YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – While acknowledging that a recent wave of military takeovers across Africa often have drawn strong popular support as an expression of “deep-seated frustration” over corruption and injustice, the continent’s Catholic bishops nevertheless have reaffirmed their support for democracy and opposition to coups.
“There might be queries regarding our stance on coups d’etat. Principally, we stand opposed to coups d’etat, a position that aligns with the teachings of the Church, which firmly rejects the seizure of power through force,” the bishops said.
“The Church advocates for democracy, ‘a system that facilitates citizen participation in political decision-making and ensures that the governed have the ability to select, oversee, and, when necessary, peacefully replace their leaders’,” they said, citing the 1991 encyclical of Pope John Paul II Centesimus Annus.
The comments came in a Nov. 23 statement from the Symposium of Episcopal Conference of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), the continental organization of Catholic bishops on the continent.
Since 2020, at least a dozen coup d’états have taken place in West and Central Africa. Eight were successful, while others either failed or spiraled into conflict.
The latest was in Gabon, when a group of young military officers appeared on national television and announced that they had taken power from Ali Bongo Ondimba, who had just claimed victory in re-election for a third term. The new leader promised a short-term transitional period that will end with the organization of free, fair and transparent elections, and the return of power to civilian rule.
Similar coups also took place in Niger, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Guinea, Chad and Mali, and with similar commitments.
The current wave of coups in Africa is significantly different from those that took place shortly after independence, according to Africa’s Catholic bishops.
“These occurrences contrast with the coups of the 1970s and 1980s, where the aim was predominantly the acquisition and prolonged retention of power,” the bishops said.
“The recent coups are characterized by a somewhat messianic intent, purportedly aimed at liberating the populace from injustices and terminating the monopoly of national wealth by entrenched ‘political dynasties’ and their international allies,” the bishops said following a standing committee meeting and celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the Pan-African Episcopal Committee for Social Communications (CEPACS) that took place in Lagos, Nigeria.
The members of SECAM noted that the current wave of coups has enjoyed popular support, with the population viewing the takeovers as “an expression of deep-seated frustration and anger towards longstanding injustices.”
According to the polling agency Afrobarometer, the coup in Mali in 2020 came as a relief to as many as 82 percent of the population who had lost faith in the leadership of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.
In Burkina Faso, the ouster of President Roch Kabore was welcomed by youthful crowds with chants of “what we want.”
In contrast with earlier coups that were usually violent, resulting in bloodshed and generalized panic, and usually led by older soldiers, the current coups have been largely peaceful, devoid of bloodshed, and have been generally led by younger soldiers, lower in rank.
The bishops said the events have prompted a critical reevaluation of the longstanding geopolitical strategies imposed on African nations, particularly those rich in natural resources.
“This shift marks a significant turning point in the political landscape of Africa, especially in the Sahel and Central African regions,” the statement reads.
The bishops nevertheless clarified that they opposed military takeovers, maintaining that democracy is still the best form of government.
“While acknowledging that democracy is not flawless, it is our belief that compared to other forms of governance, democracy is preferable. This preference is rooted in its fundamental commitment to upholding and defending human rights,” they said.
They said however that certain situations, like those in the Sahel and Central Africa, call for “discernment.”
The statement said the Church is deeply concerned about the well-being of the people in the regions where interim governments have been formed after the recent coups d’etats. It also said that it recognizes the legitimate desires of these populations for improved living conditions and governance.
The statement added that the Church commits itself to endorsing and supporting positive developments in these nations, aiming to foster a transition towards genuine democracy.
“In light of this, we urge political leaders, stakeholders, and civil society groups to engage in collective and proactive efforts. This collaboration is crucial to avoid potential pitfalls, such as prolonging the period of democratic transition unduly.”
The clerics declared that they were keeping a close eye on upcoming elections across the continent. They did not name a nation, but a cursory glance at the electoral map reveals that four nations — the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Madagascar, and Togo — have elections set for this December alone. Elections are scheduled for next year in 19 countries across the continent.
“From our deliberations, it has become apparent that some of these elections are seemingly orchestrated to favor state-backed candidates, thereby undermining the democratic process,” the bishops said.
“On this matter, various episcopal conferences have voiced their concerns. We align ourselves with the stance taken by the CENCO (Episcopal Conference of Congo), which has stated: “The stability of our country and the well-being of its people hinge significantly on the conduct of free, inclusive, transparent, and peaceful elections.”
They claimed that by holding these elections, the threat of military takeovers would be reduced and legitimately elected leaders would be free to focus on resolving issues that affect ordinary people.