How Lack of Democracy Fuels Coups in Africa


As COVID-19 induced economic crises continue to deepen, climate change continues to unleash hunger and living costs soar because of spiralling inflation because of the impact of the Russia-Ukraine War combined with authoritarian, uncaring and unresponsive governments, Africa is likely to see more coups – which appear to be supported by ordinary people, especially the young.

As these deep-seated multiple crises snowball, Africa is entering a particularly violent, unstable and chaotic period – reminiscent of the Cold War, which is likely to set back development for generations, break up countries and unleash mass migration across, within and between countries, and to the West. The continent has now experienced the tenth either attempted or successful coup in Central and West Africa since the height of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 (Mwai 2022).

Most recently, on 26 July 2023, military leaders ousted Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum, and has been holding him, his son and wife in the basement of his presidential palace in the capital Niamey. Soon thereafter, in the same month, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, who was in power since 2009, for 14 years, on 30 August 2023, became the latest authoritarian leader to have been toppled in a military coup.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the rising number of coups in Africa “an epidemic of coup d’états” (Nichols 2021). Guterres has pointed out that the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has in many African countries, created “an environment in which some military leaders feel that they have total impunity; they can do whatever they want because nothing will happen to them” (Nichols 2021).

Since independence from colonialism, food shortages, food price increases and food insecurity, especially if combined with official corruption, incompetence, and authoritarian government, have often fuelled mass uprisings against sitting governments – or if these governments are too impregnable, by coups by military leaders, or have seen the rise of jihadist movements exploiting mass anger (Londregan and Poole 1990; Lunde 1991; McGowan 2003).

Many African countries have sham elections, whether Gabon, Guinea or more recently in Zimbabwe, where the ruling party or leader, holds multiparty elections, which are manipulated, and maintain power through a combination of patronage of supporters and repression of opponents. In Africa, these autocratic, corrupt and incompetent leaders and governments who hold onto power at all costs can often only be ousted by coups, Arab Spring-like mass uprisings or when opposition parties form multiparty coalitions aligned with mass civil movements (Gumede 2017).  Many African countries currently face the worst food insecurity in decades, caused by climate change, jihadist-fuelled insecurity, compounded by the COVID-19 lockdowns and food shortages because of the Russia-Ukraine war – and lack of care of governments, which has caused mass anger across the continent (Gumede 2023). The military will continue exploiting it to stage coups or jihadists to recruit new members. Many, especially the youth, have embraced the coups, hoping it will bring much-needed change for the better, which autocratic leaders and governments, in their bubble of privilege, refused to provide (Decalo 1990; Londregan and Poole 1990; Lunde 1991; McGowan 2003; Kposowa and Jenkins 1993; Welch 1970).

Credit: Jonathan M. Powell and Clayton L. Thyne (2011) and BBC.

Lack of democracy – Mali disputed election outcome  

Mass protests against Mali President Ebrahim Boubacar Keita raged since June 2020, calling on him to resign over a disputed August 2018 election in which he claimed a re-election victory, his failure to tackle corruption and his inability to take back control from ethnic Tuareg rebels and aligned jihadists who in 2012 seized two-thirds of the country (Maclean 2022; Reuters 2022). Opposition parties, civil society organisations and observers said the August 2018 election was full of irregularities.

Jihadists stepped up attacks after the August 2018 elections, taking advantage of public outrage at the president. The jihadist attacks also increased ethnic tensions, especially in the central regions of Mali. Many of Mali’s jihadist groups are linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and they have used Mali as a springboard to other countries, such as Burkina Faso and Niger. Such was the chaos unleashed by jihadists that France, the former colonial power, was asked by the government to help keep the peace (Reuters 2022).

Keita bulldozed the holding of legislative elections in 2020 during Covid lockdowns, despite the main opposition leader Soumaila Cisse having been kidnapped by unidentified gunmen and country-wide insecurity because of jihadist attacks. To top it all, the Constitutional Court, under the thumb of Keita, overturned 31 of the legislative results, handing the president’s party 10 extra parliamentary seats. Keita was accused by opposition parties, civil society and the media of systemic corruption. His son, Karim Keita, who was chairperson of parliament’s defence and security committee, was seen as a kingpin of the patronage network of the president. Karim Keita eventually resigned from his position.

Keita refused proposals from the Economic Community of West African States to create a government of national unity, which would include the opposition. They repeatedly warned Keita that unless he introduces genuine democratic reforms, the country may face a military coup – which would likely be supported by many citizens tired of the regime (Salaha and Kleinfeld 2020). Mali’s economy is based on agriculture, particularly cotton and on gold.

