A recent survey of 36 African countries revealed that though citizens support democracy, a slim majority is willing to endorse a military coup if elected leaders abuse their power. As a number of West African nations grapple with this dilemma, some wonder whether longtime Cameroonian leader Paul Biya might face the same fate.
The Afrobarometer survey of 36 African countries found that two thirds of people – 66 percent – say they want democracy, while 67 percent disapprove of military rule.
But 53 percent would support a military coup if they felt elected leaders abused their power.
Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon have all recently witnessed military coups seemingly supported by the people.
Tim Zajontz, a lecturer in international relations at Dresden University of Technology in Germany and researcher at the Centre for International and Comparative Politics at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, says the fact that most of these coups are happening in French-speaking African nations suggests that French colonial influence and its neo-colonial policies have made democratic change harder to come by.
“In West and Central Africa we have seen similar developments and a kind of domino effect whereby segments of the armed forces turned against the civilian leadership, in some cases with significant popular backing,” Zajontz told RFI.
“Russian interference has surely contributed to this domino effect.
“The neo-colonial entanglements which the French government has maintained since the formal independence of these countries have certainly contributed to the weak consolidation and legitimacy of democratic state institutions in this part of Africa.”
This apparent support for coups doesn’t imply that people have lost faith in democracy.
“The coups and the related crisis of democracy in the region is a long-term result of colonialism and Africa’s continuous disadvantageous integration into the global economy,” Zajontz says, adding that unconstitutional changes of government show that democratic governance remains an “elusive idea”.
This is especially true in contexts where state institutions lack the capacity or the willingness to provide basic services and public goods to the people.
Cameroonian professor of political science Immanuel Tatah Mentan suggests that people’s patience has been worn thin by years of foreign interference.
“The notoriety of military takeovers in francophone Africa is simply due to the rise of political consciousness,” Mentan told RFI.
“The hybrid totalitarianism imposed by France using the puppet regimes has stretched the people beyond tolerance,” he said, arguing that France continues to exploit its former African colonies.
“Can you imagine $500 billion yearly that France milks from francophone African states? These states can’t buy sophisticated technology for development because France has their foreign reserves held up in the French treasury,” Mentan claimed.
Fragmented armed forces
When it comes to Cameroon, the Afrobarometer poll suggests that 66 percent of citizens would be supportive of a military takeover should the country’s leaders abuse their power. Meanwhile 33 percent said the military should never take over.
The results seem to suggest growing frustration over President Paul Biya’s time in office. Biya came to power in 1982 and has survived two coups.
One of the reasons Biya has been able to hang on to his position over the years is because he deliberately split up the country’s armed forces into separate branches as a preventive measure, says the Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI), a South Africa-based Catholic group.
The country has the gendarmerie, the regular army and the National Presidential Guard as well as the Rapid Intervention Brigade, known by its French acronym BIR.
Coupled with recent adjustments in the leadership of the defence sector, Biya has cancelled out any possibility of a military coup taking place in Cameroon any time soon, the DHPI said in a recent analysis.
“Paul Biya will continue wielding power until a different strategy is devised to unseat him,” it concluded.
Political scientist Mentan agrees a coup is not on the cards in Cameroon, but for different reasons.
He told RFI that he doesn’t consider the military to be driven by patriotism because it tends to be divided along ethnic lines, obeying its commanders rather than serving a nation.
“The military in Cameroon is not to serve but to torture, oppress and extort from the poor. How can such haters of the people suddenly become their protectors?” he asks.
“Finally, the military in Cameroon is not trained in leadership. How can such people govern?
“These are my reasons for not being supportive of a military takeover in Cameroon.”