Coups: Democracy in Africa not a system to attain Western development

By Ibe Pascal

Everywhere that the struggle for national freedom has triumphed, once the authorities agreed, there were military coups d’etat that overthrew their leaders. That is the result time and time again.

According to Eduardo Galeano, most of wars or military coups or invasions are done in the name of democracy against democracy.

Mali has been under a transitional government for 3 years, following the coup d’état of August 18, 2020, in which the military overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Kéita. General elections are scheduled for early 2022, between February and March.

The popular fervour that accompanied the 2020 coup d’état faded very quickly. The junta, which had initially embodied the much hoped-for change, eventually appeared to be a repeat of the system it overthrew. None of the dignitaries of the old regime were questioned, including those against whom there were strong accusations.

In 2019, Sudanese coup d’état: On April 11, 2019, late in the afternoon, following mass demonstrations calling for his ouster, President Omar al-Bashir was deposed by the Sudanese Armed Forces. At that time, the army under the command of Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf overthrew the government and National Legislature and proclaimed a three-month state of emergency in the nation. This was followed by a two-year transitional period before an agreement was eventually reached.

2021 Tunisian self-coup: On July 25, 2021, the Hichem Mechichi government was overthrown by Tunisian President Kais Saied, who also suspended the Assembly of Representatives of the People and removed the immunity of its members. Described as a self-coup, the action followed a period of political unrest highlighted by a string of anti-Ennahda protests and the breakdown of Tunisia’s healthcare system in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2021 Guinean coup d’état: Alpha Condé, the president of Guinea, was taken prisoner by the military on September 5, 2021. The leader of the special forces announced the dissolution of the government and constitution in a broadcast that was televised on state television by Mamady Doumbouya.

On September 30, 2022, a coup d’état removed Interim President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba from Burkina Faso due to his apparent failure to handle the nation’s Islamist insurgency. Just eight months earlier, a coup had brought Damiba to power. Captain Ibrahim Traoré assumed command in an acting capacity.

On July 26, 2023, the presidential guard of the Republic of the Niger detained President Mohamed Bazoum. Shortly after declaring the coup a success, presidential guard commander general Abdourahamane Tchiani assumed control of a new military junta.

Barely a month after Niger’s military toppled its president, Gabon’s army seized power, bringing to nine the number of military coups across sub-Saharan African since 2020. International sanctions have been imposed to try to nudge these countries back to democracy, with little success. With more of the region’s elected governments at risk of violent overthrow, French President Emmanuel Macron has warned that “all the presidents across the region are more or less aware of the fate that awaits them” unless democracy is restored. 

Four days after the central African nation held disputed presidential elections that incumbent Ali Bongo was reported to have won, army officers appeared on state television to announce they’d canceled the Aug. 26 vote and dissolved the country’s institutions. Bongo first took office in 2009, succeeding his late father, who had held power since 1967. While the oil producer hasn’t had to deal with the jihadist attacks or spreading insecurity that’s dogged much of West Africa, the ruling family’s grip on power has come under pressure in recent years. Soldiers already launched a failed coup in 2019, months after Bongo suffered a stroke that sidelined him for several months. 

Promoting democracy has been a central pillar of the West, especially U.S. foreign policy for decades.  Unfortunately,  it’s  doubtful about the results achieved by the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. has invested to promote democracy in Africa.

As one form of democracy does not fit all countries, perhaps there is some room, depending upon the nature of a country and its ethnic makeup, for the development of an indigenous democracy that incorporates local cultural and social values. The fact that most Africans vote along ethnic lines prevents the adoption of a western-style democracy.

Since the early 1990s, there have been significant transformations in political systems in many African countries. These institutional changes have resulted in, for example, the demise of the racially based apartheid system in the Republic of South Africa and the introduction of a nonracial democracy. Many civilian and military dictatorships have fallen, paving the way for the establishment of rule-of-law-based governance systems characterized by constitutionalism and constitutional government, including reforms such as term limits. Nevertheless, many of these countries still struggle to deepen and institutionalize democracy and deal effectively and fully with government impunity, particularly that which is associated with the abuse of executive power and the violation of human rights.

Notably, while presidents in some countries, such as Kenya, Liberia, and Ghana, have abided by their countries’ two-term limit, others have used legislatures subservient to the president to change their constitutions to allow them to stay in power beyond those two terms, and, in some cases, indefinitely. In addition, these and other recent institutional changes have created conditions that make it very difficult for the opposition to participate competitively in elections.

