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Africa: A complex trajectory and legacy of military coups

18 Sep 2021 at 18:49hrs | Views
FOR their spectacular nature, coups always appear like new phenomena when actually they are an old military and political issue that dates back to the genesis of humanity.

It is like that in the affairs of nations that if power cannot be negotiated, navigated or shared amicably, it is grabbed by brute force. The only surprising thing in Africa is that we continue to be surprised when another coup is sprung up by the soldiery in one country.

As of our habit, eyebrows were rightfully raised when news broke that on the morning of 5 September 2021 one Colonel Mamady Doumbouya in Guinea Conakry had commanded some special forces to shoot their way into the palace of President Alpha Condé, laid a siege and held him hostage before announcing the dissolution of the constitution and that of government.

In short, a military coup had taken place and soldiers led by Doumbouya had seized state power. More alarming were pictures of a subdued Condé, the Lion of Conakry, sitting on a couch behind some dangerous-looking members of the crack special forces armed with automatic rifles and brandishing grenades on their waists.

Few things look as compromised and pathetic as a strongman a dictator; that has been toppled, shattering their myth of invincibility and delusions of grandeur. The once mighty ruler of Guinea looked scared, shabby and hungry even – right in his palace.

As a matter of routine, African multilateral organisations condemned the coup and demanded calm and a return to the constitutional order in Guinea. Enchanted by sudden and radical political change, scores of the people of Guinea poured into the streets to loot some shops and celebrate the fall of Condé who is accused of personalising power, enriching himself and his family as well as his cronies with the natural resources of the country, while the populace suffocates under poverty and starvation.

Guinea is the world's biggest producer of high-grade bauxite and has huge iron ore reserves, but it has been largely unable to benefit from its mineral resources due to sustained instability, political risks and poor governance.

Guineans have experienced military rule before, and they know the consequences can be dangerous.

When president Sekou Toure died in office in 1984, a group of army officers led by Colonel Lansana Conté staged a coup. Conté declared himself president and remained in office until he died in 2008. Soon after Conté died, the military again seized power led by Captain Moussa "Dadis" Camara. He was removed from power, paving way for a democratic transition in 2010 that brought in Condé.

In 2019, Condé commandeered constitutional changes that allowed him to rule the country for a third term, a move that unsettled the political opposition, civil society and the general populace. The man, his family and friends were determined to reduce the polity and economy of the country to private property.

Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi, the current African Union chairperson, quickly wrote to the coup-makers in Guinea demanding that they release Condé and allow return to the constitutional order.

Ecowas, regional power Nigeria, the United States and United Nations also demanded the same.

Doumbouya's response to Tshisekedi was telling: "Mr President, I have followed your message asking us to release Alpha Condé, but we will not let this happen. Where were you when Alpha Condé made the population suffer, and violated the constitution that required him to serve two terms?"

Doumbouya asked Tshisekedi to check how happy the people of Guinea were about the toppling of Condé before making moralistic political suggestions. He made the point that African leaders habitually look aside when leaders of other countries clobber and immiserate their people only to spring up with some constitutional and ethical arguments when the tyrants are overcome by the soldiers with the support of the citizenry.

The relations of African leaders, true to Julius Nyerere's observation sometime ago, are still the relations of "clubs of tyrants" that are united in protecting each other from the democratic will of their people.

Doumbouya ended his message with a terse and chilling warning to Tshisekedi and other African leaders: "Likewise for you Mr President, you are a good man with a good heart, but know that the suffering of the people has no friends and respect the constitution and spare the risk of ending up as Alpha Condé and the President of Mali (Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, forced out through a coup in 2020). A soldier changes all the time. I want this message to be shared all over the world to attention to other African presidents."

My attention could not be escaped by the sound of Doumbouya who writes as if he is confident that armies in different countries of Africa will commit themselves to toppling leaders that violate constitutions and immiserate the people.

