The decline of democracy and the rise of coup d’états in Sub-Saharan Africa: Reflections and lessons

Garang-Yach-JamesAuthor: Garang Yach J
South Sudanese Political and security analyst and PhD Student, University of Juba, South Sudan



Although coup d’états have been straddling the African continent since the 1960s, their recent resurfacing and rise is a reverse to the democratic consolidation in the Sub-Saharan African region. In this article I try to locate the trends of coups in the history of the region in order to showcase the existing susceptibility of the states in the region. I further advance the argument that militarisation of politics, the dominant military aristocracy and proclivity to change constitutions in order to extend term and age limits, delays in holding free and fair elections are among the reasons why democracy is declining, and coups are on rise in the region. I also present a compelling argument that failure to incorporate human security into governance is stifling democracy and resuscitation of coup tendencies. The article concludes that military metiers in the Sub-Saharan region have entrenched themselves and apply mock democracy to actuate militaristic propensity. Finally, the article gives four recommendations that would improve democratic governance and mitigate trends of unconstitutional change of government in the region.

The trends of coups in Sub-Saharan African region

It was not long ago when continental liberation fronts took down colonial powers with the hope of a better governance and prosperity for all. These fronts managed to unseat colonial regimes in most parts of Africa. But soon, these local breeds usurped power through military takeovers and ushered in dictatorship sustained by brute use of force. For instance, countries like Sudan in 1958, Congo in  1960, Togo in 1963, Ghana in 1966,  and Nigeria in 1966 were embroiled in military takeovers severally.

The post-colonialist change of governments and regimes was always through military coups in the 1960s to 1990s. Accordingly, since the 1950s-2010 the African continent witnessed 200 coups. African countries like their counterparts in the ‘third world’ were the battlefields where bi-polar proxy cold wars were fought. The prevalence of coups in Africa could be attributed to the cold war and colonial interferences that ensued in the post-colonial era.

In the early 1990s, the wave of democratic change took stage and the African continent saw semblance of democracy until 2010 when civil uprising came into fashion in what was later christened as the Arab Spring that quickly sent quakes to as far as the Middle East and Sub-Saharan sub-continent.

The Arab Spring wave of pro-democracy protest inspired civilians across North, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. The civil uprisings increased exponentially moving forward with fewer success cases. The pro-democratic civil uprising particularly in Egypt and Libya inspired and ignited dormant volcanic coup tendencies in the Sub-Saharan Africa. The civil uprisings transformed themselves into infectious coup tendencies that quickly spread to Sudan, Chad, Niger, Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau. These countries form what was erstwhile known coup belt. Out of 13 recorded coups since 2017 globally only 1 was staged outside the African continent in Myanmar. Accordingly, the epochs of 1960-69, 1980-89 and 2020-22 saw steady rise and execution of successful military coups in the Sub-Saharan region. Whereas the epochs of 1970-79, 1990-99, 2000-09 have seen sharp rise in the number of failed coups in the region as indicated in the bar graph below. In either case steady rise of coups was and is always the case in the region.


Source BBC

Militarisation of politics and dominance of ‘Gun Class’

Compelling questions would then be asked as to why coups are rising and democracy is declining in Africa? Are there lessons to be learned? A number of factors can be attributed to the decline of democracy and rise of coup d’états among susceptible states in Africa. The fall of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 spilled over conflicts Southward to Sub-Saharan countries and enhanced the armament of Islamists, Tuareg rebels and Boko Haram in the Sahel and Western African regions respectively. This has exacerbated militarisation in the regions and made the region susceptible to insurgencies and coups. On the other hand, the history of militarisation of politics in countries like Sudan, Chad, South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso et cetera has established a dominant military aristocrat who Majak D’Agoot calls the “gun-class.” The re-emergence of coups in the African continent through spate of the gun class in the continental coup belt is a precautionary signal to the susceptible states in the region. The militarisation of politics in Africa is not a recent development. Its extant post-dated independence days when the liberation leaders that led military cum political wings assumed presidency or premier to continue serving as politico-military leaders. Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Nigeria, South Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda are few of the countries whose militaries have dominated politics in history thereby susceptible to military takeovers. The UN-Secretary General, Mr Antonio Gutteres, concerned with the comeback of coups, calls it an “epidemic of coups”, and “blamed it on the lack of unity amongst the international community to respond to military intervention.” Militarism and militancy emboldened unconstitutional takeover of political power in countries where ethnic polarisation has taken root. Kakistocracy eventually becomes entrenched when militarism controls politics and stifles democracy.


However, South Sudan and Somalia present unique characterizations to other countries in the coup belt region and beyond. The South Sudan military is a fragmented institution short of professionalism and unity, the necessary components for a national military. As D’Agoot argues, the dominant gun class has successfully managed to play into ethnicity, politics and economic power to influence state power. The militarization of politics and entrenchment of the gun class is therefore a characteristic of the decline of democracy and rise of militarism that set a stage for coups.