Presidents that have changed their countries’ constitutions to eliminate the two-term limit include Presidents Gnassingbé (Togo), Museveni (Uganda), Déby (Chad), Biya (Cameroon), Kagame (Rwanda), the late Nkurunziza (Burundi), and el-Sisi (Egypt), just to name a few. Changing the constitution to eliminate term and/or age limits for presidents and allow the incumbent president to unconstitutionally extend his mandate has been referred to as a constitutional coup. It is important to note that relatively weak institutions and the absence of a democratic culture have facilitated the ability of incumbents to manipulate constitutions in the countries named in this paragraph. The hope is that, as the level of democratic development improves in these countries, such constitutional coups will become a rarity.

At the same time, free and frequent elections as a constraint to governmental tyranny are a necessary but not sufficient condition to guarantee and guard liberty. In fact, while elections can help African countries consolidate, deepen, and entrench democracy, they can also pave the way for sustained majoritarian power to the detriment of the minority, as we have seen in countries like Cameroon.

It is important to note that, although elections are critical to the transition of a country from authoritarianism to constitutional democracy, they can also serve as a tool for the survival of authoritarian governments. For example, authoritarian regimes in countries, such as Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea have used elections to legitimize their leaders and remain in power indefinitely.

In each country in the world, groups or factions whose interests may not be in line with those of the country as a whole certainly exist. Indeed, in Africa, one of the most important constraints to democratic consolidation is the violent struggle by various factions, many of which are actually ethnocultural groups, to capture, through elections or other means, the apparatus of government. To combat the abuse of the rights of minorities by majorities—that is, to minimize majoritarian tyranny—a country can create a governmental system in which the people are sovereign but government power and the exercise of it is limited by the constitution, which includes provisions to explicitly protect individual rights, to instill separation of powers through checks and balances, and to enshrine popular sovereignty through elections. However, for such a constitutional democracy to survive and flourish, it must have a “virtuous,” robust, and politically active public, as well as political elites dedicated to maintaining the country’s constitutional institutions.

Importantly, term limits “can facilitate democratization in Africa” and “help push semi-authoritarian countries toward democracy by handicapping incumbents and increasing the chances of democratic turnover from one party to another.” For example, in interviews with high-level Kenyan officials, Dr. Alexander H. Noyes, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation, concluded that Mwai Kibaki’s “intention to step down after his second term was up in 2013 made him more inclined to agree to changes that constrained executive powers—including a new constitution in 2010—than if he was running for reelection.”

According to the African Center for Strategic Studies, since 2015, leaders of 13 African countries have “evaded or overseen the further weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place.” For example, Alassane Ouattara, who has been president of Côte d’Ivoire since 2011 and who was seemingly barred from standing for the presidency this election cycle by the constitution’s two-term limit, argued in August 2020 that his first two mandates do not count because the limits were created by the constitution that was adopted in 2016, which effectively reset the clock. Although he initially declined to run again, the untimely death of his party’s chosen candidate created a vacuum in which he decided to stand again. The country votes this weekend.

These constitutional coups weaken the role of elections as a democratizing tool. Worse, in some countries (Cameroon or The Gambia, for instance), this circumvention of term limits has contributed significantly to the rise of violent and destructive mobilization by marginalized ethnocultural groups.


Winston Churchill famously criticized democracy as “the worst form of Government”. Indeed people get a voice to shape their political and economic destinies through democratic exercises but in it has many imperfections. The Westminster Democracy has failed to be successful in Africa and critics have argued that it is because it does not speak to the culture of Africans. They suggest the need for an African democracy that speaks to values and cultures of Africans for it to be successful.

 However proponents of democracy say that The Western democracy is a good form of government that can lead to socio- economic development if it is given time to develop. They give example of Successful democracy in the developed world and state that it took some countries more than 200 years to achieve successful democracy and therefore Africa should be given the time. The problem however is that Africa continues to languish as underdeveloped under the umbrella of democracy and we really do not have that time to wait and build democracy at the expense of development. Any pragmatic person can assertively say that the democracy that is currently being practiced is a social and economic ill to Africa.  


Democracy is a political system in which the eligible people (electorates) in any country participate actively in not only determining the kind of people that govern them but actually also participate actively in shaping the policy output of how government is managed (Eze, 1997). 

Development refers to an advancement to state that is desired; a better state. People take development to mean change while some see it as advancement, progress or improvement (Ele, 2006).

The desired goal of development is improvement in people’s standards of living through good physical infrastructures such as roads, electricity, water and social infrastructures such as health, education and security services. Development is thus a multi- dimensional process that involves improving the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of people and by extension the environment in an effort to make the development sustainable.

Ali A. Mazrui wrote that democracy has four primary goals. (i.) To make the rulers accountable and answerable for their actions and policies. (ii.) To make the citizens effective participants in choosing those rulers who are in regulating their actions. (iii.) To make the society as open and the economy as transparent as possible. (iv.) To make the social order fundamentally just and equitable to the greatest number possible. Democratic governance is characterized not only by free and fair ballots, but it also entails freedom of speech, association, assembly, opinion and expression. Freedom of the press and mass movements; which enables them to expose decays within society. Rule of law governing accountability and equal justice.

