Countering Coups: Strengthening Social Contracts in Africa

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By: Dan Kuwali, Affiliated Professor, Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.


Several African countries are burdened by low social and economic development levels, suppression of opposition, human rights abuses, poverty, and poor social service delivery. Poor governance is the main causative factor of the continent’s underdevelopment. Putschists have exploited these democratic deficits to assume the status of savior and seize power. However, coups d’états are not a panacea to the inability of democracy to deliver public goods and security to the people but are the very antithesis of a democratic culture. A key step to quell coups is threefold: first, disincentivize undemocratic constitutional changes and unconstitutional changes of government while incentivizing democratization and constitutionalism; second, improve governance to forge stronger social contracts between citizens and the public across Africa; and third, enhance trust between the military and civilians by strengthening security sector governance.’

The State of Democracy in Africa

Democracy has progressed slowly in Africa. The process of democratization has been marred by the formation of political parties, rigging and winning elections, and state capture by a few elites. Africa is undergoing significant transitions, including demographic, economic, technological, urbanization, and social, economic, and political transformation. The evolving dynamics have impacted the progress of constitutionalism on the continent. For example, the  youthful civil society in Africa has become vigilant in guarding against the erosion of democratic principles and manipulation by the ruling elite. However, the foundations of a political culture necessary to consolidate liberal democracy are still weak in most African states.

Three trends of backsliding constitutionalism on the continent have exposed the fragility of democratic institutions.

First, popular protests coups in which repressive leaders are removed from power by citizens, as in Egypt (2013). Africa has seen a renewed quest for democracy expressed itself in the streets, popular culture, the Internet, and social media. These youth-led popular protests have demonstrated against social injustice, fraudulent elections, corruption, insecurity, demanding inclusion to participate in governance and a life of dignity as equal citizens. Socio-economic conditions have elicited public outrage . Although removal of leaders through this means is still unconstitutional, this does not preclude the people’s right to protest oppressive regimes peacefully.

Second,  “constitutional coups,” where leaders have changed constitutional term limits, rig elections, or abused human rights to perpetuate their tenure in office, as seen in Rwanda  and Uganda , among other countries. In some cases, ruling elites have prevented opposition candidates from running in elections or facilitating unfair coverage by state-run media. Campaigns to remove term limits have faced unsuccessful protests in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Burundi, Guinea, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The opposition to extending term limits has been successful in countries such as Zambia (2000), Malawi (2003), Nigeria (2006), and Senegal (2012). Popular protests against removing term limits culminated in military coups in Niger (2010), Burkina Faso (2014), and Guinea (2021). The December 2021 Afrobarometer shows that most Africans prefer limiting presidential terms as it nurtures competition and participation  and reduces the risk of coups.

Third, military coups have occurred where troops capitalize on civic discontent to seize power from civil authorities as in Sudan (2019).  Flouting the electoral processes and amendments to the constitution to extend term limits by leaders seeking to cling to power increased public support for the military to seize power  in Guinea (2021). While there cannot be a one-size-fits-all explanation for the proliferation of coups, the causal factors include poverty, insecurity, poor governance, including endemic corruption and economic mismanagement, infrastructural deficit, poor socio-economic systems and institutions, and frustrated youths. Africa experienced 82 coup d’états between 1960 and 2000 before the African Union (AU) was established. Between 2000 and 2022, the continent has witnessed 21 coups.

Table 1. Overview  of African coups, 2000-2022

No. Year Country Deposed Leader
1. 2022 Burkina Faso Roch Marc Christian Kaboré
2. 2021 Sudan Abdalla Hamdok
3. 2021 Guinea Alpha Conde
4. 2020 Mali Ibrahim Keita
5. 2019 Sudan Omar al-Bashir
6. 2017 Zimbabwe Robert Gabriel Mugabe
7. 2015 Burkina Faso Michel Kafando
8. 2014 Burkina Faso Blaise Compaoré
9. 2013 Egypt Mohammed Morsi
10. 2013 Central African Republic François Bozize
11. 2012 Guinea-Bissau Carlos Gomes Junior
12. 2012 Mali Amadou Toumani Toure
13. 2010 Niger Mamadou Tandja
14. 2009 Madagascar Marc Ravalomanana
15. 2008 Guinea Lansana Conte
16. 2008 Mauritania Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi
17. 2005 Mauritania Maaouiya Old Taya
18. 2005 Togo Etienne Eyadema
19. 2003 Guinea-Bissau Kumba Yalá
20. 2003 São Tomé and Príncipe Fradique de Menezes
21. 2003 Central African Republic Alex-Félix Patassé

Democratic reforms and constitutionalism following the end of the Cold War and establishment of the AU contributed to the reduction of coups to an average of two per year until the recent proliferation. The past year has seen a proliferation of coups prompting the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to decry ‘an epidemic’ of coups on the continent.  The recent rise in coups has overshadowed successful transfers of power in a majority of progressive countries that uphold constitutionalism, for example: in Southern Africa save Lesotho, where there has been political instability and Eswatini, which is the remaining absolute monarchy in the region; stable democracies in East Africa, especially Tanzania and Kenya apart from the  post-electoral violence in 2007; and West Africa’s biggest democracies such as Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal.

