Are Coups d’Etat Making a Comeback?

Last Tuesday 12 March, in Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, an elected President resigned under pressure from the opposition with the support of the armed forces, and a young pretender Andry Rajoelina succeeded him. Which ever way you look at it, it has the hallmarks of a coup d’etat.

On 2 March in Guinea Bissau President Joao Bernardo Vieira, who was more referred to by his romantic alias, Nino, was assassinated moments after his nemesis the army chief, General Tagme Na Waie was also assassinated. It was not the people but the army who decided who took over–precisely, an army coup since the president’s assassination was a retaliatory act, a climax of the power game between him and the army chief.

Last year, on 6 August, General General Mohammed Abdelaziz, chief of the presidential guard, overthrew the elected government of Sidi Mohammed Ould Sheik Abdallai in Mauritania. Up to today, General Abdelaziz is the “˜His Excellency’ par excellence.

Putting the above in context, we have had three coups in just eight months, an average of one every three months, never mind that there have been two in the month of March 2009 alone. This is not a record to be proud of given the fact that current African economic and development woes are in a large part to be blamed on unconstitutional means by which governments have been changed on the continent the past fifty years.

From the late 1990s through the early 2000s, there was a sense of fatigue on the continent from coups d’etats and they had become tasteless. The then Organisation of African Unity (OAU), had made it clear that coups plotters were no longer welcome and that lack of appetite among people and leaders, was un mistakable.

But alas, old habits die hard, in 2009, when we would have been celebrating our victory against the coup demons, they have instead come back to haunt us with a vengeance. Afro-pessimists must be having a triumphal laugh at our expense, thinking how vindicated they have been.

Clearly, these recent steps backwards do not invalidate the so many positive strides Africa has taken so far however, as in the words of that Kenyan pan Africanist, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, it is Not Yet Uhuru (the struggle is not yet over)

A number of factors explain the persistent culture of coups d’etats in Africa:

One the army, to be specific the armed struggle played a very important role in ridding Africa of colonialism and from then on the army became an agent of change. When this patriotic mission was accomplished, instead of retiring the army to the barracks, Post-colonial African leaders used the same army to carry out their narcissistic projects be it over throwing the constitution or disappearing political opponents. The army was successful in many of these projects where politicians would not, by themselves. In the process, the army gained on-the-job experience of overthrowing the existing order and the next phase would be continuing the same but this time, not for the politicians but against the politicians. Politicians have been guilty accomplices in grooming the monster. A good example is Uganda where, Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote used Colonel Idi Amin to over throw the President, King Edward Mutesa in 1966, abrogate the Lancaster House independence constitution and to declare Uganda a one Party state and himself, Obote, the President. Five years later Amin did it to him and thereafter Uganda became one of the coups d’etats laboratories on the continent;

Two, a majority of African governments elected or dictatorial, do not make it a priority to address the problems affecting the people. There is always a big disconnect between what the government stands for, and the daily afflictions of its people. As a result, people do not invest in the survival of their government. So, when soldiers overthrow an elected government, the people do not feel the loss therefore rarely the need to protest. To the people, the government and the army generals are in their own class of the privileged as opposed to them, the “˜wretched of the earth’.

Three, the concept of national security in majority African countries is actually synonymous with government security and the perceived threat, you guessed right””is the people. Security forces in Africa, are still a source of insecurity as opposed to being a source of security. Since colonial days when the army and police were created for the purpose of protecting the colonial government and enforcing its unpopular rule respectively, nothing much has changed since. Police forces themselves feel as their occupational obligation to protect the government of the day from the people. That is why they do not hesitate to shoot unarmed demonstrators with live bullets.

Even in countries claiming to have dismantled the colonial army and built “˜national’ or “˜peoples’ army, in Uganda for example (and its erstwhile co-members in the “˜beacon of hope axis’), it is not lost to anybody that the army owes its loyalty to its creator and it knows its importance too, in the political equation.

Four, the democratic culture in Africa is still very limited without state institutions that are respectable enough to withstand political upheavals. In western Europe, or in America however unpopular a leader is or his government, the opposition will use whatever constitutional means are available impeachment for instance, or wait for the next election to have a chance to get rid of an unpopular leade . Remember Dubya? He is gone, really gone. The point is, no politician thinks of appealing to the army to help him get rid of his opponent however detestable he may be.

