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Africa and the grand return of the military

The coup in Gabon this week is most unlikely to be a regime change. Gen Brice Nguema, the head of the junta is a relation…

The coup in Gabon this week is most unlikely to be a regime change. Gen Brice Nguema, the head of the junta is a relation of the Bongo family and started his career as body guard to Omar Bongo, the father of the deposed president who had ruled for 42 years. The coup occurred minutes after President Ali Bongo had been declared winner of a rigged election. He had been incapacitated since he suffered from a stroke in 2019 and the optics of a president without the capacity to govern has been an issue since his stroke. The symbolism of someone who is incapable of exercising power rigging election after election posed the question of how much longer can the charade last. When there was an attempted coup in January 2019, the army responded immediately rounding up the culprits. As everyone knows, Gabon is too precious for France to allow regime change. In the coming days, it will become clearer who allowed this coup to succeed. 

Now, all attention is on Cameroon where once again it has been clear that 90-year-old Paul Biya is too old, weak and sick to govern. Immediately after the Gabon coup, significant changes were made to the military command structure. With the grand return of military takeover, France might very well be engaged in cosmetic changes to its most beloved colonies that are rapidly falling out of their control. The shock of the coup in Niger was massive for France. Their lackey regime lost power in a country where the optics looked good with elections, power alternation and improved combat against violent extremism and yet a coup to throw out France occurred. What does the future hold for President Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire?

When the military seized power in Burkina Faso last year, ousting the country’s democratically elected President, Roch Marc Kaboré, it was already public knowledge that it was coming. There were widespread conversations that the military had decided to seize power in the country and the only question was when not if they would. The main issue was the government’s failure to stem jihadist attacks that have destabilised broad swathes of Burkina Faso, displaced 1.4 million people, and caused 2,000 deaths that year. The general feeling in the country was that the time has come to try an alternative government. The Burkinabe coup was therefore similar to the one in Egypt in 2013 when the coup was announced on national television months before it happened. The politics of Africa has been changing dramatically in recent years propelled by the return of the military to power and that would clearly occupy the terrain for some time.

The military coup in Zimbabwe in 2017 signalled the institutional return of military high commands to power. This was followed by the 2019 military coup in Sudan and the 2020 military coup in Mali. The military was active in assisting power takeovers in Tunisia and Algeria in 2020. The military strongman in Mali was not happy with the limited powers he was constrained to take in 2020 and did another coup in 2021 giving himself full powers. The same thing happened in Sudan in 2021 as the military staged another coup to take on full powers and break the bonds with their civilian collaborators. In Chad, the 2021 coup was to keep power in the family following the killing of strongman Idris Deby. 

As was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, military coups in Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Niger and Gabon, civilians have demonstrated in favour of military rule and have been ready to collaborate with them. Clearly, there is a new generation in Africa that has no memories of the terrible impact of military rule and in their naivety think military rule can be a political solution to the crisis generated by poor democratic practices.

Post-colonial Africa has seen over 200 coup attempts, with roughly half seeing the leader successfully removed. The democratic transition of 1990 to 1994 led to a dramatic decline of unconstitutional seizure of state power. This trend has now been reversed over the past three years with the new wave of coup d’état on the continent. The current trend is however different from that of the 1970s and 1980s. Today, we are witnessing the grand entry of politics by the gun. In the Sahel, as well as other parts of Africa, numerous non-military groups have acquired guns and are engaged in armed struggle for power or sometimes just armed banditry. Generalised insecurity has become the political reality in many of our countries – Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mozambique, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo and so on. The military has completely failed to contain the armed combatants and reduce insecurity.

This situation has created two narratives in an emerging blame game. The military have been complaining in loud whispers that the corrupt democratic administrations have not been supplying them adequate weaponry to deal with insurgents, jihadists and armed bandits. The response is that deep corruption has also penetrated the military itself and they often misappropriate the funds given to them to execute the war. A war economy has developed in which officers are massively enriching themselves from the war effort and thereby sabotaging it. The winner, as it were, is corruption.

The more profound narrative is that the African situation today is characterised by three types of coup d’état. The first is the constitutional coup in which serving presidents recklessly tear the normative framework they had themselves developed and engage in tenure elongation beyond constitutional limits thereby destroying the legitimacy of the political system. The second coup is engaging in massive electoral fraud to change electoral outcomes. There have been at least 13 African countries, where the leaders have used various legal devices and political manoeuvres to extend their tenures beyond two terms since 2012.

Often, it is the experience of these forms of coup d’état that creates the conditions for the third type, which is the military coup d’état. The result is that Africa’s robust normative frameworks for deterring unconstitutional changes of government and for advancing democracy, elections and governance have been considerably weakened. The norms codified in Article 30 of the African Union Constitutive Act, 2002; and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, 2012 have gradually lost their meaning. It is for this reason that the condemnation of military coups by the African Union or by ECOWAS have very little resonance because people always ask what these institutions did when democratically elected leaders were messing up the constitution and/or the electoral system. Democratic culture has therefore been weakened considerably through anti-democratic practices by ruling parties. Repeatedly, ECOWAS, the African Union, and the United Nations Security Council have strongly condemned coups and called on the military to reinstate the deposed leaders and restore constitutional rule with no effect. Even the imposition of sanctions has had very little effect on the emerging juntas.

The time has come for Africans to reopen the debate on the best pathways of deepening democracy in our countries. The contemporary African must learn to read the tea leaves. Apparent democrats win elections with the promise of democratic consolidation and when they get the power, they work on dismantling the democratic system. We know from our past experience that the military cannot be the solution to our democratic and developmental needs. What we need to reinforce in our political systems is early detection of democratic derailment so we can put the system back on course.

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