I was quite intrigued when a senior French diplomat Stephane Gompertz revealed on a recent trip to LSE that his government had made subtle changes to the way they deal with regimes that seize power by force. It got me thinking about the decline of coup d’états in Africa and the possible reasons.
I first heard the word coup d’état at age eight on the BBC World Service. It was 1982 and Hissene Habre had just seized power in Chad.
Over the years, I came to hate hearing about coups as they seemed a byword for inhumane atrocities.
When I finally had my own experience of a coup about 10 years later, it seemed very tame as Captain Valentine Strasser toppled President Joseph Momoh in what was a largely bloodless overthrow in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Looking at the graph below it is clear that the 1960s to the 1990s were the heyday of coup d’états with an average of 25 per decade. That is some figure.
As democracy has spread across the continent, the sceptre of coups has reduced drastically. Elliott Green, lecturer in development studies at LSE, gives an insight into the reason for this occurrence.
“The simple reason why African coups have declined is that elections have recently become more and more accepted among politicians and the military as a legitimate way to choose a government.
“One striking statistic from a paper by Daniel Posner and Daniel Young from 2007 is that only one African President lost an election between 1960 and 1990 (Aden Abdullah Osman of Somalia, in 1967), compared to a striking 14 presidents between 1990 and 2004.
“Two recent elections have continued to exemplify this trend. Last year Somaliland had a peaceful election where the incumbent President lost and gave up power rather than trying to retain it through a coup.
“The other recent example is, of course, Côte d’Ivoire, where President Laurent Gbagbo challenged the results of the 2010 election and refused to stand down until he was captured by opposition forces in April this year.
“Thus Gbagbo claimed that he had won the election legitimately rather than merely maintaining himself in power by force; moreover, there was no attempt by the Ivorian military to launch a coup as happened under similar circumstances in Nigeria in 1993, when the notorious Sani Abacha took power after a disputed election.
“This is not to say that coups have disappeared completely from Africa, as seen for instance in Mauritania and Niger, but their frequency has gone down as the legitimacy of elections has risen.”
In the past, the new military governments were ostracised by the international community and sanctions imposed made life tougher for the citizens of those countries.
However, there has been a gentle shift in attitudes towards the perpetrators of coup d’états. On a recent visit to the LSE, long-standing French diplomat Stephane Gompertz made the point that his government will still never ever recognise a regime that takes power by force.
However, if that regime demonstrates that it is genuinely determined to return to democracy in the short term, then they would be willing to work behind the scenes to aid a smooth return. He used the recent examples of Mauritania and Niger to demonstrate this point.