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Why have we seen so many recent coups across West and Central Africa?


The deposed president of the Central African nation of Gabon is speaking out in a video from what appears to be house arrest.


PRESIDENT ALI BONGO ONDIMBA: I don't know what's going on, so I'm calling you to make noise, to make noise, to make noise really.

MARTIN: It's a dramatic turn of events for Ali Bongo, who was declared the winner of Gabon's disputed presidential election. This is hours before the military ousted him in favor of the head of the presidential guard. This is Africa's eighth coup since 2020. And we wondered if there is a through line here, so we called Christopher Fomunyoh. He's a senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute. It's an organization dedicated to supporting and strengthening democracies worldwide. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Do we really consider Gabon a democracy? I mean, yes, it was civilian led, albeit by the same family, you know, for decades now. But even having said that, are you surprised by what happened?

FOMUNYOH: I'm surprised and, to a large extent, pretty disappointed because in the last two or three decades, we've seen incremental progress in trying to consolidate democracy in many countries across Africa. And in the past three years, we've seen a lot of backsliding that's culminated in the military coups to which you referred. And Gabon just happens to be one more case of a country that was making some progress, albeit faulting (ph) progress. But that is now being taken over by the military.

MARTIN: So you've called this backsliding. Do you have a theory about why this and why now?

FOMUNYOH: Obviously, every country context is different, stands out. But there are three main traits that are beginning to come through in the coups that we've seen thus far. In the countries in the Sahel - such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic - the pretext used by the military has been the inability of civilian-led governments to fight violent extremism in those countries. In the coastal countries - such as Gabon and Guinea, Conakry, before that - the pretext used by the military was bad governance and issues, controversies around elections or constitutionalism and term limits. And then we have a third trait that's come out of countries such as Chad and Sudan, where it's just the old-style thinking that only the military can guarantee stability in those countries. So we're going to have to tease these theories out, but they do differ from country to country.

MARTIN: It's hard to assess such things. But did you have a sense that there is alarm about this among, you know, civilians who would like to see their countries move toward more stable governance and more stable democratic governance?

FOMUNYOH: Yes, indeed. There is some surprise because when you look at studies done on Africans' attachment to democracy by organizations such as Afrobarometer that measure public opinion across the continent, an overwhelming majority of Africans aspire to living in democratic societies. So the desire, the demand for democracy is there. At the same time, some of these populations are very disappointed by the poor performance of civilian, democratically elected leaders. So you have a bunch of - a sizable chunk of the population that feels squeezed in between poorly performing civilian leaders and unprofessional militaries that use any protest they can find to then find themselves at the helm of power or in statehouses.

MARTIN: And very briefly - it's such a complex question for such a short amount of time. But is there a role for foreign governments to play here? Or could they do more harm than good by intervening?

FOMUNYOH: No, I think there's a role because Africa is part of the globe and these things don't happen in isolation, and also because the world has become such a global village. And things that happen even in places that are geographically distant from the United States end up affecting us one way or the other. And it's important that military coups that undercut the principles of democracy that are one of the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy should draw everyone's attention, because ultimately, people are going to determine their partnerships with the United States based on the commitment that the United States has to foster these democratic principles.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. That's Christopher Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute. Thank you so much for sharing these insights with us.

FOMUNYOH: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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