Change of constitutions and failure to hold regular democratic elections

The main characteristics of the susceptible states are the proclivity of the incumbent to change the country’s constitution to cater for their quests to dishonour term limit prescribed in the erstwhile constitution. This act amounts to constitutional coups and it should be treated as such. The constitutional coups in recent history have been arguably executed in Uganda (Museven), Rwanda (Kagame), Burundi (Nkurunziza),Togo (Gnassingbé), Chad (Derby), Sudan (Bashir) and DRC (Kabila), In these states, military aristocrats stir up a state of disorder fostering political fiasco to justify their relevance hence extension of periodic elections. The effort to stifle democracy in these states is always met with resistance and civil uprising that unfortunately culminates into civil unrest as was the case with Ethiopia (2020) and Mali (2012). The relatively managed cases of constitutional changes with limited civil unrest were Uganda in 2005 and Sudan in 2015. So, such undemocratic constitutional changes did not lead to ultimate change of regimes but upset the social tranquillity with deadliest confrontation between the regimes and the civil uprisings. The public institutions such as judiciary, legislature and independent electoral commission are gradually attenuated and effectively designed to serve the executive by a ruling dominant military class that ascend to power through coup. This, in effect, does constrain the element of rule of law in any democratic dispensation. On its part, the security sector is deliberately weakened and highly bloated with low-ranking non-commissioned officers whose allegiances to their chiefs are indubitable in the susceptible states. The dominant military métier in these states coerce the population despite resistance to persevere with the new term limits as they appear in the amended constitutions. D’Agoot once again argues that “While African warlords may seek to legitimise their rule through the exercise of illiberal democracy and the holding of elections, they generally fail to secure the consent of the governed.”  The constitutions are changed to constitutionalize tyranny while disparaging the mandate of the governed.

Failure to adopt human security

Democracy provides a conducive environment for human security and development. Human security means freedom from fears of physical threats and freedom from wants. The former includes fears of physical violence emanating from conflict whereas the latter includes basic human needs such as food, shelter, health and poverty among others.

In stable democracies, human insecurities are minimised and structural inequalities responsible for deep-seated social problems are regulated thereby reducing conflict over livelihoods. In unstable states, the political violence and communal conflicts reigns, life is reduced to daily survival and human capacity to innovate on the environment in a bid to solve social predicaments responsible for human insecurities is inhibited. Violent conflict as Judith Large and Timothy D. Sisk argues “presents the most immediate and acute threat to human security and to human development.” Democracy mitigates threats to human security and it is therefore the best possible form of government in comparison to other forms such as authoritarianism and autocracy, tried so far in the region. It is worth noting that contemporary threats of human security present to democracy are internally generated and orchestrated by the locals within the national borders. Along the poverty line, countries that exhibit low per capita gross national income (GNI), economies heavily dependent on a single non-renewable source of income with high unemployment of youth are infested by human insecurities. Heavy spending on the defence articles and security sector has characterised the susceptible states, derailed their economies meant to alleviate poverty and exerted pressure on citizens and low-ranking military officers alike to seek alternative means of surviving. This means of survival could be a recourse to the military takeover or insurgency activities in order to address human security issues.

Political instability that translates into breakdown of law, order and governance structures continues to engender human insecurity which impacts on democracy. States where one ethnicity commands predominance of every sector of society and economy with extractive penchant are candidates for human insecurity. People’s freedoms from fear of threats and wants to become more pronounced and as such democracy cannot thrive in such a self-eating society. Violence too becomes inevitable as despair characterises society, meanwhile democracy dwindles offering an opportune intervention in the form of coups or insurgencies as it was the case with Mali, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan. In such states the democratic governance jettisons giving way to militancy.  All these encapsulate the decline of democracy whose effects give rise to the militarism and militancy in which few militarists take a chance to stage unconstitutional change of governments.

Conclusion and recommendations

Learning from the experiences and history, it is worrisome to reckon the fact that coups have again resurfaced along the coup belt in Africa and their contagiosity would be exacerbated by the declining conditions of democracy in the susceptible states. The history of coup repeats itself among countries that are traditionally prone to coups. Countries such as Sudan, Chad, CAR, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and DRC remain highly coup prone. While countries like South Sudan and Somalia, although highly fragile,  remain less coup prone because of ethnic contrariety and profundity of their militaries. The constitutional coups through unconstitutional changes of constitutions to accommodate term and age limits, failure to adopt human security, militarisation of politics and entrenchment of gun class have contributed to the rise of coups and decline of democracy in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.


  • Citizens across the Sub-Saharan African region should be politically and economically empowered to tackle the depreciating human security in order to mitigate their susceptibility to political and military enlistment that incentivises coups tendencies in the region.
  • That politics, ethnicity and economies should be “de-gunned”[1] and military métier civilly pressured to de-escalate constitutional coups, delay of periodic elections, and instead adhere to entrenchment of democracy to give it once again a chance to rise.
  • Lessons that are learned from experiences and history of coups in Sub-Saharan Africa should be precautions to susceptible states in the region. Sub-Saharan African countries should double their efforts to democratise their militaries and institutions of governance.
  • The regional organisations such as Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS), The East African Peace and Security Mechanism (EAPSM), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) under the African Union (AU) must enhance the capacity of the four regional standby forces to treat coups as human insecurity and must therefore intervene militarily under responsibility to protect(R2P) on humanitarian grounds.


[1] Bromley Daniel, Feb 3, 2022 via Development Policy Group


About the Author:

Garang Yach J. is a South Sudanese Political and Security analyst and a PhD Student at the University of Juba. The title of his PhD thesis is “Human security transcends national security in the horn of Africa: A comprehensive analysis of state’s manning safety infrastructure in South Sudan” He can be reached on email:

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