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Nigeria and contagious autocracy (I)

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s description of a new wave of coups sweeping across Africa as a “contagion” is rather apt. Following a military takeover of…

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu’s description of a new wave of coups sweeping across Africa as a “contagion” is rather apt. Following a military takeover of government in Gabon in late August, which itself followed a similar and more alarming incident in next-door Niger Republic in July, the president could not hold back his concern.

President Tinubu is “watching developments unfolding in Gabon very closely and with deep concern for the country’s socio-political stability”, said one Aso Rock spokesperson. The president was also concerned, the statement continued, at the “seeming autocratic contagion appearing to spread to other parts of the African continent.” Tinubu’s words were widely quoted across the international media, even more than here at home, for predictable reasons.

The description is correct. Like an infectious disease, because a military coup can spread both outwardly from one spot to another, and also inwardly within the same country. Beginning in Togo in 1963, just three years after that country’s independence from France, the coup soon spread to Ghana, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), Guinea, Mali, and beyond. By 1975, just 15 years after 17 African countries received their independence from Europeans in one single year, nearly two-thirds of African countries were under military rule.

Few things are more contagious than that in Africa, certainly not the building of bridges, rails or roads. But even within the same country, coups can be just as infectious. Nothing, it could be said, has held the imagination of many African soldiers more than the attraction of being in charge and running the country. No sooner than one regime is settled would another come to replace it, usually for the same reasons they give for ousting civilian governments. In Nigeria alone, some accounts have put the number of both successful and failed military coups between 1960 and 1999 at eight, while other accounts say the number is as high as 13.

Much the same developments have resurfaced in Africa, to the utter alarm of many well-meaning people. Beginning in Mali at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in August 2020, when Colonel Assimi Goïta overthrew the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, Africa has since counted nearly 10 successful and unsuccessful coup attempts in Mali (again), Sudan, Guinea, Burkina Faso (three times including reported failed attempt last week), Niger and Gabon. That in Burkina Faso there has been three coup attempts in three years says enough about the contagion of autocracy President Tinubu was talking about.

Beyond being contagious, however, there are other things about military coups. For one, they tend to be supported by civilian populations, at least during the first few months of a military seizure, for the most part. In the first wave of coups in Africa, the take-over of government by soldiers was usually celebrated in the media, if not in the streets. The recent take-overs have been similarly celebrated, as we have seen most lately in Niger Republic and Gabon. But why so? Why do military coups tend to be associated with celebrations, however muffled?

First, soldiers tend to go for the perfect timing when they strike. This is usually not just to spring a surprise on the ousted government but to strike when the conditions that will support a coup are most favourable, such as when public anger and frustration with the sitting government is as high as could be. Second, soldiers also tend to invoke folksy rhetoric for their coups: corruption of the elite, mismanagement of the resources, nepotism of the previous government, or general insecurity and lawlessness. Because soldiers tend to carefully and deliberately time their coups to occur during moments of high national frustration, these reasons tend to resonate well with the citizens.

But most importantly, ethnicity plays a part. Right from the colonial days, ethnicity was a strong factor in the composition of both officer cadres and rank and file soldiers in many African countries. This factor then becomes much more pronounced during military incursions into politics. The July coup in Niger Republic, for example, was widely accepted and celebrated in part because it was carried out by predominantly ethnic Hausa soldiers, against Mohammed Bazoum, who is a Diffa Arab, and therefore, not just within Niger overall, but even among that country’s minority Arab population. His ouster, then, was like removing an eye sore for the Hausa majority, regardless of anyone’s pretensions about democracy.

Now, the history of coups in Nigeria has followed a similar, though, even more perverse logic. The first military coup in Nigeria was celebrated almost everywhere in Southern Nigeria, including in Lagos, then seat of the federal government, and where the prime minister, along with other northern military officers and politicians, was killed. It was a coup entirely borne out of ethnic politics, even if its leaders would later try to claim otherwise. As such, it was then touted in sections of the media, not as the treason that it was, but as a “revolution” to root out corruption. To date, that perception of the first coup remains, influenced, precisely by the ethnic location of the perceiver.

The second military coup a few months later was, by contrast to the first, reported as a “murder” or “massacre” for the same ethnic influences. Subsequent coup-induced governments led by Murtala, Buhari and Babangida were also initially widely celebrated in the Nigerian press—read, the Southern press—because, perversely, that section of the country thought each new coup would usher in not just democracy, but power shift to the south, perhaps the only thing that truly mattered to those invested in those issues at the time.

Even Abacha’s coup against Shonekan in November, 1993, was welcomed by the same section of the Nigerian press with the perverse hope that it would enthrone an Abiola presidency. As one Northern soldier took over from another over decades, however, the hope that power shift would happen through yet another military coup began to dim, and the tactics changed from tacit support to the military to something called “pro-democracy struggle”.

Moreover, just as the successful coups in Nigeria were widely acclaimed for ethnic reasons, those which failed were also either acclaimed or condemned for the same reasons. Gideon Okar’s attempted but ultimately failed coup in 1990 was planned and executed around strictly ethnic revisionist ideas. It is still regarded as a revolutionary attempt for the same reasons in some ethnic enclaves. Likewise, the so-called “phantom coups” of the mid-1990s were so regarded more by the ethnic locations of those involved on both sides, than by the evidence or lack of evidence of a coup attempt in each case.

In other words, in Nigeria as elsewhere in Africa, military incursions into politics are not just contagious but also highly influenced by ethnic politics one way or another. What then do these historical lessons hold for Nigeria in this moment of a resurgence of coups on the continent? To answer that question, we may have to talk about yet another key feature of military coups; that they get talked about much before they happen. And it is here, in my view, that the past holds the most lessons for the present in Nigeria’s military politics.

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