Exceptional Circumstances and Coups d'Etat
I live in a West African city where dark wraparound sunglasses have become very expensive, if you can find them at all. That is because young men are copying the major style statement of their new head of state. His first act upon taking power in a coup d’état was to suspend the republican institutions (National Assembly, Supreme Court, the standing ministries) and to ban all political party, trade union and spontaneous political activities. Still, he was introduced from the second day of the junta’s existence as ‘Le Président de la République‘.
The coup followed the long-awaited death of the president, who had ruled, disastrously, for 24 years. Although in the last three years of his life he was said to drift in and out of diabetic comas, he was unwilling either to quit power or to delegate it. Although pillage of the state’s patrimony began in the 1990’s, it became vertiginous in the last years of the former president’s life, when no one was minding the shop. About four years ago, the Central Bank was reportedly emptied of all its foreign currency reserves. Since the national currency has little value in any other country, government officials were forced to go to the market to buy dollars and Euros from the money changers. Two of those accused of stealing from the Central Bank were arrested, but while they awaited trial, the former president arrived and demanded that his two close friends be released at once. The next day, the president announced, ‘I am the government, I am justice’ in this country. This event sparked a 19-day general strike that shut down both formal and informal sectors. About two weeks into the strike, a protest march was met by soldiers who opened fire into the unarmed crowd killing 120 and wounding over 1,000. Security forces killed another 60 to 70 civilians in the weeks after, using a ‘state of siege’ as license for rape, armed robbery, and looting.
In this situation of near-total collapse of the state, many (though not all) welcomed the military takeover. As I talked with people, they often identified several reasons why they supported the coup, if only as the lesser evil. First, it was bloodless. Everyone here recognizes that deepening impoverishment, recent wars in neighboring countries, and ethnic polarization caused by the former president’s divide and rule strategies had rendered the country exceptionally fragile. Second, they are happy that it was a lower ranks coup, which ushered in a new generation of younger officers, and hopefully some younger civilians, too. Thirdly, they are pleased that the younger generation, though ascendant, has treated their elders with respect, forgoing such iconoclastic gestures as taking central figures from the last regime out to the beach and shooting them, as putschistes of a previous generation did.
These are, however, short-term calculations. Trade unionists, NGO heads and other ‘civil society’ leaders quickly squandered both legitimacy and leverage by welcoming the putschistes and acting as their advocates to skeptical donors, diplomats, and the diaspora population. In a country that has known only two authoritarian leaders in 50 years of independence, this is not surprising: civil society has never had the opportunity to exercise its role as a contre-pouvoir, no matter how many USAID-funded seminars its members have attended. In retrospect, even the cataclysmic general strike and demonstrations of two years ago now appear as if they took place as much in spite of as because of civil society leadership. Contributing to this structural issue is the fact that the intelligentsia of the country remains convinced that its history is sui generis, and that the various international bodies that have condemned the coup have done so largely out of a failure to appreciate the local particularities of the situation.
In this situation absolutely everyone shares two points of orientation. First, everyone (local and expatriate) agrees that the state has been utterly run into the ground, that the judicial and legislative systems are deeply dysfunctional, and that grand theft and mismanagement have left the country’s political economy in shambles. Second, everyone agrees that large-scale violence in some form (popular uprisings, civil war, counter coup) is a real risk, and that all must be done to avoid this. The unanimity ends here, however. Is the best way out of a situation of illegality an attempt to use the moment of rupture to begin the first small steps back towards legality, or is it the time to ‘take the plunge’ into full illegality, making a dramatic break with the past, and giving a (hopefully) benign dictator exceptional powers to make exceptional (and rapid) reforms? Is the avoidance of violence at all costs in the short term setting up a situation that is more likely to devolve into violence in the medium to long term?
I write this entry to pose several questions, rather than try to answer them: How can we take into account the particularities of a country and also the predictability of experiences from other countries in roughly comparable situations? How can we take seriously local actors’ just concerns with short-term considerations while underlining the medium-to-long term risks being built into the situation by present compromises? How should donors navigate between the Scylla of pulling the plug on all economic assistance and risking economic and social implosion, and the Charybdis of pumping just enough money into the system so that it continues to limp along, forestalling the advent of real change? Lastly, while everyone agrees that violence is to be avoided if at all possible, is it realistic to hope for real structural transformation without violence? It was not so long ago that many intellectuals and activists accepted that such transformations required a degree of violent upheaval. Are we sufficiently self-aware of the ways in which our epistemic stance has shifted so as to preclude violence as a legitimate means of political change?