Samuel Huntington’s third wave of democratization might finally be sweeping through the African continent but at the hands of the military. Even though Huntington identifies the third wave as having started in 1974 following the coup d’état in Portugal, Africa as a continent has been resistant to the third wave of democratization. The resistance has influenced various scholars to maintain that the continent is still in the third wave while some assume the events that have happened in Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Sudan in the last 12 months should be labelled as the ‘fourth wave’ of democratization. Whatever phase political analysts might want to coin for the current climate in Africa, Fareed Zakaria’s assertion “We live in a democratic age…democracy has become the standard form of government for humankind” in his book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad holds true to the need for democratization on the African continent. In April 2019, two of Africa’s dictators, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria were toppled from power by the military following months of anti-government protests. The case of Sudan and Algeria are reminiscent of how another despotic ruler, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was toppled from power in November 2017. However, questions still need to be asked on whether Africa’s military is overstepping its role by facilitating regime change. Traditionally, the military’s place is in the barracks but since the ousting of Robert Mugabe and now Omar al-Bashir, it looks like the African military is evolving into that of “kingmaker”.
The military has put itself front and center in the democratization process. In most instances, it is the civilians that have the duty to constitutionally influence the democratization process, not the military. African militaries, because of their historically negative impact on development and influence over democratization civilians should remain skeptical of their motives when they insert themselves in democratic processes. No matter the circumstances the overthrowing of a ‘constitutionally’ elected government by means of a coup d’état remains unconstitutional. It is imperative that when a coup d’état takes places, the military should immediately hand over power to civilian rulers and not try to hold on to power. Even though the military remains a tool in a country’s foreign policy, thereby making it an extension of politics, its role should not be intrusive in domestic politics especially when it comes to appointing or selecting a country’s leader. Unlike the military’s involvement in the fall of President Robert Mugabe, the Sudanese military planned to suspend the constitution and went as far as installing Defence Minister Awad ibn Auf would become the country’s leaders for the next 2 years.
In an article titled, The African Military in a Democratic Age, Craig Bailie argues that, “The reason why military rule should never be preferable to authoritarian civilian rule is the greater difficulty that comes with moving away from the former, as opposed to the latter, and dealing with the ill-effects of military rule.” If historical evidence is taken into consideration, a military coup d’état rarely ever brings about democracy characterized by a separation of power. As it stands, President Sisi who came into power after militarily overthrowing Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, now has unchecked power together with the military at the detriment of other branches of the government. This puts at the forefront how leaders that came into power by using the military as a tool can still become undemocratic and authoritarian. Both cases of the now deposed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and President al-Bashir, illustrate that military-backed president once they get into power, they would do whatever it takes to consolidate their power through constitutional amendments. However, this is not to say democratically elected civilian rulers cannot become authoritarian through the same constitutional changes. But it is to assert the gravity at which it is close to impossible for a military rule to shift to a fully-fledged democratic rule as in the case of al-Bashir’s rise to power. Thus, the performance of Africa’s military governments soundly disproves the thesis that the military is a modernizing force with a stabilizing or modernizing force due to its organized discipline.
Democracy should remain an institution by the “people for the people”. The moment the military inserts itself into a process that is meant to be founded on the will of the populace, the idea of democracy is threatened. In both Egypt and Sudan, there were protests from the civilians that faced a constant crackdown from the military. However, as the protesters remained determined against the military’s crackdown, the military switched sides and started to back the protesting masses. The shift by the military influenced a cascade of events that would eventually lead to the fall of President al-Bashir. Although, some commentators might consider the military’s role as that of aiding the protesters to garner what they need- change in government. The military’s role in deciding to turn against its commander in chief should be viewed with caution because as soon as the military topples the government, they insert themselves as leaders. Arguably, not only does the military carry out a coup against the government but they also usurp the people’s democratic right to elect their own leaders through free and fair elections.
The role of the Zimbabwean army in toppling President Robert Mugabe in 2017 was quickly labeled as a ‘non-coup’ by the military. But the facts on the ground could only be described as a textbook example of a coup d’état. Even though the military quickly ceded power to a civilian, it was not lost that the military had its hand in ousting a democratically elected President. Whether Mugabe was a despotic ruler who deserved to be thrown out of the Zimbabwean State House, it was not up to the military to forcibly oust him from power. Coups should not become the norm in how African states become democracies or change ruling regimes no matter the circumstances. There is no valid argument that political analysts can assert that the only way for Africa to acquire democracy is through a military coup. Democracy scholars and proponents should shun and discourage a military lade or backed change to any form of government in Africa. It is worrying that scholars like Houngnikpo (2010) analyze that ‘not a single country has managed to introduce and sustain democratic transition in Africa against the will of the military’ (p. 168).
Despite significant progress moving towards democracy among some African countries in the past decade, all too many African militaries have yet to accept core democratic principles regulating civilian authority over the military. Even though there is a consensus among political scholars that the military’s place is in the barracks, the African military is overstepping its bounce by being a domestic political tool that has the power to depose or install a president. The events in Zimbabwe, Egypt, Algeria, and Sudan could set a bad precedent in African politics that change can only come to Africa through a military coup d’état. Not only is the African military setting a bad precedent but it is reversing democratic principles that regulate civilian authority over the military. If a wave of democracy is to fall on Africa, it should be done at the hands of the people without interference from the man in uniform, who has no place in influencing civilian politics.