IN 2021, coups d’état ousted four heads of state in sub-Saharan Africa. Army interventions in Chad, Mali, Guinea and Sudan halted a years-long decline in military takeovers. Some heralded this as the comeback of the army in African politics.
Elsewhere in Africa, elected leaders in Tunisia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, among others, were accused of pivoting to authoritarian rule. Common authoritarian measures include suspending parliamentary assemblies, confining opposition leaders, extending term limits and violently repressing opposition and dissent.
Here lies an apparent paradox: despite decades in which democratic institutions have become prevalent across the continent, African states continue to be vulnerable to military takeovers and autocratic forms of power.
Multiple interpretations aim to explain this seeming contradiction. A popular explanation suggests that the world, and especially Africa, is entering a new phase of ‘democratic backsliding’. This follows a decades-long era during which several leaders were ousted by popular movements.
Nowhere was this more evident than in North Africa. Here, the democratic aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring were overshadowed by a return to authoritarianism and conflict.
Yet, in many of Africa’s competitive autocracies, the removal of leaders is not associated with revolutionary change. In fact, there is a remarkable stability of senior elites and institutional practices across regimes. This seems to point to their resilience in the face of a supposed trajectory towards democracy.
The literature on political survival provides a more compelling narrative to explain political change in competitive autocracies. A leader’s survival is conditioned on the support of senior elites.
Leaders can typically spread power among their ‘rival allies’ to keep it and co-opt enough of those elites in exchange for political support.
These actors can in turn leverage their collective power to secure greater influence and rewards from the centre. The concept of a ‘political marketplace’ has aptly captured the transactional nature of regime strategies to determine association, loyalty and alliances with senior elites.
Drawing on these insights, our recently published paper seeks to explain political change in African competitive autocracies using the notion of ‘regime cycles’.
This framework, which produced rich insights into the failed democratization processes of the post-communist states during the 1990s, suggests that elites must act collectively if they are to challenge the leader, identifying four stages within a regime cycle.
Our research seeks to explain political change in African autocracies by looking at the role of political elites, focusing on cycles of power between a leader and their rivals which determine their survival. In doing so, we propose an alternative conceptual framework to interpret dynamics of change in African autocracies.
Four stages of the autocratic regime cycle
Each stage of the cycle is determined by the nature of contestation between the incumbent and senior elites. The balance of power between these actors varies in each stage, according to the level of fragmentation of authority within and across those groups.
The four stages are accommodation, consolidation, factionalisation and crisis. But they do not necessarily follow a chronological order.
During the accommodation phase, leaders build coalitions by distributing rents and authority among senior elites. The intention of this stage is to reward loyalists and co-opt prospective allies. The incentive is integration and inclusion.
The narrowing of competitive influences leads to the consolidation stage. The leader seeks to assert authority over a coalition of ‘rival allies’. This phase coincides with the height of a leader’s authority, where the threat of being removed is lowest.
At this stage, the leader may be perceived to be excessively centralising power. One sign is, for example, replacing security chiefs with loyalists. This may be a threat to other elites. Senior elites may organise along factional lines to create opposition within the regime. This creates factions.
Factions can consist of rival senior elites, who tactically join forces to get the leader to spread power. The intention is not to depose the leader or split the regime, but rather to bargain the terms of inclusion. Leaders also use disorder to try to prevent elite cooperation to lessen the strength of senior elite coalitions.
However, a crisis may occur when factions decide to take advantage of a critical juncture to forcibly reshuffle the ruling coalition. The jostling for power among senior elites typically leads to such crisis moments. This can result in military takeovers, forced resignations, constitutional coups or power-sharing agreements.
Regime crises reshape the existing power structures by disposing of the old leader. They also reshuffle senior elites into a narrow ruling coalition.
Culmination of ripened factionalism
In our paper, we apply these observations to the removal of three of the longest-serving heads of state in Africa.
Between 2017 and 2019, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe were ousted after a combined 90 years in power. Our analysis shows that their removal was the culmination of ripened factionalism. In each case, this had blossomed after the leaders’ attempts to centralise power. It was not a direct consequence of mass protests and economic downturns.
Senior military and security elites took advantage of the crisis moment to dispose of the leaders and their loyalists and reshuffle the regime. Naturally, they were once regime insiders and allies of the ageing autocrats. Stages of accommodation, consolidation, factionalisation and crisis preceded and followed the removal according to a cyclical logic.
Our analysis emphasises elite dynamics over the role of mass protests and popular opposition. True popular demonstrations can spark crises within a regime. But leaders and senior elites are more likely to produce significant and durable changes.
Democratic breakthroughs cannot be ruled out. But they are typically the product of a political stalemate. They are not ideological preferences or public appeals for political change.
The forceful removals observed in 2021 seem to conform to this cyclical logic of political change. Senior elites took advantage of a crisis moment to seize power and reconfigure the regime to their own advantage.