The resurgence of coups: why Africa is reluctant to back leaders in power

While there are dictators and coups going on elsewhere in the world, there are few comparable efforts on the continent to topple a sitting president, and fewer still that are backed by their own countries

The death of Jacob Zuma in South Africa, with the long-awaited detention of his son and surrogates, may be a sign that South Africa is emerging from a catastrophic year that has seen the removal of several leaders.

But while there are dictators and coups going on elsewhere in the world, coups on the continent are much rarer and far less effective than in the past. Although there are any number of differences between Africa and other parts of the world, one of the most significant is the general silence of the countries involved, apart from sporadic protests.

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Indeed, there are few clear instances in recent history of a country or region backing a coup, although it is possible to piece together a recent set of coups supported by the regimes of the same governments whose leaders are ousted.

In February 2006, Zimbabwe dismissed Robert Mugabe and Robert Chiwenga as joint chiefs of staff, with the latter claiming the firing was an act of rebellion carried out by some within the army.

A month later, the Mozambican government rolled back its policy of legalizing illegal diamond exports, only to be forced to do so again by Pretoria.

In 2008, Angola switched from supporting Mozambique’s Renamo party to supporting the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, who was battling Renamo over the election of a successor.

Across the border in Tanzania, President Jakaya Kikwete was re-elected in 2008. But the election there was marred by criticism of voter fraud. Protests there culminated in the partial deployment of troops by Kikwete’s government, prompting opposition leader Benjamin Mkapa to claim he had won the election.

The situation then descended into a chain of back-and-forth arrests, detention and release of dissidents, including Mkapa, and, eventually, a coup that brought Kikwete’s Kikwete regime into the consolidated multiparty system that preceded it in the country’s history.

By the end of the last decade, there were no clear coups to speak of on the continent, with Botswana serving as a reminder that there are some countries where that was the likely case.

Although the country’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama, was deposed in a coup by his then colleague Kenneth Kaunda, more common was to have a president deposed either by losing an election or being defeated in the courts, which followed by the government’s installing an interim president until elections could be held.

Three countries remain in that position, as well as seven other countries where interim presidents are currently running the country and ruling by non-appointing constitutional monarchs.

A few countries have enjoyed uninterrupted periods of peace in recent years and count themselves as coup or insurgent-free.

Chad was long a country where militancy was to some extent tolerated but not guaranteed and coups and insurgencies did not exist. However, the agreement in 2015 to reverse the results of elections, in favour of having them rerun in the north of the country, ushered in a period of stability.

Since then, it is thought that the government has only been responsible for the attempted assassination of a former Chadian prime minister and an attempted coup of an elected opposition leader.

Botswana has boasted a two-decade long period of peace, but there are several incidents that came close to it. After the successful coup in 1996, a peaceful revolution was underway but the government of Gaborone turned off the power supply to some of the regions that had changed hands in the coup, leading to widespread destruction and a ceasefire agreement which went on to restore constitutional order.

The two revolts the country has had since then – in 1999 and 2005 – were bloody and bloody enough to push Gaborone’s regime into restarting negotiations with the opposition parties.

More than 6,000 civilians were killed in the 2004 uprising, which was backed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and more than 300 people were killed in the 2009 one.

The country was controversially implicated in the killing of an opposition leader by South African security forces in 2011 and the arrest of former anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani by the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in 2008, with the regional security grouping for east Africa urging both countries to investigate the incidents.

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