Return of coups: Why Africa needs a new social contract

Wednesday September 13 2023

New strongman General Brice Oligui Nguema (C), who was inaugurated as interim President, reviews the troops before the military parade, in Libreville, Gabon on September 4, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


Six decades after gaining independence, African countries are once again confronting history. Within the context of geopolitical reconfiguration and the emergence of a multipolar world, we are now witnessing a resurgence in coups across Africa.

Since the early 1960s, often after being stripped of charismatic leaders who led the independence struggle, young African states faced two major challenges: a lack of experience in state management and the grip of the former colonial powers over their political and economic future.

Many of these countries, which were led by leaders loyal to foreign powers, have not had the option or the means to meaningfully forge their own path and build strong, prosperous nations that offer hope to their people.

The trajectory of young African states was also shaken by the oil crises of the 1970s and the structural adjustment policies introduced at the behest of the Bretton Woods institutions.

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To meet the demands of structural adjustment, countries had to sell off their public enterprises and make unprecedented budget cuts, including in sensitive sectors such as education, health and infrastructure.


In hindsight, all those involved later recognised that these imposed policies were devastating, calling into question the few gains made during the first two decades of independence and slowing down the modernisation of economies.

After three decades of authoritarian regimes, exploitation as well as predation of public and natural resources in the context of Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled a decline in the system of governance of African countries and in their relations with foreign powers.

In particular, the protection of anti-communist regimes was no longer an issue for the Western powers. Henceforth, multi-party democracy was presented as one of the principles that should govern relations between Africa and the West, representing a decisive turning point in political processes in Africa.

For a large part of the population, particularly democracy activists, this gave rise to the hope of a new era marked by the freedom to choose one’s leaders and hope for a new social contract between political leaders and their populations, particularly in terms of improving the governance of public affairs and responding to the population's aspirations for improved standards of living.

Read: AKINYEMI: Democracy to Africa has two sides? Just look at Niger

The current proliferation of coups d'états in West and Central Africa demonstrate that the expectations of hopeful populations have not been fulfilled. While multi-party elections are now regularly held, there are often shadowed by doubts regarding their transparency and fairness.

It is clear that elections alone have not been able to deliver an equitable system of governance. In other words, multi-party elections have not necessarily led to the creation of the conditions for a genuine social contract between the elites and the population. 

Despite average annual economic growth of around 4 percent between 2000 and 2022, around 4 out of 10 people in Sub-Saharan Africa live below the poverty line. Unemployment and job insecurity are also taking their toll, particularly among young people.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), up to 70 percent of African workers are poor, the highest rate in the world. In the social sphere, while real progress has been made, some 75 children out of every 1,000 born die before the age of five, and the primary education completion rate is only 71 percent. Finally, almost half the region's population (49.4percent) has no access to electricity.

Meanwhile, the plundering of public funds continues and the stories of the extravagant lives of the elite grow widespread, fueling disillusionment and discontent among the masses. Hence the military coups in many countries have been welcomed as a source of liberation and a hope for positive change, with people dancing out on the streets and defying against international condemnation of the coups.

While the political events of the last three years have surprised many analysts, they were to be expected, given the brewing frustrations caused by the combined effects of poverty, poor governance, exploitation of resources by elites, and in some cases, the rise in insecurity linked to attacks by armed groups or militias.

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Current trends send a strong message to the elites, both African and foreign, against the status quo and provide an opportunity to establish a new social contract between leaders and citizens. This social contract should be materialised through genuinely transparent, inclusive and fair political processes and accountability by the State to its citizens.

Africa has many solid assets to catalyse its development, most notably its dynamic demographics and youth population. According to projections, by 2100, Africa will have 4.5 billion inhabitants, or 40 percent of the world's population - more than India, China and Europe combined.

Add to this its abundant natural resources, with 60percent of the world's uncultivated land, unlimited solar potential and the extensive deposits of strategic resources such as cobalt, lithium and uranium.

Considering these assets, Africa can become a true global power by the end of this century. To effectively unlock its potential, African countries need to accelerate reforms to build developmental states based on strong, transparent and credible institutions, the rule of law, and a secured environment for investment and property rights that can promote structural transformation of the economy, moving from an economy based on the primary and extractive sectors to one with higher added value.

A firm commitment to infrastructure, particularly in energy and transport and the introduction of an African common market that facilitates trades across the continent using currency convertibility will be central to the success of structural transformation in Africa.

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Lastly, investment in human capital that focuses on honing skills in technological innovation, digitalisation and green innovation will provide the competitive edge to spring Africa forward.

Africa has the resources and dynamism to chart its own trajectory forward, but it is now up to leaders and governments to steer in the right direction.

Jean-Luc Stalon (PhD) is Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme in the Central African Republic. A development practitioner for 30 years, he has just published a book entitled: La croissance élitiste, Ed. du Cygne - Paris @JLStalon