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Another day, another coup in Africa. This week’s military takeover in Gabon marks the eighth coup in Central and West Africa since 2020. Ali Bongo’s overthrow follows the ouster of Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum, France’s strategic ally in the Sahel, in July. Prior to this, there had been coups in Chad, Guinea, and two coups each in Mali and Burkina Faso. The risk of contagion is real.

France’s ability to influence events on the ground in a country it once dominated is declining month by month. That’s not a bad thing in itself. Gone are the days when Paris could appoint a favored leader or dispatch an arrogant general. After two decades of dwindling coups in Africa, the military route to power is dangerously back in vogue. But the string of coups is primarily an African problem, not a French one.

The Gabon coup is not the same as the Niger coup. In the latter, an elected president did a reasonable job under difficult circumstances, only to be overthrown. In Gabon, the Bongo family, father first, son later, has ruled the oil country as a family business for more than five decades. Ali Bongo is trying to prolong his rule with another rubber-stamp election. Many Gabonese celebrate the end of the Bongo dynasty.

There are many reasons for the surge in coups. The coronavirus pandemic has hit the economy hard and fueled popular discontent. Democracy looks more unstable around the world, even in the United States. Western powers are powerless to preach their virtues to African governments. In addition, African governments have other non-democratic partners to turn to, including China and Russia.

The underlying problem, however, is the state of African democratic provision itself. Poll after poll has shown that a growing proportion of the urban population sees democracy as the best institution for advancing society. But legitimate democracies are few and far between.

Too many leaders have learned to game the electoral process by using the power of the incumbent to ensure re-election. Many, like Cameroon’s Paul Biya, who was embarrassingly president for 41 years, or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (37 and counting), just Rewrite the constitution to ensure permanent rule. Just this month, Zimbabwean Emmerson Mnangagwa, nicknamed “The Crocodile,” presided over a brutal election campaign with only one possible outcome. With a democracy like this, who needs a dictatorship?

Even among those countries that have won with fairness and justice, the continent lacks serious enough governments and consistent policies to put its countries on a path of sustainable development and poverty eradication. The best African democrats can do to prevent a coup is to get their own internal order in order.

The situation is not hopeless. More or less credible democratic elections are regularly held in many countries, including Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Mauritius, Senegal, and Zambia. Leaders come and go, ruling parties relinquish power. The African Union used to be the more active defender of democracy. It should rediscover its passions and condemn abuses of power.

Regional heavyweights should also hold up a democratic mirror for neighboring countries. By keeping silent, South Africa has become complicit in the tragedy of Zimbabwe’s dictatorship. Nigeria, at least under the leadership of its recently elected president, Bola Tiinub, has rediscovered its desire to defend democracy.

Tinub’s seemingly hollow threats to overthrow the Niger coup, even by force if necessary, may have gone too far. But he resolutely supported constitutionalism and took the correct route. Others also need to stand up and stop the rot. If they don’t, they could be next.


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