Authoritarian rule & the paradox of the decline of the African coup

Okot Nyormoi

*Okot Nyormoi is Co-Editor of Nile Journal

On 7 January 2019, an attempted coup to topple the ailing Ali Bongo as president of Gabon, failed. That the coup attempt occurred was not a surprise, given the conditions in Gabon. Here is a sickly and absentee president, ruling over the undeclared 50-year old monarchy. While throughout the country, appalling poverty make life a misery for the majority, as a tiny corrupt elite wallows in opulence.

On the other hand, it was a surprise that the coup attempt occurred at all. Given the decade long drastic drop in the frequencies of coups in Africa. Between 1960 to 1999, there were 39-42 coup per decade. Between 2000 to 2009 it was 22.  And in the current decade the numbers have dropped down to 16. The failure of the coup was also surprising given that the elements for success were present: absence of the ailing president, public disaffection with the regime, high rate of unemployment especially among the youth, and a growing population of internet users.

Does the failed coup in Gabon validate the theory that coups have gone out of style in Africa? There are people who argue that there is a growing number of young middle-class Africans who do not believe in coups as a method of changing governments, and for whom the uncertainties of coups would be unacceptable. While this may be so, the numbers involved here are too insignificant to make a difference.

We know for a fact that in an overwhelmingly young continent, the vast majority of the youth in Africa are unemployed and have little stake in anything. While there is massive corruption in high places, and opposition and dissent is criminalized and severely punished. It is common in conditions like these, for those economically and politically excluded to yearn for change by any means.

Another factor frequently cited as the reason for the decline in the frequency of coups in Africa is the much touted policy of zero-tolerance for coups proclaimed in 2000 by the Organization for African Union, and later endorsed by the African Union. In reality the zero-tolerance policy has nothing to do with democracy and has become a tool in the hands of despots who use it to prolong themselves in power as life presidents.

Has the frequency of coups in Africa dropped, because African institutions have taken root and have become strong? Some say so. The critical institutions are of course: parliament, the judiciary, the military, and the police. In most African countries these institutions, plus the confusingly named the Independent Electoral Commission, have become the property of the president who uses them to perpetuate himself in power and to place himself beyond accountability.

A better explanation of the drop in the frequency of coups in Africa appears to lie in international politics, and the maneuvering by the big powers. During colonialism there were no coups in Africa. Then came African independence and with it an epidemic of coups. Africa became a battleground for the fierce competition between the East and the West for the control of its riches. It became common practice for West or the East to engineer coups in Africa while exploiting existing ethnic, religious or political divides. Two examples will suffice to illustrate the point. Shortly after Congolese independence, the new leader, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated by the US Central Intelligence because America thought Lumumba was leaning towards socialist countries and they did not want to lose control of Congo’s abundant mineral resources. In Uganda in 1971 President Obote, was overthrown by the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin, at the behest of Israel and Britain because they feared Obote was gravitating towards the East.

As the cold war waned the number of coups in Africa dropped significantly, because the cut throat competition between the East and the West, was no longer there. The Soviet Union had lost the cold war and China had not yet arrived. Most of the former colonies had become firmly secured by their former colonizers. While in the others, former Belgian, former French, and former Portuguese colonies, the Americans had moved in and dislodged former the colonial powers.

With the support of external backers (actually Masters), most African leaders now proceeded to develop elaborate and effective systems of patronage. They used every tool in their possession (bribery, coercion, criminalization of dissent, brutalization and intimidation, service deprivation, election rigging). to subdue opponents and win support across ethnic/religious lines, thus firmly sealing the door against a coup d’état.

Admittedly, coups may indeed have grown out of favor with many citizens in Africa, but for a different reason. Successive governments ushered in by coups brought no change. Lives of most citizens remained what they were: poverty stricken. On top of this, coups came with violence and insecurity. It was little surprise, many people grew weary and resigned themselves to the status quo.


All things considered, the real reason for the decline of coups in Africa may be summarized as follow.

  • close collaboration between dictators in Africa and their Western patrons
  • wariness of citizens disappointed by the lack of improvement in their lives regardless of who rules
  • global dominance of the West over everybody else

The decline in the number of coups in Africa is not a reflection of good governance. It is the result of the entrenchment of authoritarian rule in Africa. The history of Franco’s Spain and the methods of his long rule tell us something.