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.