By Prof. Mike A. A. Ozekhome, SAN
The wake of strings of military coups has put Africa on ugly global headlines. This signifies a decline in the achievements of the neoliberal democratic programme that was established in Africa after the cold war. The essence of the programme was to purge the continent of authoritarian and military dictatorship through seizures of power, in favour of political pluralism and the rule of law. It was therefore expected that coups are supposed to be things of the past, and dictatorship – totally forgotten. However, the reverse has been the case. Out of at least 242 successful military coups that have occurred globally since 1950, Africa accounts for the largest number at 106.
The by-product of these coups points directly to the failure of democracy. Not all coups however occur due to failure of democracy. In fact, during the 1960s and1970s, there were coup attempts in every 55 days in over 90% of African states. West Africa alone has the highest number of coups in the continent. It accounts for 44.4% of these coups which have even spread across Central Africa. The more recent Gabon coup finally broke the camel’s back; and has revealed many anomalies in African governance system.
Democracy, often hailed as the cornerstone of political freedom and citizen participation, has faced numerous challenges worldwide. Democracy, as a concept, was developed to enable people to have the final say in their affairs as opposed to a situation where a selected few rule to the detriment of others. Abraham Lincoln described this concept as the government of the people, by the people and for the people, during his November 19, 1863, Gettysburg Declaration. In Africa, a continent characterized by its rich cultural diversity and complex political landscapes, democracy has often been brazenly manipulated and abused by leaders who prioritize their personal interests over the well-being of their nations. This vista submits that less blame should be on democracy for military takeovers. The decline in democracy shows that democracy was once alive, but now dying because of its bad practitioners.
This must send strong signals to African leaders that it can no longer be business as usual. There has been the disturbing trend of African leaders exploiting the concept of democracy to entrench themselves in power. It is no longer merely oligarchic, it has become primogeniture – father-to-son rulership.
Democracy is entwined and intertwined with good governance. In other words, if democracy is superficial, it would naturally lead to bad governance. Bad governance is therefore the reason for the Gabon coup; and not democracy. That is why, “when democracy becomes demon-crazy, the people react. Demon – crazy – is a new word added to the English language by OZEKPEDIA, my own neologism – my coinage of new words and phrases. It was first used by late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti in one of his famous hits – “Demoncrazy”; “Demonstration of craze”; “Crazy Demonstration” ….
THE WAVE OF COUPS BLOWING ACROSS AFRICA
No doubt, African countries have always cultivated fertile soil for coups – poverty, poor economic performance, insecurity, corruption, sit-tightism, amongst others. Indeed, from the trends so far, a coup by a country is a harbinger for yet a coup by another country. I would not be surprised if more coups occur. It is like a sore whitlow generating a blistering headache. The reasons for these coups are not far from the instability such countries experienced after independence. Statistics reveal that in the years after 2000, there was a noticeable decline in military interventions; but recently, the rise has become alarming.
COUNTRIES WITH THE MOST COUPS
From analysis, the countries with most coups in Africa are:
Sudan has had the most coups and attempted takeovers adding up to 17, with 6 of them successful. Long-serving leader, Omar al-Bashir, was removed from power following months of protests in 2019. Note that Bashir himself had once taken over in a military coup in 1989.
Burkina Faso in West Africa has had the most successful coups, with 9 takeovers and 1 failed coup.
Nigeria once had a reputation for military coups following her 1960 flag independence, with eight between January 15, 1966, and the takeover by Gen Sani Abacha in 1993. However, since the 1999 transfer of power in Africa’s most populous Nation by democratic elections have always held.
In Burundi; 11 separate coups, mostly driven by the tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi communities.
Sierra Leone experienced 3 coups between 1967 and 1968, and another one in 1971. Between 1992 and 1997, it experienced 5 further coup attempts.
Ghana has also had experienced 8 coups in two decades. The first was in 1966, when Kwame Nkrumah was forcibly removed from power. In the following year there was an unsuccessful attempt by junior army officers.
