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A surge in the number of military coups that have brought down democratic governments across Africa can be traced to China’s rising regional and global influence, according to regional experts, who also blame successive U.S. administrations for failing to develop a more coherent strategy for investing in and bolstering democracy on the continent.
Seven coups and coup attempts over the past two years — the highest rate in more than four decades — have put power-thirsty military cliques in control of such resource-rich nations as Chad, Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Guinea, while unsuccessful coups occurred in Guinea-Bissau and Niger.

Analysts point to a range of root causes, including ethnic and sectarian divisions in several of the countries at play, as well as corruption and mismanagement by civilian governments and weak or corrupted civil institutions in countries where democracies had been struggling to gain a foothold.

However, there is also the less-publicized China-Russia factor. A push for influence and profits from the two authoritarian governments has directly boosted anti-democratic forces in a number of vulnerable African countries.

“China has created a permission structure for coup plotters in Africa because plotters know Russia and China will work together to stop any sanctions the United Nations Security Council might try to impose on the plotter as punishment for carrying out a coup,” said  Joseph Sany, who heads the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace.

“China and Russia have veto power on the Security Council, so in this way they have helped to create a climate of impunity and therefore an opening for any potential coup plotters who may be out there in these African countries,” Mr. Sany told The Washington Times in an interview.

While the extent to which such dynamics may or may not be motivating coup plotters to act, there is little question that both China and Russia have used their veto power to shield and curry favor with regimes that have swept to power via a coup over the past two years.

One of the more prominent examples has involved the military junta that seized power two nearly years ago in Mali. In late 2021, Beijing and Moscow blocked proposed U.N. sanctions against the junta, after its leaders had failed to follow through on a vow to hold elections and return Mali to civilian rule.

But it is not clear that China and Russia stand to benefit from perpetuating the chaotic military government now in control of the former French colony, home to untapped gold, uranium and copper reserves but which has been split by militant and Islamic extremist insurgencies during recent decades.

Coups like the one in Mali in 2020, — the country’s second seizure of power in a decade — rarely bring about the kind of stability necessary for such resources to be tapped in a way that might generate economic stability, analysts say.

“In many cases…coups further undermine stability because military leaders who stage them often fail to enact meaningful reforms, either due to their lack of experience governing or from a desire to maintain power once they have seized it,” William A. Taylor, who wrote the 2018 book “Contemporary Security Issues in Africa,” said in an email.

“Coups can result in political assassinations, ethno-religious violence, and even civil wars,” said Mr. Taylor, who teaches at Angelo State University in Texas. He also stressed that the “specific causes of any particular coup d’etat are complex, especially in Africa.”

“While each instance is unique in circumstances, one common trait often stands out as a root cause — poor governance,” Mr. Taylor said. “When state institutions fail, military coups can arise to challenge the existing regime. In that sense, the current upsurge in coups is a symptom of a pervasive lack of viable democratic institutions.”

The surge in coups has caught the U.S. flat-footed, according to some experts, who say the former Trump administration’s often confrontational rhetoric on foreign policy did not resonate well across Africa, while the Biden administration has mainly paid lip service to the plight of democracy on the continent while offering little concrete assistance.

Outpaced by China?

Christopher Rhodes, an Africa expert who lectures at Harvard and Boston University, has argued Washington’s failure to call out Egypt’s military coup in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, when a democratically elected government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted, contributed to a subsequent breakdown of a post-Cold War “anti-coup consensus” in Africa.

“Local populations have upheld their end of the bargain, as have regional blocs like the African Union,” Mr. Rhodes wrote in an op-ed published last year by Al Jazeera. “But the international environment has returned to one that is, at best, permissive of military takeovers, and at worst, actively welcomes them as expedient ways to remove threatening or odious leaders.”

“Backsliding on the part of Western powers, and the rise of autocrat-friendly China, have created an atmosphere that emboldens generals and military cliques to seize power,” wrote Mr. Rhodes, who added that the breakdown of the anti-coup coalition has “led to military interventions re-emerging as a leading method by which power is transferred on the continent.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted the trend in a major speech during a November 2021 visit to Africa, but focused the bulk of his remarks on Africa’s potential as an emerging global economic power.

“This is a continent of young people — energized, innovative, hungry for jobs and opportunity,” Mr. Blinken said. “By 2025, more than half the population of Africa will be under age 25. By the year 2050, one in four people on Earth will be African.”

“When the 54-country African Continental Free Trade Area is fully implemented, it will comprise the fifth-largest economic bloc in the world, representing a huge source of jobs, consumers, innovation, and power to shape the global economy,” the secretary of state said.

However, he had little to announce in the way of new U.S. initiatives for backing democracy in Africa or channeling money toward infrastructure investment — the latter of which has been a mainstay of China’s growing influence on the continent.

Beijing has given out hundreds of billions of dollars in loans for infrastructure projects in African countries as part of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” financing initiative.

U.S. officials have criticized the Chinese program as “predatory,” with the goal of burdening economically weaker nations with debt that might later be relieved in exchange for Chinese government access to natural resources and other forms of influence.

But Washington has struggled to offer concrete alternatives. The Trump administration ushered in reforms that saw the creation of a new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), backed with $60 billion to inspire private investment in developing countries worldwide.

The Group of Seven leading industrial nations — the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom — have separately announced the “Build Back Better World” (B3W) initiative, also with the goal of inspiring investment.

‘A complex link’

The Biden administration often references B3W. Mr. Blinken raised it in his Africa speech last year. But it remains to be seen whether the White House has the geopolitical capital to steer the initiative toward tangible results.

The Institute of Peace’s Mr. Sany said neither the Trump administration nor the Biden administration have done enough to spur investment in Africa that could help democratic countries fend off coups by military junta’s likely to seek loans and partnerships with autocratic powers like China and Russia.

“We have dropped the ball unfortunately,” he told The Times, adding that while Washington is active in terms of military-to-military relations with African nations and offers more aid than anyone else to the continent, overall U.S. diplomatic and economic engagement lags in comparison to what China has done over the past decade.

“There is a complex link between military engagement, diplomatic engagement, economic engagement and investments where China has been effective,” Mr. Sany said. “They have a strong command and control, that is the nature of the regime in China.”

China routinely tops annual rankings of the biggest outside investors in the continent, and its money is paying off in influence, according to Phebe Wilson-Andoh in a research paper last month for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“In 2020, nearly one-third of infrastructure projects in Africa worth at least $50 million were built by Chinese companies. In addition, China is, in many areas, replacing the United States and Europe as trade partners with Africa,” she wrote. “Beijing has translated China’s growing economic footprint in Africa into geopolitical influence.”

Africa, she added, “has a wealth of economic opportunities for those nations willing to put in the effort. With its flair for bilateral and multilateral diplomacy and a long track record of attempting to forge meaningful relationships with African states, China has in many places supplanted the United States and Europe, at least in the minds of the leadership elites of many African countries.”

In contrast, Mr. Sany said, Washington has struggled to forge the kind of inter-agency coordination needed to have a more positive impact on Africa, he said, adding that the $60 billion put forward DFC is a good start, but it pales in comparison to the hundreds of billions in loans, grants and contracts that have been doled out by Beijing.

“We have to leverage the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund,” he said, adding that the moment to compete with China in Africa is now, but that it “takes strategic vision and leadership — it takes a coherent Africa policy from the U.S.”

He stressed that polling shows “African populations still identify with the values the U.S. stands [for], including rule of law and transparency.”

“We are losing time,” he said, “but it’s not too late.”

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