At just 56, Joseph Kabila is Africa’s third-oldest leader. But when he refused to leave office after his mandate expired on December 19, 2017, the response from the international community was “all of the above.” European governments warned the incumbent not to cling to power; the U.S. government echoed those sentiments. Once the international pressure got too intense, the president’s successor, Felix Tshisekedi, was sworn in as president on January 10th.
This development raised concerns about continued drift in Africa. It has long been assumed that military coups — a global tradition that began during World War II — have diminished.
Why, then, has the practice been on the rise? What has led to the erosion of confidence in the rule of law in the continent? It is impossible to know for sure, but there are a few reasons that might explain this troubling development. First, coups have become sophisticated operations with a specific objective.
In 2017, for example, Niger launched a massive assault on the Korhogo shantytown in the northern city of Arlit. The operation was designed to dislodge a militia that had overstayed its welcome. The details are murky, but the timing and the location of the operation seem to fit the general rules of military coups. As in any insurgency, mobilization of the populace is a prerequisite to any movement. That a military operation could be launched by extending amnesty would seem to be one element of the operation.
Such operations also permit commanders to separate the members of the opposing forces. In the case of Niger, the militia fighters were divided between two different nationalities. By setting up two parallel opposing groups, military leaders can make it more difficult for the two sides to make peace or be defeated. They can also create a shaky, fragmented scenario in which cooperating with the Central African Government becomes even more difficult.
Some experts have argued that the resurgence of coups is a result of the inability of the international community to match the use of force with sanctions against rule-breaking governments. Since the conflict in Libya broke out in 2011, several countries, including the U.S., have backed African forces and allied private militias in their attempts to reclaim territory from Gaddafi. Some analysts, however, argue that the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and between the Central African Government and the Muslim extremist organization Seleka in 2014, have also contributed to this development.
The war in Libya and the civil war in Central Africa have left a bad taste in the mouths of many African leaders, leading them to believe that instead of resorting to the use of force in foreign affairs, they can use the military to thwart a political problem, rather than a military decision to get a politician to resign.
That said, it is naive to believe that coups have occurred because of tension between the international community and African states. There are many factors at play. And because coups are so unpopular, they are rarely a political end in themselves. The power vacuum created by coups can then lead to a loss of control over the terrain.