In a way, Doumbouya's response to Tshisekedi is a strong message to the AU and African leaders that the soldiery in Africa will increasingly enter politics if political leaders continue to violate constitutions, loot public coffers and persecute the populations. The trouble with coups everywhere is that they promote other coups. As images of the gigantic Doumbouya, a true African marine, circulate some soldiers in different African countries entertain mesmerising fantasies of themselves in power one day soon.

Coups are contagious.

Tyrannies continue to envelope the continent of Africa and dictators are becoming more emboldened, with the AU and its subsidiary organisations failing to grow enough teeth to protect Africans from acts of state terrorism by some African governments and their leaders.

The way Yoweri Museveni clobbered Ugandans in the January 2021 elections and the manner in which Emmerson Mnangagwa trampled on the will of Zimbabweans in the 2018 elections indicates a return to tyrannical leadership in post-colonial Africa that looks like true native colonisation of the populations of civilians that become hapless victims.

It is thus moot to ask, therefore, if military coups in Africa may be the way out where despotic leaders use force to close all the avenues of political contestation and democratic competition.

The democratic intentions of Doumbouya are yet to be seen as he continues consultations with politicians, religious leaders and business people towards a promised transitional government of national unity. Sceptics amongst some journalists, scholars and diplomats have already raised the troubling observation that the colonel engineered the coup after he picked news that he was about to be retired. So it might have been the personal fear of joblessness than democratic service to the people of Guinea that drove the soldier into coup action. Or it is otherwise the misery of the people of Guinea and his personal misery that jolted him and his forces to action? Looming redundance might just have forced the soldier to identify his pain with that of the many poor and unemployed people of Guinea. In that way, the coup impulse may be as personal as it is collective.

Another question to ask and troubling matter to ponder is if the African continent will continue to increasingly produce poor countries, failed states, tin-pot despots, and terrorist states.

That coups continue to happen in Africa is a reflection of democratic failure; closure of democratic spaces for the people, weak institutions and impoverishment of the nations.

It is no exaggeration that one of the greatest inventions of modern politics has been the practice of democratic elections where in the negotiation of political power and navigating political competition we count ballots, pieces of paper, and not dead bodies in the battlefield.

Democratic elections have taken the world out of a "state of nature" in politics where it would be a "war of all against all" in the struggle for political power. It the proverbial Hobbesian "state of nature" where life is nasty, brutish and short for everyone. That soldiers are increasingly becoming political in Africa may be understandable, but not a good sign. It is a negative sign that we might slowly, but surely be returning to some state of nature of a kind.

It is a tragedy that some Africans in certain countries, because of their authoritarian leaders, now look up to soldiers and the next coup for positive political change. That some African populations do not only welcome coups, but also find them enchanting and delighting is not a positive state of historical and political affairs.

The coup curse in Africa

Perhaps it is a truism on its own that African post-colonial countries were born and nurtured with a proneness to coups. Kwame Nkrumah, the first black president of a post-colonial African country, Ghana, was overthrown in a military coup on 24 February 1966.

Soon after the coup, Colonel Emmanuel Kotoka told the people of Ghana that "the myth surrounding Nkrumah has been broken" because he had modelled his leadership around some outlandish myths and fictions of himself as some political messiah of Africa.

As soon as African leaders settle into power and enjoy the trappings of office – including the proceeds of corruption – they suffer from delusions of grandeur and vainly fashion themselves as demigods.

Earlier on in 1964, Nkrumah had engineered constitutional amendments that enforced a one-party state in the country with him as life president of his party and the nation. He landed a heavy hand on the political opposition and civil society groups that questioned his leadership and policies.

At the time of his ouster, Nkrumah had more political prisoners than apartheid South Africa on the one hand and on the other hand he was busy organising for the United States of Africa of which he hoped to be the president. Some African historians have actually observed how the idea of the United States of Africa was resisted by some African leaders, leading to its failure.

