Africa has experienced numerous military coups since countries began gaining independence in the 1950s and 1960s. A military coup refers to an illegal seizure of power from a government by the armed forces or other internal security forces. Military coups have had major political, economic, and social consequences for African countries. They disrupt democracy, violate human rights, undermine economic development, and destabilize regional security.
This article examines the key causes and motives behind military coups in post-independence Africa. It analyzes the main political, economic, and security repercussions of coups. The article also discusses the international responses and efforts to restore democratic constitutions after military takeovers.
Causes and Motivations for Military Coups in Africa
There are multiple complex causes behind the various military coups that have occurred in Africa. Key motivations include:
- Discontent with existing leadership and desire for power change
- Political instability and infighting in ruling governments
- Ethnic, religious and regional divisions
- Grievances over economic mismanagement, corruption and living standards
- Perceived threats to military funding privileges and business interests
- National security threats and power vacuums
- Influence of Cold War politics and ideology
Many African militaries developed a sense of entitlement to political power and economic privileges after fighting independence struggles or being used to suppress internal dissent. The political instability of post-independence African politics provided opportunities for military factions to take over key states. Coups were sometimes popular initially as they pledged to end corruption. But military rulers often became similarly corrupt.
Key Political and Governance Consequences of Coups
Military coups have had major detrimental impacts on democratic governance and institution building in Africa. When elected leaders are overthrown and replaced by military juntas, democratic principles are severely undermined. Key political consequences include:
- Suspension of constitutions, dismissal of elected institutions
- Banning of political parties and civil liberties
- Arbitrary detentions, torture and executions of opponents
- Press censorship and propaganda programmes
- Centralization of decision-making under military rulers
Military regimes typically establish themselves as the supreme ruling body, subordinating the legislature and judiciary. Democratic accountability and checks on power are removed. Critics and opponents are jailed, killed or exiled. The population is compelled to obedience rather than citizens able to hold leaders to account. In the long-term, repeated coups have stunted the development of robust democratic norms in many African countries.
However, the public legitimacy of military regimes diminishes as their dictatorship persists. After an initial “honeymoon period”, repression tends to increase. This gradually fuels discontent and demands for democratization from civil society groups, opposition parties, trade unions, student movements etc. International pressure for restoring democratic constitutions also mounts over time. Most African countries have transitioned back to multi-party systems and elected leaders. But the legacy effects of past military rule remain obstacles.
Economic Costs of Military Rule
Military coups and unstable juntas have exacted major economic costs and disrupted development across Africa. Key economic impacts include:
- Decline in overall economic growth
- Fall in foreign direct investment and tourism
- Capital flight and brain drain
- Run down in infrastructure investment
- Reduced tax revenues and aid flows
- Increased military spending and corruption
- Mismanaged state-run industries and land reform failures
- Higher inflation, debt and poverty levels
The arbitrary decision-making of military rulers deters business investment and undermines coherent economic planning. International sanctions or restrictions are often imposed on coup regimes. Skilled professionals and entrepreneurs migrate abroad. Infrastructure and public services deteriorate due to lower taxes and misallocated resources. Military elites capture lucrative industries and commercial assets. Poverty reduction reverses as inflation erodes incomes. External debt grows as budget deficits rise. Overall, military rule sets back both national and individual economic welfare.
The security challenges facing African states also tend to increase under military regimes. Border conflicts, insurgencies and terrorism often intensify due to reduced regional cooperation and internal political legitimacy. Militaries focus more on internal repression than external defenses. Military rulers form opportunistic alliances with neighbors to gain support and arms. Coups also provoke wider insecurity, for example, by displacing populations as refugees.
Repercussions for Regional and International Security
Military coups can have destabilizing “ripple effects” across neighboring countries and entire regions. Key security impacts include:
- More regional conflicts and refugee displacements
- Proliferation of arms and mercenaries
- Rise of warlordism and role of militias
- Insurgencies aided by collapsing states
- Increased terrorism and extremism
- Spillovers of ethnic or religious violence
- Transnational organized crime and piracy
Security vacuums after coups increase risks of arms trafficking, militant groups and criminal activities across borders. Military regimes breed more corruption and human rights abuses. This fuels local grievances that violent extremists exploit to expand recruitment. Coups viewed as successful tempt elements in other militaries to attempt takeovers.
External interventions sometimes occur after coups which further elevate instability, for example, France in Mali in 2013. If juntas support opposition groups in neighboring countries, it can evoke counter-interventions. Civil wars or communal violence within coup-installed regimes also prompt regional peacekeeping missions. The displacement of civilian populations as refugees has security impacts on host states. Overall, military takeovers reverberate through entire regions, undermining stability and order.
International Responses to Coups in Africa
The international community has used various policy tools to try to deter or reverse military coups in Africa. Key responses include:
- Imposing sanctions and aid suspensions
- Freezing coup regime assets abroad
- Travel bans on junta leaders
- Trade and investment embargoes
- Cutting military assistance and arms sales
- Condemning coups at the UN and AU
- Encouraging negotiations and dialogue
- Deploying peacekeeping forces
- Restoring relations after democratization
Major donors like the US and EU typically condemn coups strongly and enact punitive measures when they occur. Multilateral bodies like the UN, African Union, World Bank and IMF also censure regimes that seize power unconstitutionally. Sanctions and aid suspensions impose economic costs on juntas. Diplomatic isolation also takes place, reducing legitimacy for coup leaders.
However, external actors have sometimes flipped positions and recognized coup rulers. If they backtrack on democracy, aid can resume quickly rather than sustained leverage being applied. But in general, international responses aim to delegitimize military takeovers and pressurize juntas to restore elected governance. Global norms have shifted away from tacit acceptance of authoritarian rule. Pro-democracy civic movements are also increasingly supported against “rolling back” coups.
Efforts to Re-Democratize and Prevent Further Coups
As international opposition to military rule intensified, most African countries have transitioned from post-coup dictatorships back to civilian democracy in recent decades. But the threat of further coups still looms in fragile states. Constitutional reforms and other measures have been implemented to try to prevent repeat seizure of power by armed forces, including:
- Reasserting civilian command over militaries
- Improving military professionalism and ethics
- Depoliticizing officer corps from ruling parties
- Providing oversight through defense committees
- Recruiting more ethnically diverse officer corps
- Boosting military budgets and living standards
- Retiring disloyal senior commanders
- Trying coup plotters in civilian courts
- Amending laws to block coup routes
Because militaries remain pivotal actors, preventing coups fundamentally requires reforming their responsibilities, decision-making and relations to government. More transparent defense budgets and security policies make interference less likely. Greater civilian authority in promotions, deployments and asset management increases accountability. Purging politicized elements and diversifying recruitment reduces polarization.
Broader democratization also constrains military interventions, via strengthened parliaments, independent judiciaries, free media and electoral systems. Empowered citizens more actively resist coups. While risks remain, improved civil-military relations, rights protections and people power make seizures of power by force more difficult. But continued progress requires rooting democratic cultures deeper across African society.
Military coups have had severe adverse impacts on African democracy, development and stability since the post-independence era began. Motivations have included power ambitions and grievances within militaries, wider political and economic crises, and national security threats. Juntas have violated rights, worsened poverty and sparked conflicts. But international opposition together with domestic pressures have gradually established norms against unconstitutional changes of government. Most states have returned to the democratic path, with efforts underway to consolidate good governance and curb further military takeovers. Challenges persist but coups are declining as their costs increase for all societies.
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