How can Africa shake its ‘coup contagion’?

by Ivor Ichikowitz

In a refreshing twist on what had been starting to look like a depressing U-turn to the days when coup d’etats were all too present in postcolonial Africa, 80 political parties and nongovernmental organizations in Mali joined forces this week to demand new elections after nearly four years of rule by a military junta.

Still, the “coup contagion” lurks on Africa’s political horizon, as a recent foiled attempt in South Sudan shows. A spate of other coup attempts in African states over the last several years have conversely been successful. This scenario has again led experts to opine about a “coup contagion” on the continent, one that has seen 214 coup attempts since 1960, 106 of them successful. The tragedy of the most recent spate of coups is that, as recently as 2018, their occurrence had hit an all-time low.

In recent years, however, Africa has been vexed by a violent coup attempt in Sierra Leone, which took place in November. In addition, a similarly brutal series of clashes in Guinea-Bissau late last year led to the dissolution of that nation’s legislature.

Prior to these, Africa has seen leaders toppled in Gabon and Niger because, in the case of the former, ex-President Ali Bongo was removed after a disputed reelection, and in the case of the latter, the country’s military establishment proactively removed Mohamed Bazoum, who had been seen as failing to supply basic services to the public.

And there have been others as well. Back-to-back coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021 have left the country in political flux until now.

In sum, this reversion to old stereotypes has been tough on Africans because we had until recently been moving in a more democratic direction.

My family foundation’s research underscores how powerful the demand for a democratic future truly is.

As we have seen in the ground-breaking African Youth Survey — that the Ichikowitz Family Foundation is now conducting across 16 countries for the third round — our continent’s rising generation is determined, to quote Nelson Mandela, to be master of their own fates and captains of their own destinies.

It is a lesson that undemocratic leaders would do well to remember in the coming months and years.

While 1 in 5 respondents polled in the 2022 survey still see a military coup as a viable alternative to a repressive ruler clinging to power despite the odds, our surveys have found that Africa’s youths are losing their patience with repressive and delaying tricks.

Almost two-thirds of our young people disapprove of military rule. There is a strong appetite for democracy on the continent; 74% of Africa’s youths believe it is the best form of government.

Importantly, a substantial majority of respondents agree that the form of democracy that will prevail on this continent is not the often-sclerotic and frequently venal form of government bequeathed by the West, but an indigenous, more responsive form of government.

There is no question that a veneration for age in Africa is hardwired into the psyche of all of us who have grown up on this continent. But this is a respect that is sometimes abused and certainly not reciprocated by a cohort of heads of state either on or well past their retirement date.

It is an attitude that is both short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating because the continent has the youngest population in the world and that growing demographic is not afraid to make its voice heard — nor its will felt.

Young Africans want a new style of democracy that meets the realities and challenges of the continent. They demand a democratic system that will foster economic growth and true inclusivity, nation to nation, across Africa — ensuring greater representation of Africa’s youths, in most cases making up the largest demographic of their country, to avert military intervention and so as to allow popular-based civilian rule to grow and thrive.

Mark my words — to break the cycle and put the threat of a “coup contagion” firmly back in the past, we need to listen more carefully to our rising generation.

Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist. He chairs the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, which created and funds the African Youth Survey.