Like Nostradamus, in 2021, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres said that “military coups are back,” adding that “geo-political divisions are undermining international co-operation and…a sense of impunity is taking hold,”. Two years later, Antonio seems to have been proven right.
To sum it all, Africa has experienced more coups than any other continent in the world. Of the 18 coups recorded globally since 2017, all but one – Myanmar in 2021 – have been in Africa.
The recent coups in Africa have been mind-blowing. The trend seems to be that people are becoming more comfortable with military juntas than civilian leaders, because of misgovernance. Let’s take a ride through the coups, albeit briefly.
In July 2023, members of Niger’s presidential guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum inside his palace and appeared on national television saying they were seizing power to end the “deteriorating security situation and bad governance.” Days later the junta declared the head of the presidential guard, Abdourahamane Tchiani, the new head of state, raising concerns about the security of a region where Niger has been a key ally of Western powers seeking to contain insurgencies by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
In January 2022, Burkina Faso’s army ousted President Roch Kabore, blaming him for failing to contain violence by Islamist militants. Coup leader, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, pledged to restore security, but attacks worsened, eroding morale in the armed forces that led to a second coup in September 2022, when current junta leader, Captain Ibrahim Traore seized power.
In September 2021, Special Forces commander Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, ousted President Alpha Conde. A year earlier, Conde had changed the Constitution to circumvent limits that would have prevented him from standing for a third term, triggering widespread rioting. Doumbauya who became interim president promised a civilian transition by democratic means within 3 years; but this was rejected by ECOWAS with attendant sanctions. The military later promised to begin transition by 2023; but there exists zero institutions and roadmaps to actualize same.
After President Idriss Deby was killed on the battlefield while visiting troops fighting rebels in the North, the Army took over in 2021. This was in utter violation of the Chadian Constitution that provides that the speaker of Parliament takes over in such instance. The Parliament was dissolved and General Mahamat Idriss Deby, the son of the President, was named the interim President to oversee an 18 – months transition plan.
Power was seized from President Ibrahim Keita after a group of Malian colonels were led by Assimi Goita. Under pressure from Mali’s West African neighbours, the junta reluctantly agreed to cede power to a civilian-led interim government tasked with overseeing an 18-month transition to democratic elections to be held in February 2022. However, a clash occurred between the coup leaders and the interim president – retired colonel Bah Ndaw – and this led to a second coup in May 2021. Goita Ceho the interim Vice President was elevated to the presidency. The country is scheduled to hold elections in 2024. Hopefully!
THE GABON COUP: LET THE TRUTH BE TOLD
Contrary to popular views that coups in Africa are only as a result of failed democracy, the Gabon coup shows a quite different scenario. Africans should now be put on notice about coups. Coupists do not write love letters announcing their coming. On August 30, just hours after Gabon’s Election Commission announced that President Ali Bongo Ondimba had been elected to a third term, a group of Gabonese military officers from the elite presidential guard unit seized power and placed the president under house arrest at his palace. Later that day, the officers declared General Brice Oligui Nguema as chairman of the transition. While the election itself had been marred by reports of irregularities, the officers’ coup marks the latest in a long line of recent military takeovers across the African continent that have jeopardized regional stability and security. President Bongo was first elected in 2009 following the death of his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba. Ondimba had ruled the country for 41 years, that is from 1967 to 2007. I now ask this question, is Gabon a family property? Is her presidency one of primogeniture of father to son? Your answer may be good as mine.
It should be clear by now that the coup in Gabon was not as a result of failed democracy, but an angry rebellion against one family’s tight-grip on power which has now been resisted by the people in good faith. Therefore, we may be expecting more coups in Africa if good governance is not enthroned and if elected or selected presidents decide whimsically, arbitrarily and capriciously, to hold glue to power like butterfly to the nectar of a flower.
