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As coups reappear on the African continent, there is a growing body of commentary that has problematically sought to juxtapose them with electoral democracy.  So, the question is being asked whether coups do or do not signal an end to democracy—and thus a return of the scary opposite, authoritarianism. Most prominently, the BBC, which officially never publishes opinions, ran a curious opinion piece, “Coups in Africa: why they don’t spell an end to democracy” by Nic Cheeseman and Leonard Mbulle-Nziege. As indicated in the title, the piece aggressively connects coups to authoritarianism and discusses coups as a competitor or threat to democracy. The piece is meant to reassure readers that despite the cheers and celebration for the coups, electoral democracies are still in vogue on this dimly lit continent. A more nuanced, and more empirically useful piece appeared in The New York Times: “Five African Countries. Six Coups. Why Now?” Although the NYT analysis does not directly focus on the drills and labours of democracy, it employs the same dialectic, debating coups against democracy.

Before discussing the ahistoricism and related theoretical limitations internal to these analyses, my contention is that framing coups in juxtaposition with electoral democracies is not only simplistic but is also distractive in the sense that it reduces coups to just a mode of government—problematically viewing them as a highway to authoritarianism.  In truth, coups are much more than a mode of government or a means to power. More theoretical-historically, coups in Africa are a colonial question related to the modern state, and the throes and turns that bog this “post-colonial” construction. Coups constitute a part of those events that have come to define the search for the soul of the independent African state. Phrased differently, if independence concerned itself with uplifting the formerly colonised—in all spheres of human development such as education, health, income, access to food and water, access to capital, civil liberties and dignity of Africans—these dreams have been defined and continue to undergo different political processes in different moments in the life of the postcolonial state.

What is historically accurate is that the soul and promise of independence is above any form of government (democratic, authoritative, cultural-hereditary); rather, it is constitutive of different political events. Therefore, these coup-vs-democracy analyses are not only ahistorical and theoretically handicapped, they also ought to be seen as absolute neo-colonialist distortions. They blur the histories and political economies, regimes of power and pillage in which major global political shifts continue to shape the African continent, especially in the context of what Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni has called coloniality, or “postcolonial neo-colonised Africa”, as Gayatri Spivak terms it.

Coups constitute a part of those events that have come to define the search for the soul of the independent African state.

What is normally confusing to observers is that coups display a deeply contradictory form of agency on the part of the African actors—the military coup leaders—who tend to be viewed as selfish power grabbers. That is half the analysis. In fact, it is the smaller analysis. In truth, while actors appear to be responding to or may claim actually visible local grievances (specifically, the emptiness of independence), they are at the same time, sadly, responding to, and are inspired and riding on shifts in political regimes in Europe and North America (from where, also, coup execution resources come). The shifts in European-North American politics which influence local events on the continent often relate to the ways in which African resources continue to be pillaged. This essay is an effort to make visible these historical, local-international shifts, and their interactions with the soul of the African.

Africa since independence

One can actually draw a periodised graph reflecting shifts in African politics and the ways in which leaderships have changed since independence in the 1950s and 1960s to the present.  These shifts in local African politics were responses to seismic shifts, to superior forces in neo-colonial politics. Oftentimes, these shifts have little to do with the men who emerge as new leaders in Africa, except through a little positioning and sheer luck. It could be anybody. This is not to say that African actors are deprived of all agency. Not at all.  African actors, especially ordinary folks, have continued to exercise agency in seeking to find meaning in their independent nation states. But often, they are crushed or exploited by superior international players who are quick to influence and conscript publics through both violent and technocratized means. The table below captures the different phases in both global and African politics, and the ways in which they respond to each other.

Period Intl./colonial contestations Local events/leaderships
1955-1965 Independence Anti-colonial leaders
1965-1975 Neo-colonial posturing Coup leaders
1980-1990 Cold War/Proxy wars Liberation wars
1990-2010 USSR collapses, USA rises, Capitalism Electoral democracies
2010-2020 R2P, Human Rights movements, ICC Street Protests/Arab Spring
2020 — Africom; rise of China, Russia, Turkey Coups return

Of course, there are, and will always be overlaps. But the table captures the most prominent political orders of every decade. Congolese politician Denis Sassou Nguesso is the living embodiment of these overlaps, having participated in most of these different phases (led coups, liberation wars, and currently wins elections).


Independence saw anti-colonial leaders naturally emerge as presidents and prime ministers: Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana; Patrice Lumumba in Congo-Kinshasa; Milton Obote in Uganda; Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya; Aden Adde in Somalia; Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia; Agostinho Neto in Angola; etc. Discussing the myth of the postcolonial world, Puerto Rican sociologist, Ramon Grosfoguel has noted, “The heterogeneous and multiple global structures put in place over a period of 450 years did not evaporate with the juridical-political decolonization of the periphery.” Indeed, with African independence, colonialists had only strategically withdrawn, but were too impatient to return. As Africa’s leaders sought to consolidate the promise of independence, the “former” colonisers jostled for ways of continued access to resources in the so-called formerly colonised places: coups came to define the African continent.

