At the end of the 1980s, political liberalization swept across Africa, seemingly indicating that it was the continent’s turn to embark on history’s inexorable march toward democracy. Some commentators argued that, by increasing the legitimacy of African governments, political reform contributed to the subsequent decline in military coups.
But since the start of 2021, a string of military takeovers in West and Central Africa – in Chad, Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, as well as a recent attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau – has seemingly turned back the clock. International and regional organizations routinely advocate democratization and condemn coups. But recent developments should prompt reflection about whether touting democratization as the sole solution for fragile states is sufficient.
In particular, the spate of recent coups highlights the fragility of democratization in countries that are at an early stage of economic development and, perhaps more importantly, face major security challenges.
The popular protests that erupted in many parts of Africa in 2021 partly reflected the growing alienation of young people, who aspire to better living conditions and economic opportunities. Social media have made Africa’s youth increasingly aware of how bad their situation is, relative to their peers elsewhere, fueling grievances over poor governance, growing insecurity, and deteriorating economic conditions. Too many young Africans lose their lives by embarking on a dangerous journey to Europe in an effort to escape the constraints they face at home.
Significantly, the military coups have occurred against the backdrop of civilian governments’ failure to stop terrorism. The 2011 NATO-led military intervention in Libya continues to cast a long shadow over security in the Sahel. And the growing security concerns of populations there and in other parts of Africa that have been hit by terrorist attacks make the exclusive focus on democratization seem naive.
In addition to causing loss of life, these attacks have led to population displacement, including across still-porous borders in some parts of the continent. The economic cost of terrorism in Africa, in terms of lost income and reduced investment, is estimated to be over $10 billion per year, aggravating vulnerable populations’ hardship and severely testing the ability of civilian governments to meet development goals.
Moreover, in several African countries, the military have complained that rampant corruption is depriving them of the necessary resources to fight insurgencies. According to an Afrobarometer survey, 65% of Africans think the continent’s governments do a poor job of fighting corruption.
Besides their greater security expertise, military officials are sometimes also perceived as being more disciplined than corrupt civilian political elites. But while surveys show that Africans tend to trust the military, they reject military rule. Military leaders’ past involvement in politics has often become entrenched, owing to rents from land, oil, mining, or telecoms. And ending military rule is generally much more difficult than ousting a civilian government in an election.
A further complicating factor is widespread foreign involvement in Africa’s security sector, including by former colonial powers such as France and the United Kingdom. Foreign forces that have established military bases on the continent or signed agreements to fight insurgencies have increasingly aroused the hostility of young nationalists. Many African leaders have played a populist game by appealing to such sentiments, although some, such as the deposed leaders of Burkina Faso and Guinea, have lost legitimacy because of their inability to fix governance problems – including in the security sector.
New players such as Russia have come to the fore by assisting African governments in fighting insurgencies or wars. That aid also is likely to come with strings attached. But while many questions the sustainability of a regional security model where foreign actors substitute for domestic players, military involvement in politics is not the answer.
The increasing frequency of military coups is a symptom of the shortcomings of democratization in Africa’s poorest countries, where elections have failed to produce legitimate governments capable of delivering security and development. Where institutions are weak, elections alone will not make leaders accountable.
For democracy to have a chance, it needs to be much more prescriptive in terms of commensurate improvements in governments’ capacity to ensure security and development. And the real test of benevolent leadership lies in its attachment to meritocracy so that countries’ capacity to respond to their citizens needs and preferences improves over time.
To succeed, African democracies must combine high meritocratic standards with results-based frameworks. Parliamentary democracies are not among the countries in Africa which have experienced coups, and their political institutions enable them to gain public support for a renewed focus on results, perhaps through pre-agreed performance indicators that are reported transparently to citizens. Unless and until African countries embrace such an approach, the continent’s coup wave will continue to rise.
Rabah Arezki, former chief economist and vice president at the African Development Bank and former chief economist of the World Bank’s the Middle East and North Africa Region, is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.