Democracies across the globe have faced multiple challenges over the past decade, and Africa has been no exception. Between 2020 and 2022, the continent experienced six coups and three coup attempts: a sharp rise from the previous two decades.
Drawing on its organisational mandate and country-level presence across Africa, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) conducted a ground-breaking study to make sense of rising constitutional manipulation and the alarming uptick in military coups in Africa. The findings are captured in a flagship new report titled Soldiers and Citizens: Military Coups and the Need for Democratic Renewal in Africa.
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The report was launched in partnership with Chatham House on the margins of the 5th Mid-Year Coordination 5th Mid-Year Coordination meeting between the African Union, the Regional Economic Communities and Regional Mechanisms in Nairobi, Kenya, on 15 July 2023.
The research is rooted in a vast perceptions survey, which captures the views of 8,000 citizens across Africa. Among them, 5,000 lived through recent coups or unconstitutional changes of government (UCG) as defined by the 2000 Lomé Declaration on OAU response to UCG. These countries include Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan.
Their views were contrasted with those of 3,000 citizens from sample countries on a path of democratic transition or consolidation, namely The Gambia, Ghana, and Tanzania. This unprecedented survey yielded a uniquely people-centred dataset to reveal insights for preventing further coups and harnessing opportunities for transformative change and sustained constitutional order. The report makes three key findings.
The first is a preference for democracy, culminating in a resounding call for states to deepen democracy and prioritise resetting the social contract. The majority of citizens surveyed across both settings indicated that democracy remains their preferred style of government. Only 11% of the 5,000 citizens interviewed from the UCG context preferred a non-democratic form of government. Yet, for governments across Africa to build coup resilience, better governance, deeper democracy, and inclusive development, progress should be a guiding star. A social contract reset is needed to assist coup-affected states in moving forward and to help prevent future coups. To achieve this, governments should focus on practical delivery that directly improves the quality of life and opportunity for all segments of society.
Second, a development lens is essential to mitigate coup risk, as it shows how hybrid circumstances rooted in triggers and proximate and structural factors lead to coup risks. There are clear correlations between heightened coup risk and low development indicators, particularly in combination with governance deficits. Poor government performance, corruption, failure to deliver security, inclusive development gains, and related opportunities create a deep appetite for change. This calls for comprehensive and integrated solutions. Instruments like the newly launched Africa Facility to Support Inclusive Transitions (AFSIT) represent a unique programmatic intervention that could contribute significantly to resolving gaps in current international and regional responses.
The third key finding highlights the risks of coups in countries with a prolonged history of military rule. The findings show that countries with a history of military governance and the close involvement of the military in political life are far more likely to experience a recurring pattern of military coups. They are also among the African countries where military spending represents the highest proportion of the state budget. These findings highlight a critical need to reset the military’s role in political life and wider civil-military relations.
“The report calls for a re-focus on development, including good governance, human rights and access to basic services such as education and healthcare as a critical means to prevent coups and sustain peace,” said Ahunna Eziakonwa, UN Assistant Secretary-General, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Africa.
“This is particularly crucial in regions like the Sahel, which face a heightened risk of coups. That investment will drive game-changing progress in the 2030 Vision and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.”
Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, in a statement read on his behalf, called on “African leaders to disincentivise coups, and to make concerted efforts in respecting the tenets of democracy and the rule of law, to ensure political stability on the continent”.
The primary objective of AFSIT is to assist in developing credible, inclusive, and legitimate transition roadmaps, mechanisms, and institutions, ultimately leading to the restoration and consolidation of constitutional rule, democracy and stability in relevant countries. Comprehensive and integrated responses are called upon, and instruments like AFSIT represent a unique programmatic intervention that could resolve the gaps in current international and regional responses.