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Return of the African coup

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The conventional wisdom that sub-Saharan Africa has moved beyond military coups may be wishful thinking. In the past two years, Africa has seen successful coups in Niger, Guinea, Madagascar and Mauritania. In addition, there have been a handful of interventions, failed coups, and threats elsewhere. Despite the development of democratic institutions in some parts of Africa, coups appear to be once again an option when democracy seems to be failing, political gridlock has taken hold, or populations are alienated from constitutional authority.

Successful coups legitimised by popular support (or at least acquiescence) and oiled with promises to "restore democracy" may become infectious, encouraging copycats in neighbouring states where governments are also weak or failing. At the end of February in Niamey, Niger's capital, armed troops surrounded the presidential palace and arrested President Mamadou Tandja in the midst of a cabinet meeting. While the African Union, the United States and other members of the international community protested, popular reaction in Niamey was jubilant. Tandja, originally democratically elected, had become increasingly autocratic, dismissing the National Assembly and the constitutional court, and eliminating presidential term limits. As his governance descended into authoritarianism, the military and at least a visible part of the population came to view a coup as the only way to stop Niger's downward course. The army rode in, promising democracy and free and fair elections.

While the military junta has since kept control over the executive branch of government, its head, Salou Djibo, appointed a civilian, Mahamadou Danda, as prime minister. In addition to vowing elections, which have not yet been scheduled, Djibo has pledged that members of the junta will not run for office.

In Guinea, despite 24 previous years of authoritarian military rule, the population supported the 2008 coup staged by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara's immediately following President Lansana Contê's death. Guineans in fact had little choice but to accept Dadis Camara's promise of elections and a return to civilian rule - at least until the murder of 157 opposition protesters by members of the Guinean military at Conakry stadium in October 2009 seemed to dash all hope for such an outcome.
Yet a peaceful democratic transition may actually happen. Following an assassination attempt by an aidede-camp, Dadis Camara fled the country, and the interim junta leader, General Sêkouba Konatê, allowed the opposition political parties to appoint a civilian prime minister. He has since scheduled elections for June 27. Accordingly, the public mood is optimistic.

Escalating popular protests by both incumbent and opposition supporters in Madagascar brought the country to a standstill until the army itself splintered and sacked the president's office and central bank, forcing the president to step aside in favour of the opposition leader, Andry Rajoelina. Unrest has continued, and the military has issued an ultimatum to Rajoelina to resolve the deadlock. While he has pledged not to run in the elections set for November, 2011, a mutiny within the military, as well as arrests in April of suspected coup plotters, suggests a divide within the military itself.

The international community branded each of these countries a pariah, and various international organisations, such as the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, and the Southern African Development Community, have responded by suspending membership and occasionally imposing sanctions. But these steps are largely ineffective - or worse. The international community has limited leverage, and sanctions may have a greater negative impact on the population than on the coup-makers. Malagasies, for example, have been the ones to feel the brunt of the suspension of foreign aid, which dominates Madagascar's budget.

Africa's recent coups have taken place in small countries. With the possible exception of Madagascar, they play only a limited role on the continent. Nevertheless, successful coups may encourage the military to move in other, larger countries. Many feared that the example of the coup in Niger could encourage Nigeria's military to move at the height of the country's crisis. In fact, rumours of coup plotting in Nigeria prompted military officers to restrict the movements of soldiers, and may have spurred the political elite to reach the consensus that installed Goodluck Jonathan as acting president. Even more unsettling was the anecdotal evidence of public support for military intervention.

Successful coup makers regularly pledge to restore democratic governance, and sometimes they keep that promise. Nevertheless, coups, whether violent or peaceful, are the antithesis of democratic institutions, and military rule can last a long time. Nigeria endured almost 15 years of it, despite repeated pledges - by three successive dictators - to restore democracy. Yet, until governments - and the elites that support them - are prepared to commit to democracy, good governance, and the rule of law, and until they are accountable to their populations, coups will remain a viable option. The very rise of that spectre has been a setback for Africa's democratic development.

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