Such influential African leaders as Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda feared that Nkrumah wanted to be the life president of the continent of Africa. Yes, there was a time many African countries feared being colonised by Ghana through the programme of the United States of Africa as the new civilising mission.

When individual leaders monopolise power and close all avenues of political contestation and competition, the political landscape in a country becomes fertile for unconstitutional regime change, sometimes at gunpoint.

There was orgasmic excitement in the streets of Ghana when Nkrumah fell from political grace to the proverbial grass. The conspirators among the soldiery, police and intelligence that engineered the overthrow of Nkrumah were later exposed to have been sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Britain and President Lyndon Johnson of the US had publicly expressed alarm at Nkrumah's communist policies and agendas that he intended to spread into a political culture in his envisaged United States of Africa. African coups are almost always domestic, regional and global phenomena. Most of the coups are manufactured in the West and or in the East, and then performed in the African continent as seemingly domestic political problems when they are global political machinations that are only playing out in unfortunate Africa. It is a lesson to be learnt that African should cultivate good governance in their countries in order to insulate themselves from toxic external political designs and infiltrations.

Is there a good coup?

In this short article, I seek to ponder the possibility and also the myth of what can be called a good coup in the African historical and political context. African populations frequently get caught up between a rock and a hard place when venal tyrants are overthrown by soldiers that go on to institute their own tyranny and sentence their countries to deeper misery.

Military coups almost always get popularly celebrated in the streets of Africa yet before the tears of joy at the fall of the dictator are dry they are quickly turned into tears of sorrow as the soldiers that initially promised reform and democratisation turn against the people, kill some and imprison others, while keeping the entire population really afraid.

We must ponder the possibility or the myth of a good coup in Africa because, as things stand, coups look like they are back as a means of regime change in Africa where incumbent regimes systematically steal elections, amend constitutions to seek the coveted third terms for sitting presidents and the prime ministers, loot national resources, and deploy state terrorism
against unarmed civilians.

When ruling cliques, their families and friends plunder public resources, monopolise economies, and conspicuously consume what belongs to the public they invite coup-thinking and subsequently coup-action from ambitious soldiers, supported by aggrieved populations and angry political activists.

The failure by African multi-lateral institutions and organisations such the AU, Southern African Development Community, East African Community and the Economic Community of West Africa to protect Africans from tyrannical governments that plunder economies and deploy state terrorism leave the people vulnerable to messianic securocrats that seize power as saviours, only to mutate into predators.

It is due to the brutal and horrific state of affairs in Africa that we even ponder the possibility of a good coup. If things political were normal and good we would be spending time and efforts evaluating the prospects of democratic political cultures, free and fair contestations in politics, and not armed seizures of power.

Once upon a coup in Lisbon

An increasing number of scholars and journalists are persuaded that there is what can be understood and embraced as a good coup. This is an interesting development because a coup is generally considered a tragic failure of politics and democracy where violence replaces dialogue and electioneering as modern means of negotiating power and changing political regimes.

The term "good coup" is therefore a paradoxical statement. But good coups have been seen before and as such almost all soldiers that seize power announce theirs to be another good coup or not a coup at all.

The 25 April 1974 coup that dethroned the Estado Novo regime in Portugal endures in history as an example of a good coup, or what is called a "guardian coup." Some have called it a "benevolent coup". A guardian or benevolent coup is an armed and unconstitutional, or extra-constitutional military takeover of state power for purposes of paving way from a tyrannical regime to a democratic dispensation.

In that kind of coup, soldiers play a facilitatory and guardian role where they seek and find power only not to keep it, but help hand it over to a democratic and civilian government. We can observe here that a good coup can only come from good soldiers. It really matters who the coup-maker is.

The 25 April Revolution in Lisbon was such a coup. It democratised Portugal by taking power from a despotic and corrupt regime and handing it over to a democratic and liberatory establishment. After being democratised thus, Portugal took an anti-colonial turn that saw the withdrawal of Portuguese colonial regimes from Guinea, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Angola in 1975. Portugal, as part of its internal and external democratisation and liberation, also withdrew its colonial administration in East Timor, SouthEast Asia.