Calculus of Putschists

Coups involve calculations of costs and benefits by plotters. The obvious benefits include power and access to state resources. The costs include the risk of death or prosecution and imprisonment. Coup d’états have a  domino effect such that a successful coup significantly increases the probability of subsequent coups in that country and its neighbors. Therefore, if the putschists go with impunity, the trajectory of military takeovers will continue. Putschists usually promise to reverse the tide to provide socio-economic dividends to citizens. However, there is little or no evidence that coups improve governance and economic development. To the contrary there is clear evidence that there is a clear correlation between state of democracy and the level of corruption: the more democratic principle are adhered to the lower level of corruption. Running a current requires leadership competence and skills beyond military campaigning, strategy, and tactics. Coups and extension of term limits are not solutions to the inability of democracy to deliver public goods and security to the people. These stratagems are the very antithesis of a democratic culture. Therefore, coups should be condemned as a matter of principle.


Coups erode a country’s democratic gains, advancing a state of democratic regression rather than progress. If the underlying causes of coups are not addressed deliberately and effectively, coups will continue to occur on the continent.   Below are some recommendations to counter the proliferation of coups in Africa.

The African Union should uphold its anti-coup norms.

Although the African Union (AU) has prohibited unconstitutional changes of governments, its response to recent coups reflects a waning resolve to enforce anti-coup norms, which is one of its foundational principles complete with sanctions against errant parties. Article 4(p) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union of 2000; Article 23 of the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance; Article 7(g) of the Protocol establishing the Peace and Security Council prohibit unconstitutional changes of government. Unless the AU demonstrates resolve on condemning unconstitutional changes of government, it will promote a regional democratic recession. The AU should enforce Article 25 of the African Charter of Democracy, Elections, and Governance by imposing sanctions and referring perpetrators of coups for prosecution without exceptions.

Regional Economic Communities should condemn the extension of term limits.

African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) are irresolute on extending presidential term limits. The East African Community (EAC) Protocol considered imposing terms limits in 2011, but members states did not adopt the proposal. The Economic Commission for West African States (ECOWAS) Parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution to ban the extension of presidential rule beyond two terms in the region. Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) have not taken a position on term limits. RECs should promote adopting a continent-wide generally accepted model of presidential mandate limited to two terms.

African states should improve governance and oversight institutions.

In some countries, the state’s future is not determined by its people but by greedy cartels that feed, defend, and sustain the kleptocratic appetite of geriatric autocrats and their external supporters. African governments should strengthen governance by improving revenue collection, effective planning, policymaking, and implementation, which is vital to advance inclusion at a pace commensurate with social and economic development on the continent. African states should invest in oversight institutions to check executive overreach and uphold the rule of law by facilitating independent judiciaries, people-centric legislatures, vibrant media, independent electoral bodies, freeing human rights defenders, and establishing conflict prevention mechanisms and security sector governance.

Strengthening the civil society

African citizens should be empowered to reject unconstitutional changes of government as has been the case in Sudan (2022), and political leaders should commit to democratic processes anchored on the will and agency of the people as well as implementation of inclusive institutions of governance. This support should also target African civil society organizations such as women groups, human rights defenders, professional associations (especially those dealing with the rule of law and democratic governance), labor unions, information sharing, and development organizations to make it difficult for undemocratic constitutional changes and unconstitutional changes of government by greedy politicians and putschists.

Strengthening civil-military relations

While coups erode the trust between the military and civil authorities, the politicization of the police and militarization of politics corrode the professionalism of the security sector. African governments should strengthen security sector governance to promote civil-military relations and professionalism in the security sector and promote democratic control of the armed forces. Governments should insulate the police from political influence. On their part, political leaders should increase their understanding of the security sector and facilitate periodical, meritorious promotions, transparent recruitment processes, and appropriate training to retain the trust of the military and the civil police.

The role of external actors

Regional and international actors have a critical role in condemning or validating coups. The lack of concrete and unified condemnation and the growing willingness to work with putschists and autocrats who cling to power contrary to the people’s wishes encourage the proliferation of coups on the continent. The international community should disincentivize undemocratic constitutional changes and unconstitutional changes of government, including sanctions and denial of access to sovereign funds. International partners should also support policies, social actors, and oversight institutions that are at the heart of reversing the erosion of democratic principles in African states.  The demand for setting timelines for the military to hand over power to civilian rule should include the obligation to address the social, economic, and political problems that led to the coup in the first place. Support to the military should include strengthening civilian control and democratic institutions.

Address the socioeconomic exclusion of the youths

The structural conditions essential for the transition of the youths from childhood to adulthood can impel youth to violence. Poor governance and weak political system, and rivalry for resources drive the youth into grievance, protests and violence. International partners should assist African states to implement the five fundamental transitions for the well-being of the youth, namely: education, employment, new lifestyle, family formation, and exercising citizenship.


The extent to which coups can be deterred in Africa depends on mutual trust between the government and how it best serves its people. A key step is to establish necessary institutional structures and conditions to improve governance to forge stronger social contracts between citizens and their governments to make it difficult for unconstitutional changes of government. To achieve this, African states should promote more participatory democracy and equitable development, including the youth. The AU, African RECs, the UN, and other international partners must demonstrate resolve in condemning coups and support policies and institutions that help uphold democratic governance. To retain public trust, as an institution, the military should not lean left nor right politically but rather stand upright.

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