In addition to assassinations, such as, more prominently, that of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (in which Americans and Belgians supported Mobutu Sese Seko), coups were the more prominent feature of the new wave of colonial tinkering starting in the early 1960s and running through the 1980s. Nkrumah is overthrown in 1966.  Mali’s Modibo Keita in 1968.  Uganda’s Milton Obote in 1971.  Fulbert Youlou of Congo-Brazzaville in 1963, and his successor, Alphonse Massamba-Débat, five years later. In Somalia, Siad Barre’s coup takes place in 1969. Nigeria’s Tafawa Balewa is couped in 1966 by Yakubu Gowon.  In Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana overthrows Gregory Kayibanda in 1973.  Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie is overthrown by the Derg in 1974, while Muamar Gaddafi’s coup happens in 1969.

With African independence, colonialists had only strategically withdrawn, but were too impatient to return.

Throughout this period, many promising leaders that had emerged from the colonial struggle would be either assassinated, blackmailed or simply couped out of office. It is important to note that while these coups were the product of local grievances, they were largely masterminded by former colonisers jostling for access to resources. (In West Africa, to this day, France has sustained its grip on 14 countries using its central bank, its currency, and its military.) With the culture of coups introduced, one coup led to another, and more leaders sought to portray themselves as the most compliant with the demands of their former colonisers.

Then came the Cold War, as superpowers wrestled each other, again over our resources. Proxy guerrilla wars gave us the next crop of leaders (1980-90s). Africa became the battleground for “liberation wars”, with contending groups, aligned to a superpower, seeking to overthrow the dictator that had come to power through a coup. Foreign-supported Ugandans fought against nationalist leader Idi Amin, and later Obote II, ushering in Yoweri Museveni. President Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fought Juvenal Habyarimana. In Somalia, several groups emerged to fight against Mohammed Siad Barre during the Somali civil war between 1980 and 1991. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Laurent Désiré Kabila fought and overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko. One major driving thread was that rebel-liberators had to have the support of a superpower, or a subsidiary, which often gave them access to weapons, cash, and other resources including public relations for the purposes of legitimacy.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, we entered an era of democratic elections alongside structural adjustment programmes. Former guerrilla leaders quickly started chanting multiparty politics, and surviving coup-presidents quickly mutated into capitalist-democrats. They promulgated constitutions, and also periodically held elections.  But their actual hold on power was not through elections; rather, it was bedrocked on giving former colonisers unlimited access to resources.  (These were technocratized, expert-driven pillage schemes executed through regimes of banking, tax avoidance by multinational corporations, and monopolies—all of them superintended by the new colonial administrators, the World Bank and the IMF.) These leaders include Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Joseph Kabila of DRC, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, etc.

Throughout the 1990s and 2010s, former rebels and earlier coup leaders—now democrats and incumbents—organised and won one election after another. In truth, the ways in which an election unfolded did not matter; what mattered was the holding of an election itself, which translated into legitimacy for loans and grants. During this time, with one single power dominating the world, and already granted access to resources across Africa, there was a phase of relative political stability, with leaders enjoying long spells in office.  It did not matter who was in charge of the country or which policies they implemented, as long as they implemented free market economics, which in effect allow Europe and North America unrestricted access to resources.

It is important to note that while these coups were a product of local grievances, they were largely masterminded by former colonisers jostling for access to resources.

Then came the era of human rights movements and discourses—especially within the context of 9/11, the birth of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect doctrines. Emboldened by one of the doctrines of R2P, which is protection against human rights and other violations (with potential for intervention), street protests as a legitimate means of political negotiation were born.  Indeed, it is the 2010-2020 decade that gave us, among other things, the Arab Spring. Ironically, the uprisings in Arab Africa and the Middle East continue to be read as “struggles for democracy” or are viewed as “manifestations of democracy”. (There are tons of papers and media commentary with keywords “Arab Spring” and “democracy” in their headlines.) They were not agitations for democracy. With the exception of one country, Libya, the others—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria—have continuously held elections, a major defining marker of a democratic dispensation (and on the basis of which the WB and the IMF view a government as legitimate and thus deserving of loans and grants). But as the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda Movement in Tunisia demonstrated, these were historical struggles for independence, with formerly colonised peoples still dreaming of being governed on their own local-cultural terms, and ironically seeking to escape the oppressive and exploitative character of the democratic order preached by the world’s “new intellectuals of empire’” in academia and mass media.

Presently, human rights discourses have not necessarily become obsolete, but they have lost their salience and their urgency. They have been overtaken by events. There is dullness around them, especially in black Africa, where current governments freely give foreign banks and Western monopoly capital all the access they need.  But at the same time, our democracy-practicing former rebels have found smarter ways of preventing protests from taking place while some communities simply lack the intellectual and material resources to pull off successful protests.