FACTORS ENGINEERING COUPS IN AFRICA: INTRINSIC vs. EXTRINSIC
The factors sparking the spate of coups in Africa can be broadly categorized based on the perspective of the author. The inward-looking factors which are intrinsic, and the outward-looking factors which are extrinsic. While the inward factors are issues of internal and national governance, the outward factors are global in nature.
LEADERSHIP DELUSION: When
democracy becomes demon – crazy, the people are bound to react. This factor is intrinsic within the countries themselves. The people in several African countries feel disenchanted and cheated. The long promises of democratic dividends by political leaders always remain a dream and sham. They are illusory mirages. This has forced the people to revolt due to their leaders’ corruption and extravagant lifestyles. The people suddenly find their voices through protests; demonstrations and insurrections. The lack of transparency and accountability in governance have made the people lose confidence in governments. The style of government they deploy has made democracy a huge joke and very artificial and superficial. To add to this frustration, the impact of Focus – 19 made life more difficult, following closure of markets, lack of access to and availability of health care, infrastructures, education empowerment, including the hoarding of palliatives by greedy politicians.
Insecurity has also systemically eaten up the system. Insurgencies have taken over swats of lands in many regions. This has destroyed the trust of the people in governance. For instance, in Chad, the State is confronted with challenges posed by violent extremist organisations, including Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda, etc. Mali and Burkina Faso have been struggling with the deadly Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. These countries lack the man power to combat this deadly menace; hence the deteriorating state of affairs.
Unlike true democracies, elections in most the African countries are shambolic and held without due recourse to the Rule of Law. There is no informed and active participation. Independence of the Judiciary and even civil liberties are assailed. Voters cast their votes not based on what they feel, but political influence. Voters are not counted, where they are, such votes do not count. In many countries, political jackboots have stayed in power well beyond their terms mostly through unconstitutional means, and their belief that governance of their countries is divinely ordained. Imagine the alarmingly ugly lengthy years in power of Theodore Mbasogo (44 whooping years!), Paul Kagame, a former military Commander, is the fourth and current President of Rwanda and has remained President for 23 years. Though he turned Rwanda around and abolished the Tutsi or Hutu badge, what is he still doing in office? Is he the only competent Rwandan person to govern his country? It is this narcissistic stance that breeds envy, anger and coups. Paul Biya (41 years); Dauda Jawara (33 years); Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki (32 years); and Egyptian Hosni Mubarak (30 years). Why would Blaise Compaore (32 years); and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda (27 years) stay in office for that long? What is 81 years old octogenarian, Alassane Quattara (14 years); and 78 years old septuagenarian, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda still be clinging to power for? These, in addition to misgovernance cause frequent coups in Africa. Surely, those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable (John F Kennedy). Do these politicians even read what their counterparts do abroad? UK Prime Minister, Liz Truss, resigned from office in October, 2022, after only six months. Boris Johnson (only 58) resigned as Prime Minister on July 7, 2022, and was succeeded by the said Liz Truss – he was in office for only 3 years (24th July, 2019- 8th July, 2022). In just six years, UK has had six Prime Ministers after the Brexit Vote of 2016. Prime Ministers who have resigned from office in the UK also include David Cameron, Theresa May, Harold Wilson, Sir Winston Churchill, H.H. Asquith, Neville Chamberlain, Harold MacMillan, Anthony Eden; Margaret Thatcher (the “iron lady”); Tony Blair, Gordon Brown; and John Major. The US has been more stable, as the only President who has ever resigned from office was US’ 37th President, Richard Nixon over the “Watergate Scandal” in 1972.
Just what is wrong with Africa and African Presidents who behave like Emperor Louis XIV of France that once stood in front of parliament in 1655 and imperiously declared “L’Etat C’est Moi” (I am the State)? Just what is wrong with us?
AU – ECOWAS FRAGILE RELATIONS: This factor is extrinsic. Lack of concrete relations by AU and ECOWAS with regional organizations and countries. Sanctions, force are not the best options. These actions negate the real deal of diplomacy. These regional blocs have failed in their responsibilities. In 2003, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) was launched by the AU, to assess governance performance, fragility and conflict-related issues in member states, but the organizations have made any further move to establish institutions that would implement the recommendation is of this review.