COVID-19, insecurity caused by jihadist attacks, inflation and food shortages caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, and the impact of climate change on agriculture crippled the Niger economy (Gumede 2023). In August 2020, the military, surfing public anger over the manipulation of the 2018 presidential and the 202o legislative elections, economic hardships, systemic corruption, chronic insecurity and starvation, launched a coup and arrested President Keita.

Lack of democracy – Guinea’s third presidential term dispute

In September 2021, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya and his special forces overthrew Guinea President Alpha Condé. Doumbouya announced a “national rally and development committee” had taken over, detained the 83-year-old president, dissolved the government and dismissed the constitution. Many citizens came out in the streets shouting “Freedom” in support of the coup. Condé, before he came to power in 2010, had fought previous dictatorships. However, in power “Le Professeur”, proved as corrupt, uncaring and undemocratic as his predecessors (Mwai 2022).

Condé changed the constitution – against popular opposition, to run for a third term, which he did in a disputed election. His election victory elicited widespread mass protests, which he suppressed with an iron fist, leading to the death of many at the hands of the security forces and imprisoning hundreds of journalists, human rights activists and political opponents. Guinea is the world’s second-largest producer of bauxite.

The opposition, National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), a coalition of opposition parties, civil society organisations and trade unions, which had protested Condé’s rollback of constitutional values, is now protesting against the repression by the Doumbouya military junta. They have loudly criticised the 2021 unconstitutional seizure of power by the military junta, and demanded a return to civilian rule and an end to the suppression of dissent. The junta last year imprisoned two of the FNDC’s leaders, Oumar Sylla (going by the name of Foniké Mangué) and Ibrahima Diallo for calling for a return to democratic rule.

Lack of democracy – Gabon presidential monarchy

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, who was in power since 2009 for 14 years, was the latest authoritarian leader to have been toppled in a military coup. As now routine, the head of the Gabonese Presidency’s Republican Guard, Brice Oligui Nguema – African presidents often have large VIP protection services to protect their privileges from the masses – has pronounced himself transition leader.

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo took over from his father, Omar Bongo, who was president for 42 years, from 1967 to 2009, after his death in 2009. He did so through the post-Cold War African phenomenon of presidential monarchies, whereby children of long-standing leaders take over government from their fathers, albeit through carefully managed elections.

Ali Bongo ruled through ‘democratic institutions’, deploying his allies to it, the public service and state-owned entities. He controlled the judiciary and violently repressed critical media, civil society and the opposition. There was no equality for women. Minority groups were marginalised.

A report in July 2023 by Gabonese economists Mays Mouissi and Harold Leckat called “105 promises, 13 achievements” was scathing on the maladministration of the government. Mouissi and Leckat (2023) said in a country with less than 2.5 million citizens and abundant with mineral, gas and oil, the unemployment rate ballooned to 32%, with a third of Gabonese people living in poverty and access to basic public services non-existent for the large majority. The central African country is the fourth-largest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, the country is among the most corrupt in the world.

In the 2016 presidential election, Ali Bongo and his Gabonese Democratic Party, was declared winner with 49.8% of the vote against Jean Ping of the opposition Union of Forces for Change. The opposition, neutral and independent observers called for a recount, citing blatant vote-rigging. Security forces stormed Ping’s offices, nationwide violence erupted, which saw close to 100 people dying and a hundred arrested.

A recount of the presidential election was held, without credible observers – the African Union observer mission was sidelined by the Constitutional Court, which was under the control of Ali Bongo, and not surprisingly, Ali Bongo was given 5o.7% of the vote in the recount. Ali Bongo suffered a stroke in 2018 and his health has deteriorated since.

Africa still in the grip of COVID-19 economic crises

African countries are still battling the COVID-19-induced financial crisis which disrupted global logistical networks, supply chains and caused business collapses, with lockdowns causing food price inflation, food shortages and increased hunger. The COVID-19-induced African financial crisis reduced the income from Africa’s commodities, following COVID-19 contractions in industrial economies which import the continent’s commodities, causing African countries to experience large revenue losses, leaving up to 30 million people at risk of extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The COVID-19 induced financial crises and African governments autocratic responses to the pandemic – have led to popular uprisings, coups and angry citizens voting out incompetent governments. During the COVID-19 period in 2021, there have been six coups or attempted coups in Africa. Unrest broke out in eSwatini, in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Cameroon. Early 2020 saw a jihadist insurgency in northern Mozambique.

The economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the continuing negative economic impact on African countries of Russia’s war against Ukraine, economic mismanagement, state failure and large-scale corruption in many African countries have exacerbated the distress of many of the new highly-indebted African states. For another, central banks in Western economies have introduced tighter monetary policies to tackle inflation. This means that African countries seeking to borrow from Western governments and development finance institutions will do so at higher costs.

The Economist (2023) reported recently that Africa’s debt-service ratio in 2021 was the highest since 2011. Africa’s foreign debt increased fivefold between 2000 and 2020, to US$696bn (Bloomberg 2022). A quarter of African countries now contribute 20% of their national budgets to servicing foreign debt. This means they are now spending the most of all developing countries on interest payments on foreign debt.

The heavy debts of African countries, with their high, annual debt servicing commitments, are increasingly straining public finances, ensuring countries have very little financial buffers for emergencies while undermining economic growth. The high foreign debt is prompting currency volatility across the continent. The high country debts also mean that they now have less access to international capital and face more expensive borrowing costs and currency instability.

Many indebted African Union member states have been forced in the post-COVID-19 period to pay their debts through commodities they produce. Angola makes repayments of its giant debt to China by supplying oil to China’s state-owned Sinochem and Sinopec, through the latter’s trading arm called Unipec (Bloomberg 2022).

COVID-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has negatively impacted on Western economies too. Western governments have not only fewer funds to lend to African countries, the funds available are more and more channelled to Ukraine and Eastern Europe. As GDPs of Western Nations shrunk so too has their commitment to International Development budgets, decreasing development assistance in Africa. Western governments are likely to divert remaining development funding away from Africa and other developing countries to new geopolitical challenges such as in Eastern Europe and increased migration due to climate change – which will impact critical services provided by NGOs who have replaced government services in many areas.

AU member states do not have social safety nets like industrial countries do to soften rising food prices. Diminishing income, whether from development funding – many African countries get large amounts of their income from industrial country development funding or from reduced income from Africa’s commodities, reduces the purchasing power of African countries.

Climate Change increases hunger across the continent

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in September 2023 warned that 98% of African states are at high risk of being negatively impacted by climate change. The report analysed countries based on children’s exposure to climate and environmental shocks as floods, heatwaves and cyclones. Using the global Children’s Climate Risk Index (CCRI), UNICEF reported that children in the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Guinea, Somalia and Guinea-Bissau were most at risk (UNICEF 2023).

The worst food insecurity in decades, caused by climate change, jihadists-fuelled insecurity in the Sahel, and compounded by the COVID-19 lockdowns and food shortages because of the Russia-Ukraine war, have given rise to mass anger, which has been exploited by the military in Niger to stage a coup on 26 July 2023. Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum, his son and his wife have been held by the military junta in the basement of his presidential palace in the capital Niamey since the coup.

In early 2023, more than 5 million people in Niger were in immediate need of humanitarian assistance because of food shortages (IFRC 2022) Jihadist movements in the Sahel region have generated such insecurity that it has made farming almost impossible. Furthermore, according to UN estimates close to 5 million people were facing hunger because of consecutive failed rainy seasons, decades of desertification and the explosion of natural hazards.

Before the coup, the UN reported that natural hazards, such as droughts, wildfires and erratic climate, and epidemics, such as measles, malaria, meningitis, and cholera, combined with violent insecurity caused by jihadist movements, have led to mass migration homelessness and violent competition over resources. The country’s economy is vulnerable to climate change and volatile global commodity prices.

Unemployment has risen dramatically because agriculture, the largest sector of employment, has been so decimated by climate, COVID-19, epidemics, insecurity and the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Late 2022, Niger government analysis of food insecurity showed there was for example a 39% decrease in cereal production in the 2021-2022 cropping season. The Niger government in 2022 reported that the available production of all cereals (millet, sorghum, maize, fonio and rice) was 2,946,231 tons against the consumption needs of the population for all these crops, which was estimated at 4,950,711 tons. Furthermore, the prices of main food staples and livestock had increased by more than 40%.

“The impact of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has further exacerbated inflation and price increases for agricultural products, especially wheat, rice, and fertilisers”, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (2022), said in a briefing note late last year.

Corruption has laid the foundations for coups

Niger, before this year’s coup, has struggled with corruption. As a case in point, last year, civil society organisations filed a legal complaint over alleged disappearances of US$99m in state funds. The Nigerien Organisations for Budgetary Transparency and Analysis (ROTAB) and other civil society organisations said they had uncovered massive corruption in state spending (Al Jazeera 2022).

