Barry McNamara  |  Published September 13, 2023

Coups in Africa

Political science professor Michael Nelson says U.S. is closely watching the events, which have escalated in the past few years. 

MONMOUTH, Ill. – If a government falls in Africa, does it make a sound in the United States?

MICHAEL NELSON: Prior to joining the faculty at Monmouth, the political science professor was cha... MICHAEL NELSON: Prior to joining the faculty at Monmouth, the political science professor was chair of the African Studies Department at Wesleyan College in Connecticut.The answer, said Monmouth College professor of political science Michael Nelson, is a definitive, “Yes.”

Prior to joining Monmouth’s faculty in 2017, Nelson served as chair of the African Studies Department at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He was asked to comment on the recent surge of coups in Africa, including one last month in Gabon, where the ruling family of the past 55 years was ousted by the military.

The successful coup followed a failed attempt there in 2019. In between, there have also been coups in the African countries of Niger, Burkino Faso, Sudan, Guinea and Mali.

“There are more potential sources of help in the international community – countries like Russia and China – to give assistance to coup leaders than there were 10 years ago,” said Nelson, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the African nation of Ghana from 1997-99. “And that’s a challenge for the United States. We’re unhappy that we’re seeing a reverse of what had been trends toward democracy. Do we stand on principle to prevent the new regimes with the reins of power from aligning with Russia, or do we say, ‘We’ll recognize your government,’ because we don’t want to lose our influence in the region?”

The cause of the coups

Nelson noted there were also a number of coups in Africa in the 1960s, but that the political landscape had stabilized as the 21st century began.

“In the early 2000s, it seemed that the coups in Africa were in decline due to positive momentum toward democratization and to economic growth,” he said. “The views on what was happening in Africa were extremely positive. But then we had the so-called ‘COVID-era coups,’ which are not related to COVID – that’s just when they happened.”

“Do we stand on principle to prevent the new regimes with the reins of power from aligning with Russia, or do we say, ‘We’ll recognize your government,’ because we don’t want to lose our influence in the region?” Michael Nelson

Nelson said a number of factors contributed to what he called that “unfortunate increase in the number of coups in Africa, concentrated in a belt that follows the Sahel.”

Some of those factors were problems related to the economy, high increases in poverty and “generally low levels of human development, in areas such as high infant mortality rates.” He said “religious extremism” is also to blame in some countries, with factors that even pre-date 9/11.

Be careful what you wish for

In their eagerness to bring in new leadership without an election, some of the African nations received a rude awakening, as a change to military rule didn’t make matters any better.

“The Wagner Group does not have a good record,” said Nelson, referring to the private military company that has become involved in several of the new governments, including Mali and Sudan. “Violence has actually risen in Mali.”

Although the cluster of coups has caught the attention of the United States and the world, Nelson wanted to stress that the affected region is just a small portion of the African continent.

“It’s really easy to see the negative press about politics in Africa because of the coups. But there are other countries where the governments are running well. Ghana is an example of that.” Michael Nelson

“I would remind people that there are a significant number of countries in Africa – 54 countries – and not all of them are experiencing coups,” he said. “It’s really easy to see the negative press about politics in Africa because of the coups. But there are other countries where the governments are running well. Ghana is an example of that, with a political system that’s similar to ours. They have a party that leans conservative and a party that leans liberal, and they go back and forth in terms of political power.”

Immersed in African culture

Nelson’s expertise on Africa has led to consulting work for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and for the U.S. government on global food politics, economic development and China’s role in Africa.

He’s also published the book, African Coalitions and Global Economic Governance, based on his doctorate research at the University of California-Berkeley, and served as editor for the African Politics Conference Group Newsletter for four years.

Next year, a book chapter by Nelson titled “Ghana: Continuity Among Democratic Elites” will appear in the book Political Identity and African Foreign Policies, edited by John Clark.

“I hadn’t thought of going to West Africa before, but it sounded interesting, so I went,” he said of his Peace Corps stint. “I made a lot of friends, and I learned a lot living there and experiencing the people and the culture. When I went to graduate school, I decided to focus on African politics. I have always been interested in understanding how and why different parts of the world get along with each other, with the challenges of poverty and inequality, and with the incredible varieties of cultures.”

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