FOREIGN INFLUENCE: Coups are likely to occur due to foreign influence and competitions. Initially, during the era of independence, coups were majorly against cold war politics. However, after independence, coups have never been free of foreign influence. The USA, France, Russia and entire EU cannot be spared of these accusations. For instant, Russia invited the Mali coup both in 2020 and 2021. Vladimir Putin is also behind the support of the recent Burkina Faso coup. Assimi Goita who is the leader of Mali also received the support of the USA. Paris endorsed Mahamat Deby’s coup in Chad. These foreign nations double standard, they speak from both side of those mouths, and think based of interest. This is regrettable.
THE OUTCOMES OF MILITARY COUPS: MAJOR INFLUENCERS
While it may be inferred that coups may be the only solution to the issue of governance in Africa, it my position that coups are not the best options as their aftermaths are always nothing bro write home about.
There are some variables that influence the outcome of coups. These are; internal military cohesion; mobilisation against juntas by civil societies; economic dependence on foreign countries; and donor deployment.
Internal cohesion is the most relevant. If there is need to respond to threats of a country’s territorial integrity and preservation of public order, the military is always likely to back the juntas. This is because the situation of seeking power outweighs that of not being in power. If the causes of the coups are far from the above, the military is likely not to support the junta.
In respect of civil society organisations, massive and torrential agitations for a return to democratic rule may influence the juntas to return power to the people. This is the case of Egypt’s 2011 coup. Nigeria witnessed this fact with 1993 and 1999, when the military fled to their barracks. Donor deployment and foreign economic dependency are the latest influencers of coup outcomes.
Since 1989, military coups across the world have resulted in two major outcomes.
First is the withdrawal of the juntas from civil power. This means the junta doesn’t participate or interfere in post-coup elections. While transition to democracy is necessary, it is not enough in itself. This scenario played out in the Nigerien coup of 2010 and the Thailand coup of 2006.
Second is electoral rigging by the junta in favour of its preferred own candidate. This scenario establishes a regime in which coup leaders entrench themselves in executive power.
This is why even when military juntas withdraw from power, democracies do not really emerge. But, when juntas rig post-coup elections, they become entrenched in power to long term periods. Whether the entire military backs the juntas or not is a major influencer on outcome of coups.
DEMOCRACY BETRAYED: AFRICAN LEADERS’ ABUSE OF POWER
Democracy is often described as a system of government in which power is vested in the people, who can elect their leaders through free and fair elections. (See section 14 of the 1999 Constitution). It is a concept that holds the promise of freedom, social justice, accountability and egalitarianism, with the ultimate goal of improving the lives of citizens. Democracy, as a concept, thrives when there are independent strong institutions established to guarantee and entrench its existence. Unfortunately, in many African nations, this concept has been abused by leaders who have turned democracy into a tool for their own self-preservation and primitive accumulation of wealth.
THE ABUSE OF TERM LIMITS
One of the most glaring examples of democracy’s abuse in Africa is the manipulation of presidential term limits. Term limits are essential for preventing the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader and for ensuring a peaceful transfer of power. However, numerous African leaders have always found ways to circumvent these limits, thus allowing them to remain in power indefinitely. Omar Bongo ruled Gabon for almost 42 years until his death in the year 2009. If he had not died, he would probably have been in power till date. Upon his demise, his son, Ali Bongo, won the 2009 Gabonese Presidential election. He was reelected in 2016, in an election marred by numerous irregularities, arrests and human rights violations and post election protests. On the 30th day of August, 2023, following the result of another controversial presidential election which he allegedly won, the military ousted him from power.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is another prime example. Museveni has been in power since 1986 and has consistently altered the Constitution to extend his rule. His government is autocratic. In 2005, he removed presidential term limits, and in 2017, he successfully removed the age limit, allowing him to run for office again in 2021. Such actions undermine the democratic principles of accountability and trample on the will of the people.
