Countering Coups: How to Help Rebuild Democratic Rule
After five military putsches around the Sahel, here are policy steps to begin a recovery.
The past year’s surge in coups around Africa’s greater Sahel region highlights the need for the United States, other democracies and African governments to improve past practices that often have been ineffective in preventing armed seizures of power and in reversing them when they occur. Many Sahel countries have suffered repeated coups—a warning that we need to strengthen the ways that we shape our efforts at restoring democracy. USIP experts suggest that these transitions must become periods for broad, national dialogues to set agendas for change that can make strengthen democracy and interrupt cycles of failed governance.
USIP is gathering policy ideas for countering military seizures of power, including a companion article on ways to better prevent coups in the first place. The Institute will pursue these questions in a public forum to spotlight the most vital steps. Below, USIP specialists offer policy ideas toward a more coherent, effective international response to restoring democratic rule after coups.
U.S. and international policymakers should correct a past tendency to focus narrowly on achieving a short duration for post-coup transitions, and instead should focus on the quality of transitions.
USIP’s Joseph Sany writes: Often, when coups have taken place, the international response has focused narrowly on the deadline by which the soldiers who seized power in a coup must allow the holding of elections for a return their country to democratic rule. The duration is an important concern, but it needs to share the focus with the content of the transition—the way it strengthens democracy. Any country that suffers a military coup has also suffered a failure of democratic government. Shaping the transition must begin with understanding why and how that failure occurred.
Then we must shape the transition period as a moment for course correction. At the least, the transitional period following the coup must lay out the road map for the changes that are required in that country to strengthen democracy. And the roadmap needs to include milestones to identify the essential steps and to set goals for when they should be achieved.
To lay out this road map, we need to gather representatives of the citizenry, the security forces, all of the stakeholders for a conversation about their goals for the country — and what agenda for action is required to achieve those goals. What are the actions, the steps, that they can agree on to produce a more stable, democratic country?
Achieving this dialogue during a post-coup transition is what can produce the agenda for action that will truly strengthen democracy in that country. And producing the agenda for action, with its milestones, provides a powerful by-product. It refocuses the nation and the people for the elections, and the electoral campaign, that come at the end the transition. Creating this national agenda refocuses that election around issues, rather than around personalities.
If we shape the post-coup period simply to hold elections as quickly as possible, with no effort to prepare a constructive atmosphere for those elections, then they and the subsequent government risk inheriting the genetic flaws of the previous democratic failure. But an election that is based on having first built a consensual national agenda for change will be different. It will lead voters to ask the candidates, what are you doing to meet the milestones of that agenda?
To help countries transition from military rule to more enduring civilian governance, policies need to include support for civil society—and the inclusion of groups that have been excluded from power or governance in the past.
In some countries, such as Sudan, the United States and other democracies have strong potential partners in civil society and in local pro-democracy movements. Sudan’s grassroots pro-democracy groups forced the army to end the 25-year rule of Omar Bashir in 2019 and to accept a three-year transition to elected civilian rule. While the army’s October 2021 coup halted that transition, a wide spectrum of political parties and community organizations agree broadly on the need for a fully civilian, democratic government that excludes military roles in politics and the economy, USIP’s Joseph Tucker underlined in testimony this month to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A first focus of policy must be to press Sudan’s military to stop its continued violence, including killings and abductions from their homes, against citizens who peacefully protest army rule.
Policies should put greater emphasis on broadening the transition processes from juntas to elected governments. These processes need to include marginalized groups and civil society. Past transitions too often have been negotiated among elites and power brokers—a narrow process that is unlikely to reduce the underlying weaknesses in governance that permitted the coup in the first place. “The inclusion of women is of paramount importance,” Tucker said in his testimony. In the case of Sudan, he argued, the United States should continue to withhold its suspended economic assistance to Sudan until the military’s “violence against civilians has ceased and there is tangible, irreversible progress toward a civilian government.”
Pressing military rulers to leave power requires a combination of “carrots and sticks” that will vary in each case. Policies should recognize that Africa’s regional organizations, and influential states in the region, can wield vital incentives.
USIP expert Aly Verjee writes: The regional bodies — such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) definitively prohibit unconstitutional changes of government. In practice, however, these organizations have limited leverage to reverse military coups. They suspended the membership of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, and ECOWAS has imposed sanctions on Mali and Guinea. ECOWAS says Burkina Faso's coup leaders have “shown interest that they want to work with ECOWAS towards the restoration of constitutional order,” so sanctions are not warranted for now.
Many coup leaders want regional and international respectability, but some also seem prepared to live without it, at least initially. The question is what combination of coercion and cajoling can work to get coup leaders in each country to hand power back to elected civilian government. In West Africa, much will depend on bilateral relations and pressure, rather than on the regional organizations themselves, even if the formal arena for negotiation is an organizational forum like ECOWAS. It’s worth noting that Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal — three of the most powerful members of ECOWAS and some of its strongest democracies, recently were re-elected to the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. They are the regional actors with the most moral and political authority.
In the longer term, the African Union, notably, will need to ask itself why the otherwise robust Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance – its core document that prohibits coups — is so easily disregarded, and what could be done to strengthen its safeguards.