ROTAB pointed out that in the particular incident of alleged corruption, there was a lack of documents to explain the procurement of goods or to justify infrastructure construction. There were incidents of fake public tenders. Government officials were granted “undue advantages” in government contracts. Government purchases of COVID-19-related materials were done at “unreasonable costs”, the ROTAB alleged. However, the Niger government has, like many governments in West and East Africa, often prosecuted anti-corruption activists and human rights defenders.

Early this year, Amnesty International condemned governments in the region for this. “Governments in the region must live up to their international human rights obligations to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil the rights of those who take a stand against corruption and defend human rights. They must address the pervasive culture of impunity that continues to fuel endemic corruption, contributes to further violations of human rights, and denies victims access to justice and effective remedies” (Amnesty International 2023).

Yet those who shed light on these abuses are routinely subjected to repression, intimidation and harassment by authorities across West and Central Africa. This includes the use of defamation and “fake news” laws, disproportionate fines, arbitrary arrests, and threats and physical violence to silence activists and journalists exposing corrupt practices, according to Agnès Callamard of Amnesty International.

In Niger, blogger Samira Sabou was convicted in January 2022 of “defamation by electronic communication” under the country’s cybercriminal law. She was sentenced to one month in prison and a US$100 fine. She had republished an article from the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, which alleged that a drug shipment seized by the Nigerien anti-trafficking agency was reacquired by drug traffickers (Amnesty International 2023).

Russia-Ukraine bringing hardships to Africa

The Russia-Ukraine war is causing food price rises, food shortages and the drying up of development funds for Africa. The Russian-Ukraine war has increased global oil and gas prices. The war has and will further disrupt global production and supply chains and increase logistic costs such as storage. This has increased global inflation and depressed global growth – which in turn has depressed economic growth in individual African countries.

A protracted Russia-Ukraine war will bring devastating economic hardships to non-oil-producing African countries, increasing instability, leading to a new wave of mass popular uprisings, coups and terrorist insurgencies across the continent and mass migrations away from local conflicts.

Hardline religious organisations and populist and separatist groups have been taking advantage of popular anger against governments fuelled by high food prices, food shortages and diminished development funding to stage coups, launch insurgencies and country break-ups. Many countries may see a rise in terrorist attacks as terrorist organisations see an opportunity in the rising economic hardships to recruit members, serve as alternative service providers and unleash terror campaigns.

Even if the Russia-Ukraine war stops soon, the destruction of Ukraine, one of the breadbaskets of the world, and the continued Western economic sanctions against Russia, the world’s third-largest oil producer, the largest gas exporter and the sixth largest producer of coal, will continue to increase food prices, cause food shortages and increase energy prices.

A slump in global economic growth could mean that demand for Africa’s commodities could be slashed – reducing the income of many African countries that depend on single commodities for most of their income.

Russia and Ukraine combined produce 28% of the world’s global wheat and 18% of corn. More than 40% of Ukraine’s corn and wheat goes to Africa and the Middle East. Ukraine produced 45% of the global sunflower seed and safflower oil output – with Russia second, producing 23% of global output. Ukraine produces 19% of the world’s rapeseed. Russia produces under 20% of the world’s barley. Russia produces 14% of the world’s fertilisers – a crucial input in agricultural production.

In a global scenario where there will be food shortages because of the Russian-Ukraine war, industrial countries with bigger purses will buy up most of the remaining food – leaving African countries without the buying muscle with nothing. Foreign investors’ uncertainty about the duration of the war is likely to put a brake on any new investments in emerging markets and Africa.

A case in point; Although Gabon suffers less from the negative impact of climate change, the Russia-Ukraine invasion has disrupted food supplies to the country, caused food inflation to spiral and increased mass hunger. Last year, Nadine Mballa, the coordinator of Gabon’s Farmers Union warned that hunger would increase, unless the government introduced urgent steps to secure food sovereignty, as the Russia-Ukraine war had deprived, Gabon, and other countries in central Africa of more than 55% of the wheat they normally import from Russia and Ukraine (VOA 2022).

Africa’s regional and continental governance structures impotent

The governance structures of Africa’s continental and regional structures make them impotent in dealing with coups, election rigging and abuse of power by authoritarian leaders and parties. The majority of the members of African regional organisations, such as the Southern African Development Community and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the continental African Union, are dictators, military leaders or authoritarian leaders. They are either unwilling to act or lack the credibility to act against their peers – this has emboldened prospective military coup leaders to take power through violence, knowing they are unlikely to be censured (Louati 2023).