Another common tactic employed by African leaders is the manipulation of elections. While elections are meant to be a mechanism for citizens to freely choose their leaders, they are often rigged to favor incumbents. This includes voter suppression, intimidation and outright fraud. The recent presidential election held in Nigeria, for example, fell below all expectations. After touting that the results of the election would be uploaded on real-time, INEC deliberately failed to do so, citing glitches. The election has since been described as daylight robbery by the opposition and critical analysts.
Zimbabwe’s former President, Robert Mugabe, was notorious for manipulating elections to maintain his iron grip on power. In the 2008 presidential election, widespread violence and intimidation were used against the opposition, leading to a runoff election that was heavily criticized for its lack of transparency and fairness. Mugabe’s unorthodox tactics allowed him to remain in power for nearly four decades, despite the deteriorating state of the country
Paul Biya, the President of Cameroon, has served as president since 1982. In almost all the elections he won, the opposition has always alleged irregularities and fraud in each occasion.
In Nigeria, the 25th February, 2023 Presidential election was heavily manipulated by INEC in favour of the Ruling party. While results of the NASS elections held simultaneously on the same date and time were seamlessly transmitted from BVAS to IReV, that of the Presidential election suddenly developed “technical glitches”. No matter the judicial outcome, no Nigerian is deceived about its manipulation.
SUPPRESSION OF OPPOSITION
African leaders have also used various atrocious tactics to suppress opposition voices, thereby undermining the democratic process. This includes the arrest and imprisonment of political opponents, restrictions on freedom of speech, movement and assembly; and the use of state resources to weaken opposition parties.
Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, who has been in power since 1982, is known for suppressing opposition voices. His government has used brutal force to quell protests, shut down critical media outlets, and arrested political opponents. These actions create a climate of fear and hinder the ability of opposition parties to effectively challenge the ruling regime. In its publication of 31st May, 2022, Aljazeera reported that in April, 2022, a state-run Ethiopian Media Authority announced that it had filed criminal charges against at least 25 media outlets. In that same month, according to Aljazeera, the Ethiopian Police detained at least 19 people, including journalists, magazine editors and talk show hosts.
CONTROL OF THE MEDIA
A free and independent media is essential for holding leaders accountable and providing citizens with unbiased information. Section 12 of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999 says so. However, many African leaders have sought to control or manipulate the media to shape public opinion in their favor.
In Ethiopia, for example, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has cracked down on independent media outlets and journalists critical of his administration. The government’s actions have not only silenced dissenting voices but have also limited the flow of information to the public, making it difficult for citizens to make informed decisions.
THE CULT OF PERSONALITY
Some African leaders have cultivated a cult of personality to maintain their grip on power. This often involves portraying themselves as indispensable God-sent leaders who are the only ones capable of steering their nations forward. This narrative is used to justify their illegal long tenures in office and discourage opposition.
In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has cultivated such a cult of personality. He has been in power since 1979 and has maintained a tight grip on the country’s resources and institutions. His regime has used propaganda to portray him as a visionary leader, while suppressing dissent and political opposition. Late Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe employed such tactics in maintaining grip on the countries’ resources.
THE DIRE CONSEQUENCES OF DEMOCRACY BETRAYED
The gross abuse of democracy by African leaders has far-reaching consequences for their nations and the continent as a whole. Some of the key consequences include:
Political Instability: Manipulation of democratic processes often leads to political instability, social unrest and political disequilibrium. Africa is plagued by weak democratic institutions. When citizens feel that their voices are not heard, they resort to protests, strikes, street demonstrations and even violence to express their frustrations. The major trend in French-speaking countries in Africa is military coups endorsed by the people. Many African nations have experienced political instability, often due to weak governance, corruption, and authoritarian regimes. When civilian governments fail to effectively address these issues, it creates an environment conducive for military intervention. In Sudan, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Gabon, the military overthrew their governments because of deteriorating security, bad governance and corruption. The Gabon coup is not actually a coup against democracy but against a dictatorial dynasty that has held the people down by the jugular for decades. Military rule is never a good system of government and this article should never be construed as endorsing it. Nothing good is ever guaranteed; nor is certainty during military rule, because the military rules by Decrees and Edicts. This further compound the already existing political instability in the continent.
