For African democracy (and the perceived lack thereof), coups d’état have constituted perennial notoriety that has not portended an organic molding of contextual African democracy in the postcolonial era. Coups in Africa (particularly since the 1960s) have fortified stereotypes of poverty, poor governance, and a savior mentality as watered down from Western media’s problematic and arrogant coverage of African political events.
The turn of the millennium has registered fewer successful military takeovers (as well as unsuccessful attempts) in African countries as contrasted with the 20th century — and this is attributable to the [rather undemocratic] introduction of a strand of liberal democracy predicated on multi-party politics.
This strand of democracy, which Africa grapples with, was dictated to the continent by the gatekeepers of private capital — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — through structural conditions as part of debt packages throughout the 1990s particularly.
These structural conditions stressed “good governance” and “democracy” as conditions for acquiring World Bank and IMF loans. This attempted to avert the mania of coups that had gripped the continent in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Neocolonialism was thus entrenched by this phenomenon, cementing the fragmentations and dependencies that had been kept intact by former colonial powers ever since the dawn of political independence.
In the 20th century, neocolonial interests played an ineluctable role in orchestrating military takeovers — notable examples are Burkina Faso (with the assassination of Thomas Sankara) and Ghana (the toppling of Kwame Nkrumah). Nkrumah and Sankara, in their respective contexts, were acutely aware of the lethal effects of not attaining self-sufficiency and economic sovereignty as regards the political economy. Because of that, private capital from the global north financed the coups they fell to.
In the 21st century context of postcolonial Africa, the wave of coups in Africa (even on a lower note than the 20th century) is conspicuous. Key examples stand out — Mali, Chad, Niger, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. But the recent case of Guinea where former long-serving president Alpha Condé was unceremoniously ousted from power by a swift military takeover against the backdrop of mass discontent has recapitulated the notion of Africa being the hotbed of military coups.
Expectedly, mainstream Western media vociferously covers such coups for global consumption, but it glosses over inescapable historical contexts and nuances — and in a classical disingenuous manner, mainstream Western media (coupled with the swift and ephemeral social media platforms where attention matters more than explanation) ignores the West’s and the East’s roles in perpetuating neocolonial domination on the continent to feed complex webs of geopolitical interests and hegemonies.
Instead, global commercial media giants push the narratives that coups are peculiar to Africa because of conflict, poverty, poor leadership, and corruption. But neocolonial interests played a role in the 1953 Iran coup (where Mossadegh sought to nationalize oil) and the 1973 coup in Chile (where Socialist leader Allende sought to drive away foreign private capital).
The implicit connotation is that coups – deemed a failure to adhere to Western-style democracy that appeases billions of dollars in terms of global capital – are in need of “civilizing,” with such paternalistic and savior-mentality approaches being vestiges of imperial colonial domination.
This implicit connotation is hidden via the cloak of “good governance” — wittingly, and unwittingly, this furthers neocolonialism because former colonial powers maintain their interventionist attitudes in Africa to promote the said good governance and good leadership. Unavoidable from this neocolonial matrix are China and Russia; even though the former operates in Africa under the pretext of “non-intervention” towards a state’s sovereignty.
The proximate cause of the coup in Guinea, led by youthful Special Forces Commander Col. Mamady Doumbouya, can be traced to the contentious third-term served by Alpha Conde in which he presided over an ailing economy exacerbated by endemic corruption — and the neoliberal failings of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Guinea coup was the third in West Africa this year (the others being Mali and Chad). Democratic improvements of the 1990s have been superficial as leaders seek to retain the power to maintain proximity to capital as they accumulate unfettered wealth while the majority are without the basics of life.
France initially backed Conde, but after his controversial extension of the presidential limit (and a disputed electoral victory in 2020) France renounced its support, leaving China, Russia, and Turkey as his key allies. Reports of the American military training the elite special forces unit that orchestrated the coup surfaced soon after the President had been stripped of his powers — American Green Berets reportedly trained about 100 soldiers comprising of the elite unit led by Col. Doumbouya since mid-July 2021. Col. Doumbouya once served in the French Foreign Legion. The U.S. government officially denounced the coup (and attendant to this is a cut in foreign aid) but the double standards are hard to ignore.
It is hard to place a textbook definition of coups – in November 2017, the military in Zimbabwe categorically denied that it was a coup d’état, as they were “targeting the enemies around the president”. Col. Doumbouya drew a veneer of legitimacy by declaring, “the duty of a soldier is to save the country”. But where a number of foreign powers are involved as mentioned above this statement is incendiary towards the instability ravaging West Africa — the situation is more precarious in the wake of the coups in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021) and Chad (April 2021).
The incessant interventionist mania by foreign powers, coupled with the spineless outlook of the African Union does not bode well for Africa’s security and sovereignty. Military governments — save where they are rooted in the popular movements of the masses and ensconced in ideology (as with Sankara in Burkina Faso and how he vehemently rejected foreign aid) — are concerned with entrenching their private capital, and that of foreign powers. When people oppose this, a reign of terror is unleashed. Africa needs to extricate itself from the dependency of the global neocolonial hegemony that allows foreign powers (chiefly the U.S., France, Russia, and China) to set up military bases in African countries.
While coups have been on a downward trend, the recent surge as noticeable in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Mali, Chad, and recently Guinea cannot be allowed to stand. Regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), anchored by the AU, should thwart foreign influences to create organic and people-centered democratic movements.
The trend in coups vindicates the assertion that a neocolonial footprint is becoming frighteningly ferocious — maybe much despicable than the numerous coups that Nigeria and Ghana experienced in the 20th century. Power-seeking militaries (abetted by neocolonial private capital) abuse the lack of support by people towards autocratic leaders for their populist gains, while sacrificing stability. The bottom-line nonetheless is that military coups should never be condoned.