Ecowas threatened to send troops to Niger to take on the military junta. However, given that many of them the Ecowas members are authoritarian themselves, they lacked credibility. Worse, the real danger of sending Ecowas troops was that it would be seen by many – and spun by the Niger military junta, as doing so on the behest of the US and former colonial power France. Worse, sending Ecowas troops could “turn (Niger) into a proxy war battlefield where the two Western nations, China, Russia and terrorist groups are all implicated” (Louati 2023).

In most cases, regional and continental African institutions do not have the credibility, will-power and means to act, as many of them are populated with military leaders and authoritarian governments themselves – who rather defend fellow coup leaders than condemn them. Yet, in their charters Ecowas, SADC and the AU have strong anti-coup rules.

Mali and Burkina Faso leaders, the former who won power through a military coup in 2021, and the latter in 2022, have supported the Niger coup leaders in July 2023. The Burkina Faso junta, after the Niger coup, suspended the broadcasting of Radio Oméga, one of the most listened to in the country, after its broadcast a critical interview of the Niger coup. On Thursday, the Economic Community of West African States, the regional organisation, instructed a standby force to be mobilised to intervene if the junta does not reinstate Bazoum. Nigeria has cut off power to Niger.

African regional and continental institutions must be democratised to exclude dictators, military coup leaders and jihadist leaders from membership – and start to act more decisively against wayward African leaders, otherwise Africa’s violent chaos, and lack of development will continue for generations, while the rest of the world prospers.

UN Security Council is too divided to tackle African coups

The UN Security Council has the power to impose sanctions against African coup leaders. However, the UN Security Council, particularly since the Russia-Ukraine invasion, has been divided between Western powers and Russia and China – and split along these lines over how to respond to coups, whether in Africa or the rest of the world. This means the UN Security Council has also been impotent to tackle coups.

Russia and China oppose UN intervention in member countries to bring to book authoritarian governments and leaders, whether through regime change or sanctions, fearing this may be reciprocated against them. When Ecowas did try to act against Mali following the coup, Russia and China blocked the UN Security Council from publicly supporting the Ecowas intervention (Gowan and Pradhan 2022).

The UN Security Council prefers regional players to intervene in coups. For example, after the coup in Mali, the Council called “all the Malian stakeholders” to work with the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union to find a solution. During the coup in Sudan in 2021, the Council stated its “strong support” for the attempts by AU, the Intergovernmental Authority of Development (IGAD), the East African regional organisation and the League of Arab States to negotiate a solution. However, all three regional organisations lacked the capacity to resolve the violent impasse.

“We have seen that effective deterrence today is not in place”, according to Guterres. Guterres has in the past unsuccessfully appealed to UN Security Council members to put aside their differences to respond collectively in dealing with coups. “My appeal, obviously, is for – especially the big powers – to come together for the unity of the Security Council in order to make sure that there is effective deterrence in relation to this epidemic of coup d’états,” according to Guterres (Nichols 2021).


Most of the military coup leaders have claimed – to secure popular support, especially from the youth – that they want to restore ‘democracy’, or end corruption or bring security where jihadist movements have created insecurity. Some of the military coup leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have also attacked the continued influence of France, the former colonial power, for economic hardships of ordinary people, claiming they want to bring about ‘decolonisation’.

The Niger military junta gave the French Ambassador in the country, Sylvain Itte, 48 hours to leave. Not surprisingly, protesters, mostly youth, in support of the military coups, have raged against former colonial power France. In Niger, youths supporting the military coup converged outside the French military base in the country, demanding the 1500 French soldiers – there on request by the ousted government to help tackle insecurity, leave (Al Jazeera 2023).

The reality is that African countries, under new military leaders following coups, face the spectre of plunging into Libya and Sudan-like chaos – escalating the already dire economic crises, mass hunger and violent chaos in these countries (Londregan and Poole 1990; Lunde 1991; McGowan 2003). Coups in African countries, whether in Egypt or Algeria in the past, often led to long civil wars, dictatorship and violent chaos (Louati 2023).

In Guinea, repression by the junta that came to power in June 2022, has already caused 30 deaths, hundreds wounded by security, and hundreds arbitrarily arrested. Opposition groups have accused the Guinea military junta of “‘confiscating’ power, repressing freedoms, and enriching themselves” (AFP 2023b). The poor, unemployed and desperate youth that often embraced military coup leaders, hoping they will at last provide a better life for them, will only experience more misery as these military ‘leaders’ escalate the violent chaos, corruption and democratic reversal whenever they take power.


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William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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