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Pseudo Messiahs and the Colonial Military Legacy in Africa's Democratic Weakness

26 Sep 2023
By Dr Festival Godwin Boateng and Martin Acheampong
Departure from Benin of President Mohamed BAZOUM. Source: Présidence de la République du Bénin /

Africa’s democracy problems are partly explained by the inability of former colonial nations to desocialise violence from politics and governance. Until national leaders can be deprived of their military backers, struggling democracies in Africa will continue to be troubled by autocratic neighbours. 

Africa’s coup-epidemic is yet to run its course. Within the past few years, soldiers have assumed power in Mali, Sudan, Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, and now Gabon. Gabon’s junta claim they had to step in because Ali Bongo’s “irresponsible and unpredictable governance” had plunged their “beautiful country [into] a serious institutional, political, economic and social crisis.”  Niger’s presidential guards made similar claims, arguing that they terminated Mohamed Bazoum’s government because it was failing in addressing the “continuous deterioration of security [and] bad social and economic management” in the country.

Gabon and Niger’s cases illustrate the long tradition of soldiers using politicians’ misgovernance as grounds for deposing democratically elected leaders and governments in Africa. Very few people, including the political class themselves, will quibble about the failure of democracy to deliver the promise of development in Africa. However, approaching Africa’s malfunctioning democracies in terms of just the political class or civilian rulers generally tells only so much. The military are just as much responsible for the corruption of democracy on the continent. The problem has roots in colonial military legacy, and raises issues with Africa’s growing acceptance of military rule and interventions as a solution to poor civilian governance.

Democracy and development: The missing link in Africa

Democracy and development are not self-executing. Power also corrupts; unchecked power corrupts even more. This is why accountability tools and mechanisms such as vibrant opposition and free press, periodic free and fair elections, and positive actions including protests are built into democracy to check the political class’s abuse of power and, in turn, minimise corruption, mismanagement, and ineffective policies that undermine development.

Part of the reason many advanced economies have been able to leverage democracy to achieve general improvements in their standards of living is that, to a large extent, the people are able to apply available accountability tools to hold elected governments and leaders responsible for their actions. The same, however, cannot be said for most African democracies.

Across otherwise diverse countries on the continent, abuse of governance processes and public resources is long standing. Politicians frequently rig elections, manipulate constitutions and scrap term limits, and divert public resources for private gain, which raises questions about why the people do not use the accountability tools of democracy to stymie such actions. The factors driving these dynamics are many and complex. Nevertheless, a consideration of the behaviour of the military and the state security apparatuses helps.

Military embeddedness in civilian misrule

The contemporary orientation of Africa’s many militaries or state security apparatuses has strong historical antecedents. Since European colonialism was primarily intended to exploit Africa’s resources not for the benefit of Africans, but Europe and Europeans, the colonial governments structured their security apparatuses to be generally repressive. This was needed to subdue any indigenous resistance to the inherent injustice of colonialism and thus make way for an orderly exploitation of the continent.

Following independence and democratisation after years repressive rule, social structures around military and government relations were found to be difficult to evenly develop. What we see today is the continued failure to desocialise the many inherited security apparatuses of their colonial orientation of subjugating the masses for the benefit of the powerful/ruling class. As one scholar puts it, they have retained their “natural orientations of protect[ing] the powerful and enforc[ing] the rule of law such that the lives and property of the powerful are protected, and damn everything else.” This orientation, however, sits in tension with democracy which empowers the governed to confront and contest the interest and power of the ruling class. Africa’s security forces frequently resolve the tension in service of the needs of the latter.

Thus, the military and other state security forces continue to employ the provision of violence, specifically extralegal violence, to advance the anti-democratic practices of the ruling class. For instance, critical journalists who strive to uncover government corruption and other similar abuses of public resources are frequently attacked, intimidated, silenced, disappeared or subjected to other extralegal practices and processes. When elected leaders and governments face civilian resistance for rigging elections or manipulating term limits, the military and other state apparatuses swiftly supply such politicians and governments with their services to contain the resistance.

The result is that the security apparatuses have become an enduring stumbling block, undermining the people’s chances to access democratic tools to hold the political class accountable. This creates room for elected governments and leaders to operate with impunity.

Gabon’s recent experience, where soldiers justified civilian leaders’ inability to organise “transparent, credible and inclusive” elections to stage a coup, exemplifies this point. How the military expected Gabon to be able to organise credible elections when they themselves spent several decades rendering the services of sustained extralegal violence to successive governments, is perhaps too obvious a question. In Gabon’s case, recent history is all telling. The governments of Ali Bongo and his father who came before him systematically opposed dissent, which included a vibrant opposition, a free press and other democratic institutions that would contribute to a culture and custom of transparent elections.

Towards building better democracies in Africa

These kinds of reflections are more important in Africa now than ever because, and as the recent Afrobarometer survey illustrates, popular support for military rule and interventions is strong. The recent Gabon and Niger coups exemplify this development, with media footage showing public demonstrations supporting the coup plotters.

While there is justified anger against civilian misgovernance, the actions of citizens may yield better outcomes if instead their energies are directed towards demands for desocialising the military and other similarly situated state apparatuses of their illiberal legacies, and their penchant for legitimising elite impunity. The evidence suggests that without access to employable, extralegal violence, even the most repressive autocrat will bow to popular demand for accountability.

This was the case for Gambia’s former autocrat, Yahya Jammeh. After 22-years of subjecting Gambians and foreigners alike to widespread abuses, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention, he accepted his December 2016 presidential election defeat only when the military declared that they would no longer support his refusal to accept the results of the election.

It has likewise been shown that the army’s decision to ignore shoot to kill orders in Tunisia played a key role in the success of that country’s 2011 popular uprising, creating room for the people to use protests to hold Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his government accountable for gross political repression. A similar military refusal to supply extralegal violence forced Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak–who also spent his three decades of autocratic rule suppressing free and fair elections, transparent governance, dissent, vibrant opposition and free press–to flee the country.

These examples demonstrate the need for institutional growth between professional military or security apparatuses and the state, the constitution, and the people for there to be a chance at democracy rehabilitation in Africa. Such growth will end the supply of extralegal violence which African governments and leaders count on to rule with impunity. In turn, the people will be able to leverage critical democracy accountability tools to demand socio-economic development.

Festival Godwin Boateng was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Climate School of Columbia University, New York. He currently serves on the board of the Consortium for Sustainable Urbanization, and will be joining the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment in the winter of 2023 to research on politics, power and governance in Africa.

Martin Acheampong researches on democracy and democratisation in Africa at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies’ Institute for African Affairs, Hamburg. He has particular interests in parliaments, elections, representation and political parties in Africa.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.