Coups must remove not just despots but also their systems

Coups must remove not just despots but also their systems

By Fuad Abdirahman

Regime overthrows do not always achieve ideal results – that is, an overhaul of systems. In rare instances they may cause a shift in policy, but often all they achieve is a change in leader(ship). More often than not, the coups themselves fail, making bad situations worse, as happened in Burundi.

Besides military overthrows, as in Egypt and more recently Algeria and Sudan – which was properly a combination of civilian agitation and military response – very few countries have had proper popular uprisings, a case in point being Tunisia. Yet other countries have experienced regime change on account of foreign intervention – Libya, for the worse, and The Gambia.

More often than not, ill-advised coups have reversed democratic regime into autocratic ones. Egypt suffices as an example, where the first democratically elected president in the country’s history Mohamed Morsi was overthrown by a military that has since consolidated and hogged state power. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who orchestrated the coup, has since changed the constitution to accommodate his presidency for life.

In countries like Somalia, the forceful removal from power of the late dictator Siad Barre who himself had come into power through coup, resulted in the collapse of the Somali republic. The country has been a stage of mayhem for 30 years now.

According to researcher Andrew C. Miller, between 1945 and 2008, approximately 363 successful coups, attempted coups, and coup plots, or alleged coup plots occurred in Africa.

The researcher notes that only eighty-eight of these 363, or 24.2 percent, led to successful transfers of power compared to 128 – about 35 percent of the global total – in the rest of the world, suggesting that African coups are less likely to succeed.

According to the Centre for Systemic Peace, four coups (5 percent of the total) in Africa—Sierra Leone (1968), Ghana (1978), Sudan (1985), and Niger (1999)—put in place democratic institutions while 9 percent did so outside the continent.

Inferentially, for approximately every one coup in Africa resulting in a democratic transition, five more pushed countries toward autocracy. 

Generally, however, the number of coups in the continent has drastically reduced compared to before the turn of the millennium. For instance, in 1984 alone, dozens of coups occurred in the continent – in Ghana (unsuccessful), Guinea (successful), Cameroon (failed), Swaziland (attempted) and Mauritania (successful). The two most recent ones are Sudan and “in the interest of the people.” In Sudan, the army is yet to agree to a working formula for peaceful transition to civilian power.

While coups were traditionally abhorred, with those involved in them becoming pariahs shunned from continental unions, they are slowly gaining traction. For instance, Egypt’s Sisi is now an elected the chair of the African Union.

Even as it is concurred that military takeovers are bad gambles, there are some exceptions. For instance, historians generally agree that the coup in Mali in 1991, which resulted in the overthrow of President Moussa Traoré after two decades in power, is credited with ushering in democracy and multi-party elections.

As well, in 2003, a bloodless coup removed President Kumba Ialá in mid-September, and by the end start of October, a civilian-led transitional government led by businessman Henrique Rosa and PRS secretary general Artur Sanhá had been established.

The civilian coup in Sudan presents yet another chance for positive liberation. While observers initially worried the removal of Omar al Bashir would only result in the change of the office holder, protesters have continued to demand the formation of a civilian council – not a military one – to transition the country into democratic governance.

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