Erosion of Trust: The abuse of democracy erodes trust in institutions and can lead to loss of faith in the democratic process itself. Citizens may become disillusioned and disengaged from politics. In Nigeria, there is a belief that votes do not count, that is, assuming they are even counted at all.
Brain Drain: Prolonged leadership by autocratic leaders often lead to brain drain, as skilled professionals and intellectuals always seek for greener opportunities abroad in search of better governance and economic prospects. Economic instability, such as high unemployment rate, inflation, and income inequality, also contribute to dissatisfaction among the populace. When economic conditions deteriorate significantly, the military might perceive itself as a stabilizing force and intervene to address these problems.
Human Rights Abuses: Leaders who cling to power often resort to human rights abuses to maintain control, leading to the suffering of their citizens and international condemnation.
The conditions for occurrence of coups are multifaceted. They cannot be fetched with a spoon. To obviate future coups and deal with the current ones, the following recommendations are apt.
REDIRECTION OF GOVERNANCE: Governance of various countries must strive to redirect their style of governance. Governance should address deficits in the form of fulfilling and delivering the dividends of democracy to the citizenry, in order to restore their confidence. Security, economic, health and infrastructural development should be the mainstay and focus of government. If this is achieved, democracy would no longer be viewed as demon – crazy; and the people would not react negatively.
CONTEMPT FOR COUPS: Regional bodies such as the AU and ECOWAS must maintain unbiased contempt for coups. Laws should be made and implemented to try and punish coupists. If coupists are being prosecuted and brought to book, the fear of coup would begin. But, where coups are popular and people rejoice, external bodies must keep off such countries’ internal affairs.
FREEDOM FROM FOREIGN INTERFERENCE: African regional organizations and nations must strive very hard to pull themselves away from the umbilical cord of foreign influence in all its ramifications. Any influence that would result to political instability should be refrained from and discountenanced.
RE-ORIENTATION OF AFRICA:
democratization of Africa demands reorientation of the core values of Africa. Every African citizen must know and feel the African cherished values, ethics and ethos we all share as a continent. The black skin is so powerful, and should unite. Ideological reorientation is key.
ELIMINATION OF ADVERSE SOCIO-ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL
CONDITIONS: If democracy is not crazy, people would not react negatively. National and international politics must not be tailored in ways to cause political upheaval and destabilization.
In the wake of the reality sweeping coups before our very eyes, the need for good governance and democracy dividends cannot be over empasized. If there is good governance, the people would not agitate demonstrate or protest. If governments deliver on their mandate, the confidence of the people would be restored. African leaders must heed to this advise; if attempted coups or coups, must be a thing of the past. Countries should not be living with the fears of political instability considering the present trend. Benin and Cote d’ Ivoire which are presently anticipating a breakdown of political order must immediately redirect their approach to governance immediately.
The abuse of democracy by African leaders is a troubling trend that has persisted for decades. While democracy holds the promise of freedom, justice, and accountability, its principles are often undermined by leaders who prioritize their personal interests over the well-being of their nations. The consequences of such abuse are felt by the citizens who suffer from political instability, economic mismanagement, and the erosion of trust in institutions.
It is essential for the international community to condemn and pressure leaders who abuse democracy, while also supporting civil society organizations and democratic movements within these nations. Ultimately, the people of Africa deserve good and decent leaders who prioritize their welfare and adhere to democratic principles that can lead to a brighter future for the continent. Anything short of these will continue to make coups attractive and welcome.
Prof. Ozekhome, SAN, CON, OFR, FCIArb, LL.M., Ph.D, LL.D, D.Litt, is acclaimed human rights advocate and wrote in from Abuja