Sudan coup: Are military takeovers back in Africa?

Wednesday, October 27th, 2021 00:00 |
Soldiers in Sudan out on the streets of Omdurman after the recent coup. Photo/BBC

 Peter Mwai

Military coups have been a regular occurrence in Africa in the decades since independence and there is now concern they are becoming more frequent.

Sudan has this year experienced two such events, one in September which failed and the latest in which Gen Abdel Fattah Burhan dissolved the civilian arm of a transitional government and took over.

In Guinea, President Condé was ousted by the army in September and in neighbouring Mali there have been two interventions by the army in less than a year, the most recent one in May.

In Niger, a coup was thwarted in March just days before a presidential inauguration.

So are military interventions occurring more often on the continent?

When is a coup a coup?

One definition used is that of an illegal and overt attempt by the military - or other civilian officials - to unseat sitting leaders.

A study by two US researchers, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, has identified over 200 such attempts in Africa since the late 1950s.

About half of these have been successful - defined as lasting more than seven days.

Burkina Faso, in West Africa, has had the most successful coups, with seven takeovers and only one failed coup.

Sometimes, those taking part in such an intervention deny it’s a coup.

In 2017 in Zimbabwe, a military takeover brought Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule to and end.

One of the leaders, Maj Gen Sibusiso Moyo, appeared on television at the time, flatly denying a military takeover.

Zimbabwe: How can you tell if a coup is happening?

In April this year, after the death of the Chadian leader Idriss Déby, the army installed his son as interim president leading a transitional military council. His opponents called it a “dynastic coup”.

“Coup leaders almost invariably deny their action was a coup in an effort to appear legitimate,” says Jonathan Powell.

Are there fewer coups now in Africa?

The overall number of coup attempts in Africa remained remarkably consistent at an average of around four a year in the four decades between 1960 and 2000.

Jonathan Powell says this is not surprising given the instability African countries experienced in the years after independence.

“African countries have had conditions common for coups, like poverty and poor economic performance. When a country has one coup, that’s often a harbinger of more coups.”

Coups dropped to around two a year in the two decades up to 2019.

We are only two years into the current decade and while in 2020 only one coup was reported, there’s been a noticeably higher than average number this year with six coups or attempted coups recorded so far.

Before the current coup in Sudan, there had been successful coups in Chad, Mali and, Guinea and failed military takeovers in Niger and Sudan.

In September, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres voiced concern that “military coups are back,” and blamed a lack of unity amongst the international community in response to military interventions.

“Geopolitical divisions are undermining international co-operation and...a sense of impunity is taking hold,” he said.

Ndubuisi Christian Ani from the University of KwaZulu-Natal says popular uprisings against long-serving dictators have provided an opportunity for the return of coups in Africa.

“While popular uprisings are legitimate and people-led, its success is often determined by the decision taken by the military,” he says.

Which countries have had the most coups?

Sudan has had the most coups and attempted takeovers amounting to 17 - five of them successful. That doesn’t include the current one, which has only just happened.

In 2019, long-serving leader Omar al-Bashir was removed from power following months of popular protest. Bashir had himself taken over in a military coup in 1989.

Nigeria had a reputation for military coups in the years following independence with eight between January 1966 and the takeover by Gen Sani Abacha in 1993.  However, since 1999 transfers of power in Africa’s most populous nation have been by democratic election.

Burundi’s history has been marked by 11 separate coups, mostly driven by the tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi communities.

Sierra Leone experienced three coups between 1967 and 1968, and another one in 1971. Between 1992 and 1997, it experienced five further coup attempts.

Ghana has also had its share of military coups, with eight in two decades. The first was in 1966, when Kwame Nkrumah was removed from power, and in the following year there was an unsuccessful attempt by junior army officers.

Overall, Africa has experienced more coups than any other continent.

Of the 11 coups recorded globally since 2017, all but one - Myanmar in February this year - have been in Africa.

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