Juntas in Africa: Are the Military Saviours of Democracy?

Photo by Filip Andrejevic on Unsplash


Chinonso Ihuoma

Date Published

January 10, 2024


Political Economy

The sole responsibility of the military or armed forces of a nation is to defend the country from external attacks and to maintain peace and order within the territory as well as at the various external borders. Generally, no arm of the military is established or designed to contest or metamorphose into a political party. Likewise, active military men are not legally qualified to campaign for or contest any political position during electoral processes. Although civil-military relations exist in a democratic space, this only implies the sharing of power between the democratic administration and the military. This defined relationship only includes utilizing the armed forces to achieve progressive projects geared towards improving citizens’ standards of living, not a rotation of political power between the two.

Junta vis-à-vis Democracy

Juntas or military regimes are installed through coups d'état, which could be bloody or bloodless. Since the 1960s, when many African countries obtained independence, coups have become a major phenomenon in African politics and have determined the chain of politics on the continent. The military claims to be the savior of democracy, often justifying their actions as a reaction to political decadence and the corrupt practices of democratic leaders. The question remains: do juntas effectively “save” their societies from the claws of corruption, or do they simply introduce a new set of problems?

Africa has witnessed a total of about 222 coup attempts since 1946, leading to a military interruption of political activities in virtually every African country except Kenya, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi. The current wave of military takeover in Africa began in August 2019 with the installation of a military junta in Sudan. Citing unpopular democratic government policies and increased socio-political instability, the junta has tried to justify its actions in Burkina Faso (January 23–24, 2022), Chad (April 11–9, 2021), Guinea (September 5, 2021), Mali (August 18 and May 24, 2020), Niger (July 26, 2023), and Sudan (April 11, 2019).

It is a fact that past military regimes in many African countries contributed to nation-building. The first military regime in Nigeria (January 15th, 1966), for example, was fuelled by the desires of the military to combat anarchy, corruption, disintegration, and ethnic rivalry, which they feared was eating into Nigerian nationhood. Subsequent coups were instigated by the desires of the military to remodel and rebuild the country, which they perceived was crumbling under the ravegeous administration of “bloody civilians”.  Although significant economic growth has been recorded in some of the countries where juntas rule, the military's perception of themselves as defenders of democracy and territorial integrity does not always justify their intervention in politics.

Military Regime and Economic Performance: Any Correlation?

Apart from Niger, which witnessed its coup on July 26, 2023, a look at the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Mali and Guinea (not to be confused with Guinea-Bissau or Equatorial Guinea) reveals that these countries since military takeover have maintained a steady but slow increase in their respective GDPs. However, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sudan had negative developments in their respective GDPs.

Figure 1: GDP growth rate (%), 2021-2022

Source: World Bank (2023)

The growth observed in Guinea’s GDP was a result of positive economic outcomes from the mining, energy, and infrastructural sectors. Malian economic growth, as revealed in the graph, was driven primarily by its agricultural and service sectors. However, it is projected that despite sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), internal predicaments in the areas of inflation, and a decrease in cotton production resulting from parasite infestations, GDP growth will be at 1.8% at the end of 2023.

Despite its reliance on the oil sector, Chad witnessed a contraction in its GDP, and it was estimated to grow by 3% by the end of 2023. For Sudan, it is predicted that if the country fails to reduce its political instability, the GDP will likely contract by 3.1% by the end of 2023. Furthermore, Burkina Faso’s GDP contracted as a result of a 13.7% decline in mining activities. This decline was largely driven by the coups d’etat, the closure of mines for security reasons, and the Russian invasion. Consequently, it is projected that GDP growth will be at 4.4%  by the end of 2023. 

Any way forward?

Available data reveals that most of the countries under juntas witnessed significant changes in their respective GDPs. Although a country’s GDP does not reveal a holistic insight into its economic growth and development, it is an important indicator to understand how a country’s economy has fared over time. This, of course, is just a single indicator of economic growth, essential in determining a country’s economic progress and its output. Although each junta promised to return the country to a peaceful democratic transition, history has revealed that such development takes years to happen. Hence, it may still be premature to presume that the military in Chad, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Sudan will be eager to hand over power to civilian institutions when they still believe that politicians are yet to change.  

The most recent coup in Niger created a lot of tension in the regional affairs of West Africa, resulting in an ECOWAS one-week ultimatum to the junta as well as the rejection of the coup by the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) and other relevant Regional Economic Communities’ (RECs). The question that remains to be answered is: Is the military ready to champion a transition in the affected countries, or will their dogged position lead to a continuous wave of coups in 21st-century Africa? 

Despite the justifications provided by the juntas, the military can only contribute to the effective development of their various countries if they focus on performing that significant duty for which they were created—to serve and secure the legitimacy of their nations. Military rules are not democratic, and juntas rule with decrees and edicts, which already impede the legitimacy of preexisting constitutions. Although history shows that many great empires at some point had soldiers at the apex of the political hierarchy, even when they operated as authoritarian regimes, these soldiers did not rule as juntas. 

The current wave of military juntas in Africa claim to be saviors of democracy, yet they are also associated with several instances of misappropriation of funds. The countries under juntas are still faced with challenges of food security, service delivery, climatic hazards, unemployment, poverty, insecurity, a continuous hike in food prices, an increased number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees, poor healthcare services, inflation, and currency devaluation, among others.

Arguments can be made that some of these heightened negative economic situations in the countries affected by the most recent coups were orchestrated by external sanctions. However, the juntas need to reconsider the development needs of their various countries. Hence, their priority should always be to organize and spearhead a peaceful transition of power to a reformed political and democratic institution. 

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