The Portuguese coup was not only good, but it was also powerful and beautiful. A waitress in a downtown restaurant in Lisbon, Celeste Caeiro, became a colourful heroine of the revolution. As armoured tanks rolled down the streets in battle formations, she threw flowers at the soldiers who in turn inserted the carnations into the muzzles of the machine guns as a sign of loving and peaceful reluctance or refusal to shoot anyone.

The transition from tyranny to liberation was concluded without a single shot fired. The mere symbolisation of violence through a military parade in Lisbon, accompanied by some pelting with flowers, was enough to compel the tyrant and his regime to retreat and allow winds of positive change to reign.

A military parade in Lisbon led to the decolonisation of a vast swathe of the African continent. The pacifist and romantic gesture of a humble waitress had soldiers turn their machine guns into handles for roses, and still achieved radical political change.

The 26 March 1991 military coup in Mali has also gone down the pages of history as a good coup. President Moussa Traore had for two decades reduced the country to his family's personal property.

Political opponents were killed or jailed for long terms without trial. The president and his cronies owned the economy and the polity of the country. The people of Mali became lodgers in the private property of the president that was Mali.

During the coup, the conspirators jailed Moussa and eventually sentenced him to death for grand corruption and crimes against humanity in 1992. He had made himself richer than the country. Mali was peaceably ushered into a multi-party democratic system that is fragile and imperfect but real.

Another good coup happened in Niger on 18 February 2010. President Mamadou Tandja dissolved the constitution and forced a law that sought to extend his presidential term beyond the mandatory two terms. Some brave soldiers marched in and arrested Tandja who was chairing a meeting at the time.

Multi-party democratic elections were overseen by the military a few months later. Once again in Niger as it was in Portugal and Mali, soldiers had risen to defend the ordinary people and secured their democratic rights. It might be a little positive sign Doumbouya knows of and speaks of the good coup of Mali.

US scholars Joseph Wright, Barbara Geddes, Erica Frantz and George Derpanopoulos did an empirical study, Are Coups Good for Democracy, which tackles the question of "good coups".

"Good coups — or those against dictatorships that lead to democratisation — appear to have dramatically increased in number since the end of the Cold War, at least partially because of the incentives created by international pressures for democratisation. Examples include coups in Mali in 1991, Guinea Bissau in 2003, and Niger in 1999 and 2010," they wrote.

"This trend has generated arguments that coups — traditionally seen as a sign of democratic breakdown — may actually be a tool to usher in democracy. By creating a shock to the political system, the argument goes, coups can generate opportunities for political liberalisation that would otherwise be absent. As Paul Collier wrote in 2009 for the New Humanist, "coups and the threat of coups can be a significant weapon in fostering democracy".

Collier wrote In Praise of the Coup: Military Takeovers a Good Thing for African Democracy, making a case for good coups.

However, the American researchers debunked the myth of good coups.

'Good coups' may grab our attention, but the data indicate that they are not the norm. For example, though Nigerien (as in Niger not Nigerian) coups in 1999 and 2010 imposed democracy, coups in 1974 and 1996 led to the establishment of new dictatorships.

"The bad news does not end there. Using annual data on repression, we find that coups that launch new dictatorships lead to higher levels of repression in the year that follows than existed in the year leading to the coup. Moreover, in daily event data for the 49 coup attempts that have occurred since 1989, we find that there is only one case of a coup followed by a drop in state-caused civilian deaths during the subsequent 12 months.

"Though democracies are occasionally established in the wake of coups, our research indicates that more often coups initiate new dictatorships and more human rights violations."

Restore a bloody legacy

Some coups in Africa and elsewhere have been seen to attempt to invent some avenues to certain liberated and democratic futures. These are coups that attempt to cure their unconstitutionality and violence, or the threat of it, with some democratic returns for the populations.