African states today define democracy as:

i. More than one political party competing for election that is a multiparty state.

ii. Regular, fair and free elections to determine real governing power.

iii. Protection of civil and political liberties.

iv. Effective political representation.

v. Independent judicial bodies guided by the rule of law.

vi. Tolerance for opposition parties.

The poor socio-economic and political development in Africa has been attributed to abuse of basic human rights and freedoms, totalitarian rule, inequalities, corruption, ethnicity, tribalism, disregard of rule of law, Impunity, lack of office tenures, poor constitutions, weakened institutions and many other negative aspects. There is therefore need to conduct a comparative analysis of Nations to examine the contribution that the practice of democracy can make towards achieving any state’s overall development.

Correlation between democracy and development.

A country might be termed as ‘democratic’ because of how people participate in electing their leaders but you find that there is no democracy at all in how the elections are conducted in such states. The Western style of democracy adopted has failed to work in African states but has been assumed to be successful. It is a fallacy for one to state that Africans enjoy their democratic right hence they are developed. Adrian (1996) argues democracy can only serve as a framework for realizing development if it is seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself. However, it is indeed rare to find democracy thriving in a state that is economically flawed.

A state with poor electorates usually has leaders elected in a ‘democratic way’ although in real sense democracy was not practiced in the first place. It is a case of the political leaders campaigning by giving the poor handouts to vote for them with the deception of improving their economic situation. In turn the poor person with dire need to get the hand out to buy his basic needs will receive the hand out and eventually vote the political leader; not because he is a deserving leader but because the poor voter is returning a favor. Some researchers argue that socio- economic development leads to democracy while others argue it is democracy that leads to socio- economic development. They are informed by “Lipset thesis” (Lipset 1959; 1963) that explains economic development not only leads to democracy but is also essential for democracy to exist. The cases however vary from country to country.

 When you carry a broader comparative analysis you find that in Western and Asian countries, democracy has been a means to an end in the former and an end in itself in the latter. For instance in Central and Eastern Europe, economic failure has acted as a catalyst to bring about democratic change. In others like South Korea and Taiwan, economic success has acted as a catalyst to democracy.

Samarasinghe S.W.R. de A. (1994), ask whether development leads to democracy?

They discuss the multiplicity of paths to democracy such as good governance, depending on the particular circumstances of the country. They conclude by stating it does not always happen.

The concept of democracy is tied to good governance that leads to development. Good governance can help the process of democratization by promoting essential democratic practices such as accountability that helps develop a political culture conducive to democracy. Good governance helps economic development which in turn can help nurture democracy. However according to World Development Report given by The World Bank, in (1991), it’s important to note that economic development can occur both in democratic and non- democratic states.

 In Latin America, Peru and Bolivia have performed very poorly in the 1980s under democratic regimes and Chile did exceedingly well under an authoritarian regime. Costa Rica is a democratic state with good record in social welfare and development. South Asia, India, with long-standing democratic regime has had modest economic growth record since independence in 1947. Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have experienced low economic growth usually under non-democratic regimes. But quite frankly democracy in Africa will not guarantee economic development in Africa because in itself is flawed.

The failure of democratic practice in Africa is due to the fact that we do not really understand what constitutes democracy. We have gone on and on fighting for democracy; we are fighting to attain something we do not understand in the first place. It is therefore important to understand what it means so as to be able to judge whether it has failed to develop Africa or not. Some of the cases that suggest democracy has failed in Africa are the crises of military coups in Mali and Guinea Bissau, the fraudulent presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the recent refusal to concede elections outcome in Gambia by president Yahya Jammeh, the unconstitutional third term candidacy of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the change of constitution to fit term in office by Rwandan president Paul Kagame, the never ending term of office for Zimbwabwe president Robert Mugabe and the 2007 post- election violence in Kenya. Citing Kenya as an example, the Western democracy of conducting elections has led to more outcries in terms of ethnic violence, poor governance and under development just to state but a few ills

The democratic practice in 2007 elections created a larger rift in social ties which had an impact in the country’s’ Gross domestic product. According to Guibert and Perez-Quiros (2012), over the period 2007-2011, per capita GDP was reduced by an average of 70 USD per year, which amounts to be approximately 5 percent of the 2007 baseline level.

In the disputed 2007 elections, Kenyans went to vote thus exercising their democratic right, the elections were rigged and the whole country turned into chaos. A Western style democracy demands that Democratic decisions be made by a majority vote. If well practiced, it fosters transparency; an important dimension to democracy but it also brings out the aspect of ethnic divisions. The minority positions are usually ignored and the marginalized people might tend to start war with an aim of expressing their views.

Ibe Pascal, is a journalist and writer.


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