2021, the year military coups returned to the stage in Africa

Surrounded by soldiers and with Guinea’s flag draped around his shoulders, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya appeared on state television hours after leading a coup in September.

“Guinea is beautiful,” he told his co-patriots, using a crude analogy to describe what would be his vision for the future of his country. “We no longer need to rape her. We need to make love to her, that’s all.”

Doumbouya’s elite Special Forces had earlier stormed the presidential palace and detained Alpha Conde, the country’s first democratically elected president whose election victory in 2010 was once seen as a new beginning after decades of authoritarian rule. But the 83-year-old’s time at the helm of the West African country ended dramatically, with a video showing him sitting on a dusty sofa, barefoot with his printed shirt buttons open and surrounded by heavily armed guards.

Guinea’s September 5 coup was neither the first nor the last power grab this year in sub-Saharan Africa. There had been four successful military takeovers across the continent, up from one last year.

Most recently, Sudan’s military detained the country’s civilian leaders and seized power in October, about a month after authorities said they had thwarted an attempted coup they blamed on plotters loyal to former ruler Omar al-Bashir. In May, Malian soldiers had their second coup in the space of 10 months. This came weeks after General Mahamat Idriss Deby immediately seized power in Chad by suspending the constitution and dissolving the parliament following the death of his father on the battlefield.

Soldiers as saviours?

In the second part of the 20th century, military coups in Africa were used as a common means of changing the political order in the wake of decolonisation. Between 1960 and 2000, the overall number of coups and coup attempts stood at an average of four per year, according to a study by Jonathan Powell, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, and Clayton Thyne, a professor at the University of Kentucky.

However, as calls for democratic reforms and constitutionalism grew with the new century, military coups decreased to two per year until 2019.

Now, however, they seem to be making a comeback – prompting United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier this year to decry what he dubbed “an epidemic of coup d’etats”.

The recent surge in the militarisation of politics, analysts say, is influenced by a mix of external drivers, including the increasing and diverse number of international actors who are active in the continent prioritising their interests, and internal factors, such as widespread public frustration against corruption, insecurity and poor governance.

The Guinean coup took place after widespread dissatisfaction and protests against Conde’s largely unpopular move to scrap the presidential two-term limit. Hence, Colonel Doumbouya justified the power grab by claiming poverty and endemic corruption compelled his special forces to intervene.

“The personalisation of political life is over. We will no longer entrust politics to one man. We will entrust it to the people,” he said at the time.

For Powell, this militarisation comes amid “an increasing crisis” of legitimacy for rulers. “When leaders like Alpha Conde toy with constitutions, term limits and the electoral process, it increases public support for the armed forces to ‘do something’,” he added.

Ryan Cummings, the director of consulting firm Signal Risk, agreed.

‘Toothless’ response

Likewise in Mali, the two military coups took place against the backdrop of popular nationwide protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, whose government was accused of corruption, nepotism and failing to tackle the country’s worsening security crisis.

In Mali and Sudan, military leaders used similar tactics to capture power. The Malian putschists led by Colonel Assimi Goita initially agreed to form a military-civilian mixed transitional council following the first coup in August 2020, promising to hand over power to civilian rule at the end of the transition.

But last May, Goita imprisoned and then removed the civilian president and prime minister of the transitional council, following a cabinet reshuffle that saw two military members replaced with civilian politicians. Meanwhile, the military’s promise to hold elections by February is increasingly looking unlikely to materialise.


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