Some have simply restored bloody and genocidal legacies that go back to settler colonialism and its modes of power and politics. The Zimbabwean coup of the 14/15 November 2017 that dethroned Robert Mugabe was such a bad and regressive coup. So regressive and bad that most Zimbabweans wish Mugabe was still alive and in power. Without a sense of irony, the soldiers named the coup Operation Restore Legacy, a name that unintendedly speaks of the restoration of genocidal and colonial politics in the country.

This coup was celebrated in every street of Zimbabwe.

Zimbabweans so wanted Mugabe gone that they forgot to look carefully at who was pushing Mugabe out and for what reason. Yet who was taking power should really have mattered to Zimbabweans. But Zimbabweans were too desperate for change after Mugabe's long years of genocidal rule.

"Go go go Our General!" is one of the chants by the multitudes in the streets in celebration of retired General Constantine Chiwenga who led the coup. People climbed on army tanks in the streets of Harare, hugged, kissed and took pictures with armed soldiers.

With Mugabe gone, the people of Zimbabwe, political opposition and civil society were quickly reminded that the coup had been a Zanu-PF affair and had nothing to do with their democratic aspirations.

What was supposed to be the elections that would usher in democracy in the post-Mugabe era became a charade as the loser Emmerson Mnangagwa used the army and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to keep power even as he scored a paltry 33% compared to the popular opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa who scored a staggering 66% of the vote, according to some insiders.

Protesting and unarmed civilians were gunned down by soldiers and many were maimed, while some were traumatised. The 2018 elections in Zimbabwe and the violence around them reminded Zimbabweans that the struggle against settler colonialism might have been over, but the struggle against native colonialism is yet to begin.

Reports of independent research institutes on state capture and cartels document how the names of the President, his family, friends and fronts are connected to the capture of state organisations, the smuggling of minerals, illegal trade in foreign currency, black marketeering, money laundering and other forms of fraud and cozenage.

The President, his family, friends and fronts are accused of monopolising land, mines, the fuel sector, manufacturing industry and even the informal public transport industry that has been the source of livelihood for many Zimbabwean families. The president of Zimbabwe, his family, friends and fronts are taking business away even from kombi owners and omalayitsha, informal cross-border transporters, in what is clearly dumbfounding greed.

Spectacular Mobutuism has emerged in Zimbabwe where the President, his family, friends and fronts are now richer a few years after the coup and can now be seen making lavish donations to hospitals, popular football teams and other needy entities in a political move to "wash" or "launder" their "dirty money".

Mobutu Sese Seko's looting of the resources of Congo-Zaire was that legendary. He became richer than the country and frequently publicly lent money to the country, or donated it, in what he expected to be celebrated as big-hearted generosity by a kind leader.

Mnangagwa, his family, friends and fronts are scaling Mobutuism where they are able to privatise public institutions, buy out opposition politicians and parties, the courts and the public media. And now the biggest football clubs.

This happens as the majority of Zimbabweans, including doctors and nurses, teachers, the police and soldiers, the intelligence, are literally starving. This happens as taxi drivers and touts have been thrown out of their humble employment so that the monopoly of public transport goes to fronts that are linked to the President, his family and friends.

That conspicuous consumption of resources stolen from the public that is composed of starving peasants and civil servants constitutes extreme provocation and a trigger for coup-thinking and coup-action in a continent whose post-coloniality is punctuated by proneness to coups.

Mnangagwa, his family, friends and fronts have subjected Zimbabwe to a specific form of native colonialism where the ruling elites swim in obscene prosperity and opulence, while the majority drown in the sewage of poverty and misery. Mnangagwa exercises power with the arrogance and impunity of a true native colonialist leader. He has publicly boasted of his party control of the army, the police, intelligence and the economy. The man who came to power chanting that the "voice of the people is the voice of God" has after the recnt Zambian elections that have seen an opposition leader prevail told Zimbabweans that power will not change hands the way it did north of the Zambezi. Zimbabweans scarcely understood that when Mnangagwa said the "voice of the people is the voice of God" he implied the discredited doctrine of the divine right to rule or God's mandation – a pretext for political legitimacy and life presidency.

