The human rights implications of repeated coups in Africa

The old saying goes, "Truth is the first casualty of war." However, when it comes to a coup, the first, middle, and last casualty is human rights.

African nations have a long history of military coups, and the trend is continuing. Since 2020, the continent has witnessed nine coups in various countries, including Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Chad, and Mali. The regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has unequivocally condemned the coups that occurred in 2023. Simultaneously, the United States expresses concern over the potential escalation of Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

In addition to worsening their relations with other nations, coups have proven to be highly detrimental to the well-being of the people in African nations. These political upheavals tend to manifest in countries already grappling with poor human rights conditions, and unfortunately, coups exacerbate these issues. The aftermath often witnesses a decline in human rights and democratic values, contributing to heightened instability and the increased suffering of the population.

Many experts argue that, instead of merely attempting to enhance the quality of democracy, it is crucial to address the root causes of coups. This involves governments responding to citizens' demands for social, economic, and political change, along with the pursuit of an elevated standard of living and an improved security situation within the country. Although the names of the actors and the specifics surrounding each coup are unique, countries that have fallen victim to coups share several similarities. One notable aspect is that they are often rich in mineral resources but remain materially poor. Gabon stands out as an exception, boasting an average income of US$8,820 per year. However, this stands in sharp contrast to Chad, where the average citizen earns about $717 per year, and Niger, where the average yearly income is only $533.

With the exception of Sudan, most of the countries experiencing coups are former French colonies where French policies have been cited as justifications for governmental overthrows. These nations often find themselves grappling with the presence of terrorists, insurgents, and foreign mercenaries, including Russia's Wagner Group, particularly in the Sahel Region, forming what is often referred to as Africa's coup belt. Furthermore, these countries tend to exhibit high levels of corruption, limited human freedoms, and compromised election integrity. According to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, Niger ranked 123, Gabon 135, Mali 137, Sudan 162, Guinea 147, and Chad 167. These rankings place them well within the lower half of the most corrupt countries globally.

Countries affected by coups often witness sitting governments taking measures to ensure their own survival and continued rule, frequently through actions like altering term limits or manipulating elections. For instance, in Gabon, the motivation behind the military coup stemmed from a flawed election that granted Ali Bongo a third seven-year term. While in some instances, the military's concerns about flawed elections may be valid, the subsequent military rule typically hinders the nation's return to democracy.

Sudan serves as an example where coup leaders initially promised a restoration of democracy but, in reality, only paved the way for the next coup. Similarly, in Niger, despite coup leaders setting a deadline for the restoration of democracy, the date has passed without any election taking place. Likewise, in Chad, the military government consistently postponed elections as a strategy to prolong their stay in power.

 

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In most cases, coups tend to replace civilian government institutions with military regimes that are ill-suited for organizing and conducting free and fair elections. Even in instances where coup leaders permitted elections, the processes were often marred by flaws. A historical example is Nigeria, which experienced a series of coups and military governments in the 1980s and 1990s. The transition from military rule to elections in Nigeria was accompanied by numerous challenges, leading to disputed election results. Similar disputes occurred in Gabon, highlighting the recurring issue of flawed electoral processes.

Countries such as Guinea and Gabon experienced coups triggered by flawed elections, while Sudan faced unrest due to a lack of democratic representation. Persistent election rigging by military governments only serves to exacerbate existing issues, leading to the suspension of free speech and assembly. An example is Guinea, where security forces attacked demonstrators in violation of the country’s constitution. This type of violence and lack of a democratic process set the stage for future coups and the continuation of human rights violations and widespread suffering.

Coups inevitably lead to severe violations of human rights, contributing to widespread human suffering. Civil rights are commonly suspended, as evidenced in Burkina Faso, exacerbating the turmoil. In the aftermath of coups, violence often erupts, resulting in casualties.  Government purges, and the imprisonment or execution of former government officials outside the bounds of established judicial processes is also common. This is what happened following coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and Gabon, where officials of the ousted government, without having been charged, were placed arrested or in detention for indeterminate periods of time.

Furthermore, coups disrupt trade, causing inflation, currency devaluation, and shortages of essential goods like food and medicines. This economic instability compounds the challenges faced by the affected populations. The international ramifications are substantial as well, with strained relations and the imposition of sanctions by foreign entities. The likelihood of war between African nations also increases, as the military government of one country finds itself in conflict with the military government of the neighboring country.

With coups, troubled countries go from one terrible situation to another. Politicians and military leaders war among themselves, often becoming richer, but the lives of citizens do not improve. 


Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China-MBA MBA, is a China economic analyst teaching economics at the American University in Mongolia. He has spent 20 years in Asia and is the author of six books about China. His writing has appeared in The Diplomat, South China Morning Post, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Penthouse, Shanghai Institute of American Studies, Epoch Times, War on the Rocks, Just the News, and Black Belt Magazine.

Image: rally in Niger after the July coup.


 

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