Coups and elections in Africa (Pt. I)

The Economist recently published an article (with a thematic map and graph) about African elections and democracy and the emerging electoral norm in Africa which is closely related to an emerging anti-coup norm on the continent. Noting that the number of coups in Africa has dropped over the last decade, it references internal, people-power factors that have forced even despots, putschists and reactionaries to appease public discontent by way of elections, some pro forma others less so. The article further lays out the role of changes in the global scene that have made elections more frequent:

Gone are the days of the cold war when West and East propped up their favoured dictators for geostrategic reasons. Nowadays a lot of aid money and diplomatic support are tied to progress in governance and democracy. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, for example, held the country’s recent election as part of a peace deal with the country’s southern rebels, brokered largely by the United States in 2005. Countries such as Ghana and Mali have every incentive to stay democratic to get billions of dollars of aid from America’s Millennium Challenge Account, started in 2002. This requires countries to prove a commitment to good governance and elections if they are to get the money. Africa’s own regional groupings, notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have also started punishing member states that fall prey to coups.

The African Union, Southern African Development Community, European Union, United Nations and other organizations have played an important role in promoting electoral norms. They have been up front in calling for the restoration of constitutional order following African coups d’etats as institutions, but member states often play their own roles as is to be expected. Because coups happen for diverse reasons and in diverse contexts, it is difficult a transcendent interest that might cause powerful states to adopt a uniform approach to dealing with coups — and one wonders whether such a thing would even be desirable. A norm against coups is problematic not because of external pressure, even as many past coups were the result (or the partial result) of foreign meddling.

Today, coups are often a result of domestic politics more than anything else. The makes things all the more hairy. In some cases, international or regional pressure on putschists results in very little change or action on the ground, as the Economist notes. Rigged and contested elections often carry on after coups. International pressure to return to legal processes is often confused or complex: returning to constitutional order can mean many things to many people. Some states call for coup victims to be put back in power, yet calling for the return of a deposed leader, particularly if he is an autocrat, can be problematic for outsiders and can even strengthen coup-makers. In other cases states call for parties to follow legal processes or to hold elections or consultations. In the past states often used or attempted to use coups d’etats as a part of their foreign policy tool box. Nowadays, few coups occur but when they do they are very much the result of internal politics rather than superpower rivalry.

In the past, active or passive assistance to or support for a coup was not uncommon, and was often unabashed. Cold War politics and narratives helped to rationalize coups. Nowadays there are alternative political and economic narratives in western and “eastern” capitals, particularly North America, Europe and Africa. Statesmen and their functionaries now have to keep their pleasure on the day of a coup to themselves. It is better to appear displeased than supportive on the day of an overthrow. This has to do with changing perceptions of what matters in foreign policy. From a soft power perspective it is best for powerful states to appear to respect the sovereignty and popular will of people inside smaller states. Meddling in a state’s internal affairs by picking one side over the other appears imperialist and petty. Appearing to support instability damages a states international credibility and legitimacy.

The article’s mention of how changing perceptions of what constitutes development and security in Africa is notable. Economic and social stability and smooth, generally legitimate and legal transfers of power are seen as deeply linked. The legality and the legitimacy of a regime are considered more important in powerful capitals than in the past. Coups, being illegal and disruptive, do not promote political stability or investor or donor confidence. The rule of law suffers from illegal transfers of power, which has implications for economic life because coups can cause elite paranoia and reallocations of state and private resources. Outsiders and their friends usually suffer the least; China and the large, business savvy diaspora communities usually make certain to cozy up to whoever is on top of the hill as soon as they can figure it out — but even they can face uncertainty. Those without institutional or foreign backing have a rougher time, especially small timers. Politically active businesspeople — in and out of “the opposition” — will suffer or flourish according to their loyalties and the steadfastness of their opposition.

Yet the need for foreign aid and support means that coup-makers are increasingly keen on using elections as a way of legitimizing themselves in the world. Nowadays putschists use “transitional” periods, plebiscites and elections to wear down international scrutiny and return to business as usual. Outsiders and regional organizations often suspend or expel members suffering from coups or apply additional restrictions. Yet the cost is easily gotten around by divide and milk strategies. Some big patron states, like France (and others, too), are more committed to their own national interests than strengthening anti-coup norms, which is quite understandable though nevertheless problematic. Coup-makers also tend not to see a high cost in being suspended from the AU, for example. This is not helped when one can simply hand power over to a loyal civilian or run in a quick, shabby election and win dry endorsements from the international bodies and states — unenthusiastic acceptance counts as acceptance nonetheless. Many African leaders, at the time of the OAU’s reconstitution as the AU and today, themselves marched into office by coups d’etats and are thus reluctant to force anything but the most rhetorical prices on coups; if one leader is deposed and then restored might there be retroactive consequences? And so the cycle continues, authoritarianism is strengthened and the rule of law weakens. The way that electoral and anti-coup norms have been enforced on the continent have had purposeful and unintended consequences strengthening strongmen and authoritarians.

Coups often do not stand alone in a country’s history; where there has been one there are frequently others. Mauritanians have often commented to this blogger that after 1978, the coup became the default means of transferring power, elections were cosmetic  exercises intended to strengthen the status quo. Politicized and greedy militaries weaken traditional and modern civilian authorities. They sap legitimacy and can damage public morale. Though they may have revolutionary pretenses or progressive intentions, their long-term impact is frequently to fashion authoritarian and retrograde politics that create more grievances than they resolve.

Post-coup politics are often conspiratorial and lacking in transparency by concentrating power. The coup represents one of the greatest problems in post-colonial Africa: the trouble with imposing what are at root European forms on African realities. The standing army in itself is no problem; its relative strength compared to other “modern” state institutions surely is, though. In states with weakening traditional institutions and weak “modern” ones beyond the military, the coup affirms the primacy of the armed forces in otherwise primitive “nation states.” Coups occur because there the opportunity for their execution arises and the perpetrator(s) see a greater advantage in undertaking an illegal seizure than in sticking with the status quo. On a background of past coups, a mindset and series of schema form that condition political actors toward identifying these opportunities, planning stays in the short and medium term and becomes personalized. In countries with short institutional histories and close-knit elites political culture develops quickly and lessons from the past are less often those of democratizers or reformers but of demagogues, putschists and authoritarians — big men in colonial parlance. Political change does not militate at a cultural or even strategic level, but remains political and operational so that ideology matters less than material concerns. Paranoid and powerful and in hairy circumstances, officers are often the only ones with enough power to take action — as a Comoran diplomat told this blogger, “you have coups because of where [the] power is and has gone.”


One thought on “Coups and elections in Africa (Pt. I)

  1. I am a 7th grade teacher in NC and came across your site while researching some information about Africa for my history class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information and articles about Africa.

    We would love it if you could write a few articles for us, but I understand if your busy so a link to some of the current articles would be very helpful as well to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers. I have included a link to the site in case you would like to help us out by linking to it, tweeting it, or adding it to your Facebook profile.

    Thanks and keep the great resources coming

    Brook Sobey

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