What makes a bad coup?

In a world that embraces and celebrates democratic ideals, every coup should be a bad coup. But where there are still tyrannical regimes, a good coup where the soldiery seize power not to keep it but hand it over to enable a democratic dispensation can be imagined, and even wished for.

A bad coup, from the African experience, is that coup when the soldiery seek, find and keep power for their own purposes.

From Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's toppling of King Idris in Libya, 1969, through General Idi Amin's dethronement of Milton Obote in Uganda, 1971, right up to Doumbouya's putsch against Condé recently in Guinea, coups are double-edged swords that can go either way, bad or good.

A reading of history shows that good coups are rare and far in between. So rare that to understand good coups we have not only to look at such coups as the Portuguese, Malian and Nigerien ones narrated above, but bad coups such as the Zimbabwean one. It is bad coups that help us to effectively imagine what a good coup could have been.

A good coup comes from a good place and from good people. Genocidaires and corrupt leaders cannot conduct a good coup.

Scholars have observed that, among other issues, the Zimbabwean coup was spearheaded by powerful soldiers and their political allies who wanted to keep state power in order to avoid the possibility of being prosecuted for crimes against humanity and corruption, including looting of blood diamonds in and out of the country. So it was a coup of guilt and fear.

Chiwenga in particular needed not only power but also job security as Mugabe did not look set to renew his contract. A coup became a serious personal issue. The coup was also a factional violent move of the defeated. Beaten by the Generation 40 faction in intellectual political combat, Mnangagwa and some elite soldiers ran to the armoury.

The coup-makers became a bunch of ideological and intellectual losers not known for any ideas, let alone good ones, except for violence and killings. It is in that way that the bad Zimbabwean coup was also a coup of ignorance that is combined with self-interest and self-preservation.

The political relationship between Mugabe and the soldiers and politicians that toppled him had always been made out of an unwritten political pact that they kept him in power by any means necessary and unnecessary, through rigging elections and clobbering the population, and he allowed them to loot what they wanted the way they wanted it.

The prospect of losing the power and the privilege of looting loomed large, as Mugabe seemed set to go with the G40 faction. The coup had nothing to do with the interests of the ordinary people of Zimbabwe, but economic and political interests of a coalition of power-hungry politicians and military commanders.

So far the coup-makers in Zimbabwe have lived up to their reputation and intention – keeping political power by any means necessary to secure the economic privileges, looting and establishing cartels for self-aggrandisement.

Evidently, the Zimbabwe coup was a bad one, just like the majority of them anyway.

How to coup-proof Africa

The AU and its subsidiary regional organisations should grow legal and political teeth to protect African populations from rogue and despotic African leaders exemplified by Condé, Museveni, Teodoro Nguema, Paul Biya, Dennis Sassou Nguesso, and Mnangagwa. And, of course, King Mswati. African armies should not capitalise on the tyranny and corruption of any leader to seize power in the name of the people as Doumbouya has done.

Similarly, African governments should not seek to build counterweights to coups, as that usually heightens the risk of more military takeovers.

Instead, African governments, populations and civil societies should work to build strong and independent state institutions, address democratic deficits and hold free and fair elections and manage better leadership succession, as well as tackle the root causes to prevent coups.

This means addressing socio-economic issues, implying reforms, affecting the majority, dealing with leadership, policy and governance failures, tackling corruption, and avoiding abuse of power, repression and brutality against the population.

About the writer: Dr William Jethro Mpofu is a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a senior research associate of Good Governance Africa and has been a consulting researcher with the Institute for Security Studies on gender-based violence and femicide.

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