clear checks and balances are the reasons for this long history of coups.
At the same time, the weakness of the military’s armory is another issue. This is a problem that many military leaders consider one of the shortcomings of being allied with France, the previous most influential power in the region. Paris has been accused of sending its troops to fight in those countries for its own interests instead of providing them with qualitative or advanced weapons to do this on their own. And this may have opened the door to Russian presence through the Wagner Group. The region, which has been under the French umbrella for decades, is ruled by new, young elites who want to diversify partnerships to meet their countries’ security and military needs.
Absolute/Authoritarian Rule: Countries with authoritarian or autocratic leaders are more susceptible to coups. Leaders who centralize power and suppress political opposition can provoke dissent within the military or security forces, increasing the likelihood of a coup attempt. Zimbabwe experienced a military intervention in 2017 that led to the resignation of long-time President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe had maintained a tight grip on power for decades, and the military's move was seen as an attempt to prevent his wife, Grace Mugabe, from succeeding him.
Failure to face Terrorist groups: People were disappointed by the failure of their leaders (particularly in the cases of Mali, Burkina Faso, and to a certain degree, Niger) to respond effectively to the increase in terrorist attacks. The armed forces in many African countries feel that events surpassed them, as the violence perpetrated by terrorist organizations increased, and resulted in many deaths and injuries among the army itself. This led to a decline in the spirits and morale of the forces. Many analysts attribute the events of the last three years to the state of restlessness or agitation within the armies, mainly due to the failure to confront militias and the armed groups that have expanded in the African Sahel region. According to the UN, West Africa recorded 1,800 terrorist attacks in the first six months of this year, resulting in almost 4,600 deaths.
Election dilemma: The validity of the election of some leaders was doubtful. For instance, the military in Gabon claimed the recent general election lacked credibility. So, the ruling class in several cases did not reflect the popular will due to accusations of electoral fraud. In countries with a weak democratic tradition, coups may be seen as a more acceptable means of changing leadership compared to peaceful, democratic transitions of power. Therefore, people’s distrust of “democracy” is due to the fact that it could bring unqualified leaders, who are instigating these coups.
Ethnic or Tribal Tensions: There are other internal factors related to ethnic and racial problems that have been overlapping with political or economic issues as well. Ethnic or tribal divisions and rivalries are exploited by coup plotters to gain support within the military and among certain segments of the population. Ethnic-based grievances can provide a motive for military involvement in politics. The 2008 coup in Guinea-Bissau was influenced by ethnic and political divisions. The president, João Bernardo Vieira, was assassinated amid long-standing political and ethnic tensions in the country. The 1994 Rwandan genocide, although not a traditional coup, was marked by political and ethnic violence. Deep-seated historical grievances and ethnic tensions played a significant role in this tragic event.
External factors: There is no dispute that external factors were present in the coups in Africa and even outside it. External factors can play a role in contributing to coups in Africa. Foreign powers may support coup plotters in order to achieve their own strategic goals. It may be important here to refer to the report issued by the University of Texas, in which it points out that France was behind many military coups, assassinations, and elections that it funded directly or through its companies that penetrated into political circles to support the ruling elites and ensure their loyalty, and the number of these various interventions reached more than 20 between 1961 and 2018, one of which was in Niger itself when it orchestrated Mohamed Issoufou’s coup against his predecessor, against the background of the latter’s demand to amend the agreements of French companies exploiting uranium to be with fairer returns in favor of Niamey.
In some cases, external factors also play a significant role. The continent, specifically West Africa or sub-Saharan Africa, has turned into a battleground for major powers, particularly France, which still regards the region as its arena of influence, and the new rivals, Russia and China, which seek to enhance competition with the West in its areas of influence, for political motives as in the case of Russia, and for economic reasons as in the case of China. Russia's growing ambitions and political influence in Africa have been cited as potential factors in coups. Some experts believe that Russia may be willing to support coup plotters in order to gain access to natural resources or to expand its influence in Africa.
An in-depth look at the recent coups on the continent reveals that at least some of them are linked in one way or another to external forces. Most of the current officers, including those who carried out or participated in the coups, were trained in Russia, unlike the previous generation of officers who, in general, graduated from French or Western military schools. It wasn’t without reason that they turned toward Russia. The deteriorating security situation and the failure of Western efforts to achieve tangible progress in combating terrorism in the region contributed to motivating the military to move and even, at some point, seek aid from Russia. The 2020 coup in Mali was reportedly supported by external powers. The coup did generate speculation about the possible involvement of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company known for its involvement in various conflict zones around the world. However, it's essential to note that concrete evidence linking the Wagner Group directly to the coup remains limited, and neither the Russian government nor the Group itself have officially confirmed any involvement.
Perhaps the future and the possibility that those coups would spread to other countries are crucial questions at this point. There is no doubt that the contagion scenario can be foreseen. If the causes that led to these coups are not seriously addressed, this will again lead to a loss of confidence and thus increase the possibility of more coups, even though the military may come to power without a real development agenda and most often leave without achieving any progress or development. That is why it is crucial to look deeply at the internal causes, whether related to political frustration, insecurity, lack of leadership, electoral fraud, etc. These indeed create a suitable environment for coups. Therefore, a repetition of the Gabon or Niger coup scenario is strongly probable, and in countries more turbulent than Niger, which is an exception in its surroundings given that it has witnessed only four military coups since its independence from France in 1960, which is the lowest number of coups in the countries of the region.
There is also an important factor that could raise the possibility of further coups. The success of coups in controlling power in certain countries could encourage others to do the same, especially if there are no strong deterrent measures such as sanctions, whether at a regional level through, for example, the African Union or at the international level through, for example, the UN and the EU.
One of the most important issues is the historical struggle between the military and political regimes, which may be more inherent in the case of Africa than in any other region in the world. The failure to adjust this relationship with strong constitutional frameworks that guarantee the complete neutralization of the military from being involved in politics will increase the chances of coups from time to time, and perhaps precipitate a new wave, as happened during the last three years.
What Should be Done?
There is no doubt that coups in Africa, regardless of their justifications, cause instability and do not serve the interests of its people or the countries that seek to establish good relations on the continent and invest in a way that benefits their people. Therefore, it is important to work to confront and deal with this phenomenon. Preventing coups in Africa, as in any region, requires addressing the underlying political, social, and economic factors that contribute to political instability. Some of these include strengthening government institutions, including the rule of law; improving economic conditions, which include creating jobs, reducing poverty, and narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor; strengthening the military and police and promoting good governance, which includes fighting corruption, ensuring transparency and accountability, and building trust between the government and the people.
The prevalence of coups in Africa underscores the complex web of political, social, and economic challenges that the continent faces. This paper has explored the multifaceted factors and causes of coups, including political instability, weak governance, corruption, economic hardships, and struggles for power, in addition to external factors, and foreign interventions. Indeed, coups in Africa are complicated affairs brought on by problems with the rule of law, racial conflicts, economic issues, and power disputes. The increase in terrorist attacks in Africa has also resulted in a drop in military morale, which has caused unrest and dissatisfaction.
The paper has also outlined a range of ideas to prevent coups and foster stability. It is evident that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to preventing coups in Africa, as each country has its own and sometimes unique circumstances and conditions. However, a common thread throughout the analysis has been the critical importance of strong institutions, good governance, economic development, and bolstering the military and police, which are crucial to preventing additional coups. These foundational elements provide a solid base upon which African countries can build resilient societies less susceptible to the allure of military takeovers and maintain stability in the region.
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