There is a new phase in international European colonial positioning: On the one hand, there is United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) established in 2007 and launched in 2008. Coming on the heels of 9/11, Africom was pitched as a tool to coordinate military relations with African countries.  But in reality—as all US bases actually do—Africom pursues and protects American political and economic interests. In an enriching conversation with Democracy Now, political anthropologist Samar Al-Bulushi noted that Africom,

. . . now has approximately 29 known military facilities in 15 states across the continent. And many of the countries . . . that have experienced coups or coup attempts are key allies of the U.S. in the war on terror, and many of the leaders of these coups have received training from the U.S. military.

To fully appreciate the new phase emerging on the continent that favours coups, one has to consider the other side of this conversation—the other seemingly competing powers.  China, Russia and Turkey have continued to rise in power and stature and are viewed as destabilising long established (American-European) patterns of resource exploitation on the African continent. Indeed, the ongoing rivalry between China and the United States has been well documented. With the ideological orientation of the soldiers trained by Africom, and the security-related grants they are privileged to receive (easier than anything else, be it education or health, as Al-Bulushi noted in the same interview), it is arguable that more than a decade later, these officers are seeking to take over power, securitizing entire countries, confident to emerge as the legitimate buffer between their ideological and military benefactors and the Chinese and Russian competition. Worth noting is that over and above the push-and-pull between these new superpowers, long-staying leaders have become an embarrassment to their benefactors in Europe and North America—particularly with regard to their human rights records—while at the same time they are easily winning elections and constitutionally amending constitutions. Once they are deposed, Europe and America are hard-pressed to condemn the coups. It is no wonder then that coups are receiving general acceptance in our so-called international community.

The problem with democracy discourses

I started this article with the assertion that coups have nothing to do with democracy, and nor does democracy have anything to do with coups. But coups point to the revolving life-cycle of foreign and local interests, and the quest for meaning in Africa. Democratic or un-democratic (whatever those terms mean), African countries remain the same: exploited, their economies dominated by Western bankers (and African banks are the most profitable across the world), exporters of raw materials (and not because they are unable to add value), with heavily impoverished populations and a youth problem, etc. From Nigeria to South Africa, Zambia to Ghana, Kenya or Uganda, with regular elections and chants of democracy, these countries remain the same with regards to most growth indices. Strangely, a so-called non-democratic autocracy, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was classed as most advanced on the UN Human Development Index, above South Africa.

In their BBC opinion piece of 8 February 2022, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege express worry but are also confident in the resilience of democracy. Thus, they are quick to pour water on the cheers that welcomed coups in some of the places where they took place. They are armed with figures and surveys that they endlessly regurgitate, discussing inexistent things such as economic growth and human rights. While running their surveys, they never include the work of anthropologists to appreciate the quality of civil publics in Africa, and nor do they include the work of historians and political economists dealing with broader theoretical questions relating to notions such as “problem spaces” and local-international connections.

The ways in which an election unfolded did not matter, but what mattered was the holding of an election itself.

The NYT analysis on the other hand, points to the excitement around coups, but notes that the grievances run deep, springing mostly from the economy and continued colonial control.  Focused on understanding why coups are back, the NYT underlines, “insecurity, bad governance, and frustrated youth”. Reporting on pro-coup voices in downtown Ouagadougou, the NYT notes that they were “inspired by the way the junta in neighboring Mali had stood up to France, the increasingly unpopular former colonial power”. Quoting an ordinary person—a customer at a cellphone market in Ouagadougou called Anatole Compaore, who had welcomed the coup, the NYT reported him as saying, “Whoever takes power now, he needs to follow the example of Mali—reject France, and start to take our own decisions,” echoing the anti-colonial sentiments that run deep in most West African states still under direct French control, which also include Togo, Senegal, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire.

Quick to dismiss any grounds upon which coups could be welcomed, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege simplistically and directly connect coups to authoritarianism, arguing that authoritarian regimes do not deliver economic growth. They write, that “despite growing frustration with the way that multiparty politics is performing [link in original], on average democracies generate higher economic growth and do a better job of providing public services, according to a study at the US’s Cornell University.” Without problematizing the ways in which democracies generate higher economic growth (than non-electoral regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya under Gaddafi, or the United Arab Emirates), it is curious scholarship that directly connects non-electoral leaderships to autocracies incapable of delivering civil liberties and freedoms. Perhaps noticing this anomaly, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege add, “The poor performance of authoritarian forms of government on African soil . . . helps to explain why the support for democracy is high,” perhaps to create the dichotomy that authoritarian governments elsewhere have performed better. But how does one generate firm understanding through such ahistorical and untheoretical analyses?

It becomes clear that democracy discourses in the present “problem space” of African politics ought to be understood as not necessarily obsolete but overtaken by events ironically emanating from Europe and North America, and their contestations. Africans remain colonised. New problem spaces require that we ask questions that are specific to the discursive context. Clearly, coups are back because of the nature of the new phase we are in in the life of the neo-colonised postcolonial state.