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Experts: African Coups Are Poor Way to Establish Democracy

Malians living in Ivory Coast protest against a coup in their country, during the Extraordinary Meeting of ECOWAS, in Abidjan, March 27, 2012.
Malians living in Ivory Coast protest against a coup in their country, during the Extraordinary Meeting of ECOWAS, in Abidjan, March 27, 2012.

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Anne Look

This is Part Six of a seven-part series on African constitutions

Continue to Parts:     1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7


West Africa has seen a wave of military coups in recent years that some citizens welcome as jumpstarts for faltering constitutional democracies. Analysts, however, say coups hurt more than they help.  

The 1990s saw a wave of democratization sweep over Africa. In many places, multi-party politics became the norm. Free and fair elections became a reality, not just a dream. People talked of a "new breed" of African leaders.

Fast forward to 2012. A generation of autocratic "presidents for life" is nearing extinction. The military dictatorships that so dominated the 1960s, '70s and '80s are a thing of the past. Yet, the strong constitutional democracy remains a work in progress.

Military juntas proliferate in West Africa

In the interim, West Africa has seen the rise of a hybrid species: the transitional military junta, democratization by coup d'etat.

Coups are being billed as the restart button for constitutional democracies that hit a rough patch, when in fact, experts say, they almost always do more damage than good.

International Crisis Group West Africa Director, Gilles Yabi, said very rarely is a coup the best or only option. He said there are exceptions, like Guinea, which in 2009 was emerging from decades of military authoritarian rule, but on the whole coups are dangerous to long-term stability.

Mauritania in 2008. Guinea in 2009. Niger in 2010. Mali in 2012. Across what some call the "coup belt," soldiers are jumping in to fill leadership vacuums or uproot elected presidents who illegally try to stay in power.

Each case is unique but the playbook is usually the same. Step one: seize the state media, then attack the presidential palace before crowding in front of a TV camera to declare yourself in charge. Then, you promise a "new and improved" democracy, rewrite the constitution and ultimately hold elections.

Coup d'etat, Mali style

That was Mali on March 22. Disgruntled soldiers ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure just weeks before the election that would have marked his retirement. Cue the chaos and international condemnation.

Yet, thousands of Malians took to the streets to support the coup.

Ampoulo Boucoun said there was no democracy in Mali. He said it is only the army that can save them from the corruption and incompetence of political leaders. He said they do not care what the international community says. He said this is their country and they want the army to restore order.

It is what analysts call "authoritarian nostalgia."

Political scientist and expert in African civil-military relations, Boubacar Ndiaye, said Africans are finding out that democracy is a slow and "messy" process.

"The military was supposed to be the savior. They projected an image of strength and the steady hand of power. When democracy came with its chaos and the energy that it unleashed and all the contradictions that came to the fore, people started to become uneasy about the uncertainty of democracy and, of course, the hard times that have continued after democratic regimes started coming in," said Ndiaye. "All of that made people say ‘well, maybe we were better off when we had a strong leader.’ People tend to think that maybe the past was better and the past was typically military regimes that were authoritarian."

But, analysts say, military regimes don't do it better. They don't ensure economic growth, human rights or development. A military leader has not been any more able to lower the price of a bag of rice or fight corruption than a civilian one. The military structure, they say, is designed for battle, not governance.

At the same time, Ndiaye said, many times the soldiers' grievances are legitimate.

"We are too quick to blame the military. Truly, it's an institution that has the monopoly on a certain lethal force and it can better than any other institution get its way in a crisis situation. But we should not forget that many coups are really to be blamed on the behavior of civilian rulers."

Following somewhat predictable pattern

Even opponents to the coup in Mali acknowledge that yes, President Amadou Toumani Toure had turned a blind eye to drug trafficking and growing insecurity. He had, they concede, sent soldiers to fight heavily-armed Tuareg rebels in the North without adequate food or ammunition.

In Niger, President Mamadou Tandja had dissolved the government and rewritten the constitution to extend his mandate before soldiers finally blasted a hole in the palace walls and kidnapped the elderly president in 2010. The junta organized elections the following year that "restored democracy" and brought a long-time opposition leader to power.

Many begrudgingly called it the "good coup," though analysts in Niger say it did little to curb the military's tendency or ability to intervene in politics as it has countless times since independence.

Whatever the intentions of coup leaders, the outcomes are fairly predictable.

A researcher at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, Andrew Miller, ran the numbers in a study published in late 2011.

He found that between 1945 and 2008, Africa saw approximately 363 coups, coup attempts and coup plots. For every one coup that resulted in a real democratic transition, he found that five more pushed countries toward autocracy.

Coups, he found, breed more coups.

"Military rule breaks down the political/military divide which is a key tenet for any democracy. When you have coups, not just in Africa, but around the world, it blurs that line and people become more tolerant of the military getting involved, which is definitely problematic in the long term," said Miller.

African democracies dominate

The latest victim, ousted Malian president Toure, is a former general and putschist himself. He was dubbed the "Soldier of Democracy" after he overturned a repressive military leader in 1991 and organized elections the following year.

He went on to win the presidency himself in 2002. Yet, on March 22, Toure met the same fate as the leader he had ousted exactly 21 years earlier.

So, what does the future hold? Are military regimes better than constitutional rule? Could West Africa backslide toward autocracy?

In a word, analysts say, no.

Despite recent flare-ups in West Africa, coups have, on the whole, been on a downward trajectory since the mid-twentieth century. Countries like Senegal, Ghana and Benin have carried out a few peaceful, democratic changes of government.

However, ICG West Africa Director Yabi said corruption and insecurity, like armed rebellions and terrorists, will continue to give the military pretexts to meddle in politics. Military rule, he said, will seem stronger so long as constitutional governments are weak. He said countries must reform security sectors inherited from postcolonial days and build strong lasting institutions. They must convince citizens, he said, that democracy is what is best and not just what is in fashion.

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