Democratically elected governments may not live up to expectations in fact, it would be a fallacy to expect such from a government but, what they provide is certainty. People know precisely for how long they are stuck with a leader and when next, they will get a chance to dump him or re-elect him. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.

In a situation where you have not the slightest idea when you will ever get a chance to get new leadership since even those elected with term limits, more often than not, will manipulate the political process through changing the law to enable them stay in power after their constitutional terms, it is a tempting thought to have the help from the men in uniform to throw the incumbent out.

The African Union and the different regional groups such as Southern African Development Community (SADC), East African Community, Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) and others have always expressed discontent against putchists. Their discontent though, lacks conviction and putchists know it very well. They play the waiting game. They entrench themselves, promise elections in a short time, which elections turn out to be nothing but a self cleansing exercise. Down the road these are the leaders who are supposed to come out in defense of legitimate government when faced with coups d’etats. It is a vicious circle and difficult to tell the beginning point from the end.

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6 thoughts on “Are Coups d’Etat Making a Comeback?

  1.  I believe that all of the above exposed arguments are correct: in many African countries one or more of those factors are actually increasing the chance of a coup.
    Many other factors could be added: nevertheless one of the most important is the influence of other governments over the destiny of African countries.
    United States, France, China (and UK, Korea, India,… even Italy !) are determined to put all of their effort to modify and orient African governments behaviour. They openly declare they want sustain their strategical companies (petrol or mining or food companies) and/or modify geopolitical equilibrium in the area.
    Guinea Bissau case may be different but it is well known that this country is the most important base for drugs trafficking.
    In Madagascar on the contrary we can find the old diplomatic competition between USA and France.
    On one side USA suspended non-humanitarian aid to Madagascar and offered protection to former president Ravalonama.
    On the other side France hosted Ratsiraka (former Ravalonama opponent) which is now supporting Rajoelina, and – what’s more – they remained silent, clearly showing their approval to the new situation.
    France’s foreign ministry only said the 24-month deadline Rajoelina has pledged for holding fresh elections was “too long”.
    “Non declared” war between RD Congo a Rwanda is similar: USA are strongly backing Rwanda regime while France has lost all of his previous influence over the country (language included, now English is preferred to French). The want to be sure that the enormous mineral resources of Congo will not fall in the wrong hands (Russia and China, for example)
    It is not different in Sudan: USA and EU believe that a “reduced” Sudan (deprived of Darfur and/or South Regions) could lead to a reduced Chinese oil supply in this country.
    We cannot answer this question but is indeed useful to ask ourself : how many African coups could be avoided without this hidden diplomatic activities ?

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  3. While the examples cited justify concern and remedial actions from both the national parties and African institutions such as the AU, it is also important to note that constitutional transfer of power is establishing itself across the continent. Also noteworthy is that constitutional arrangements that make politics safer are increasingly the outcome of inclusive political dialogue and settlement. The question then, should be what kind of constitutional processes would assist citizens in Mauritania, Guinea and Madagascar to adopt and effect viable constitutional norms and power structures? 

  4. the fact that military coups have increased in number and frequency in recent years in sub-Saharan Africa is undoubted. But it is necessary to analyse both the nature of the governments they have overthrown and their own characteristics. Many so-called democratic governments have come to power through flawed electoral processes and/or when in power have become increasingly authoritiarian and repressive – these might be called ‘false democracies’. Often the coups have been carried out by officers committed to ‘cleansing elite politics’ - reducing corruption and restoring ‘proper’ democracy within a given period. This is the case, in my view, in Mauritania ( 2005 and 2008) and in Niger (2010). It is unfortunate that such interventions are required but until so-called democracies act to some extent at least on behalf of the people they will be prone to such interventions, given the general weakness of those organisations of civil society that generally serve the interests of ordinary people, eg trades unions, progressive political parties, etc

    prof. seddon  

  5. My heart goes out to the peoples of Africa and the situation that they find themselves in.  How do you get a government of the people with the military supporting the groups in power and killing off any of the opposition.  The people should band together but that is difficult to do because most are afraid and rightly so.  My prayers go out to them.

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