For true democracy, Africa needs more than elections

The spate of military takeovers and coup attempts across Africa over the past two years has led to speculation in some quarters of a “widespread return to military rule” or “coup contagion”. ‘state’ on the continent. In August 2020, a group of Malian officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew the government of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Just over nine months later, Goita also deposed the transitional government that the caretaker junta had chosen to return the country to a democratically elected civilian government. In Guinea and Sudan, the army overthrew civilian leaders last year, while the Chadian armed forces overthrew the constitutional order to take power after the death of longtime leader Idris Deby. And in January 2022, the former president of Burkina Faso, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, was also overthrown in a coup.

Under international pressure, the military leaders of all these countries pledged to design and implement transitions to civilian democracy. But despite the widespread condemnation of the coups and the imposition of sanctions by regional and international bodies, all these transitions are now at an impasse. This underscores the lack of leverage exerted by external stakeholders to adequately respond to these and other political crises across Africa, and suggests that new approaches are badly needed.

The African Union Peace and Security Council, which is responsible for taking decisions on conflict prevention and crisis management across Africa, met more than 80 times last year to discuss multidimensional threats to the peace, security and socio-economic development of some 1.4 billion people on the continent. people. Unsurprisingly, military coups, unconstitutional changes of government and political transitions in countries like Mali, Guinea, Chad and Sudan were recurring topics at their meetings. The council suspended most, but not all, of these countries from participating in AU activities until they had returned to constitutional order under civilian rule. But despite the differences in treatment, the results were identical.

In Chad, the transition to civilian rule, including an “inclusive national dialogue” organized by the military authorities, has essentially hit a snag, as the country’s transitional military council this week postponed a national dialogue originally scheduled for May 10. The postponement itself comes as no surprise, given that protracted “pre-dialogue” talks in Doha, Qatar, between representatives of Chad’s transitional council and rebel groups have made little progress. But despite the lack of progress, Chadian military authorities have not been held accountable by outside stakeholders since taking power last year.

Immediately after the junta took power, the United Nations and France – the country’s former colonial ruler and main international partner – have recognized the transitional council led by Deby’s son, Mahamat. The crackdown on protesters by Chadian security forces quickly forced Paris to temper its public support for the junta. Nevertheless, as this week’s postponement of the national dialogue shows, if Chad has embarked on a “transition”, it is not towards democracy, but towards a consolidation of the predominance of the military – and more precisely of Mahamat Deby – in political life.


The stalled transitions across Africa should be a wake-up call for the AU and regional organizations to broaden the scope of their ambitions and think outside the box in terms of responding to military takeovers.

Yet Chad was the only country among those that experienced military coups in 2021 to have spared a suspension of AU activities. Instead, the Peace and Security Council endorsed the 18-month transition process crafted by Chad’s transitional military council, which included the appointment of an interim prime minister to lead a mostly civilian government. and the drafting of a new constitution, culminating in new presidential and legislative elections. The advice drew criticism for the apparent double standard and was accused of doing the bidding for France, which counts Chad as one of the main security partners in the Sahel. Regardless of the outcome of the national dialogue or the transition, Chad’s authoritarian political culture is unlikely to be significantly reformed, as there is little evidence that the difficult but necessary task of building the institutional framework necessary to an inclusive and accountable system is underway.

By contrast, in West Africa, the military authorities who seized power in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso remain locked in protracted standoffs with the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. , on the timelines of their respective transition plans. In January, ECOWAS closed regional borders with Mali and imposed a new round of sanctions on the country after the interim military government sought to postpone elections it had pledged to hold in February, as part of the the country’s return to civilian rule after a military coup in 2020. Last month, Mali’s transitional Prime Minister Choguel Maiga announced a two-year transition process before elections are held. While this is considerably shorter than Bamako’s previous five-year plan, which resulted in the latest round of sanctions, it is nonetheless still longer than the 12-16 month deadline to hold elections that the block demanded as recently as March.

In neighboring Guinea, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the leader of the country’s ruling junta, recently announced a 39-month transition period before a return to civilian rule. Burkina Faso’s interim junta has also said it has no plans to shorten its own planned three-year transition period, despite threats from ECOWAS to apply the sanctions it had originally suspended if Ouagadougou did not explain by April 25 how and when he would hand over power. to civilians. And in Sudan, the transition to democracy is on life support following the October 2021 coup led by General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, with elections originally scheduled for next year now increasingly uncertain. .

The stalled transitions across Africa all testify to the limited ability of Western governments and international organizations to influence events on the ground. And they should also be a wake-up call for the AU and regional organizations on the continent to broaden the scope of their ambitions and think outside the box in terms of responding to military coups.

On the one hand, it has become abundantly clear that elections alone do not make a democracy, and are unlikely to resolve deep-rooted socio-political divisions, many of which are rooted in the absence of a capable and legitimate state, considered responsive and responsible. to the public. On the contrary, hastily scheduled elections, in the absence of the democratic norms and institutional framework needed to build trust between citizens and the state, often aggravate political tensions and harden social divisions. But while it is true that multiparty elections and civilian governments in West Africa and across the continent are struggling to deliver the dividends of democracy, and that much of the public in countries affected by the coup is in no rush to return to the polls, indefinite military rule almost certainly guarantees that these countries will not experience the peace, prosperity and effective governance necessary for socio-economic development.

There are no simple answers on how to build legitimate, accountable, civilian-led African states that provide inclusive governance and create economic opportunities for their citizens. But a good place to start would be to let go of old shibboleths, including what elections can bring. Instead of trading democratic accountability for narrowly defined “stability”, international stakeholders and affected countries would be better served by focusing on how civic institutions are built in young democracies and how to respond to political crises in the country. For too long, Western stakeholders have taken a limited, checkbox-based approach to democracy, rooted in unchallenged assumptions and unambitious political solutions dominated by a cynical call for “pragmatism”.

The stalled transitions in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Chad all testify to the limited and exhausted options available to Western governments, as well as their local and regional partners, to deal with a multidimensional governance crisis. The threat and application of sanctions has failed to deter juntas in these countries, just as they have done in the past and likely will in the future. It is a mistake to give the putschists the impression that they have a free hand, as in the case of Chad. But diplomatic isolation and crippling sanctions that do little harm to the regime, while taking a heavy toll on the local population, as in the case of Mali, end up being counterproductive in the long run. Africa’s stalled transitions and the broader challenges facing civil democracy across the continent should be a cause for soul-searching among all parties and a re-examination of received wisdom that has clearly passed its expiration date.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is associate editor of World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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