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Vive la révolution! Or not

Once upon a time, something was going wrong in a country. The government was bad, inept and corrupt. The people were suffering, groaning and praying…

Once upon a time, something was going wrong in a country. The government was bad, inept and corrupt. The people were suffering, groaning and praying for saviours. Then some people decided something needed to change. They gathered themselves and started whispering in the dark. Then they got arms and overthrew the government. The people cheered and made merriment. They were optimistic that things were going to change, they were going to get better.

In the end, the only thing that changed was the names and faces of the leaders and the clothes they wore. And the type of suffering the people had to endure. Soon enough, the people started moaning again and praying again for new saviours. And new saviours started gathering to whisper in the dark. Again.

This is the story of every revolution everywhere in the world. Except for a very few—perhaps the Cuban revolution. Most, whether achieved through the ballot or the barrel of a gun, often ended up like this.

For instance, what was supposed to be a revolution in Nigeria in 1966 ended up botched by ethnicism within the ranks of the revolutionaries and triggered a civil war. The country is yet to recover from that failed revolution that the January 1966 coup was supposed to be and the subsequent civil war that followed. When, for the first time in our history a sitting president was ousted through the power of the ballot in 2015, the euphoria on the streets was that of a revolution; a new beginning, a change. That optimism, as we all know, soon suffered a quick and painful death for the vast majority of Nigerians.

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Anyone who read George Orwell’s Animal Farm would identify the patterns. And it only takes but a cursory look at the history of revolutions across the world, from the communist revolutions in Russia and China, to even the French Revolution, which in reality lasted the dozen years between 1787 to 1799 and included the infamous ‘Reign of Terror’ in which Robespierre delighted in massacring hundreds of French citizens. They even needed follow-up revolutions in 1830 and 1848 to find a balance.

In the last three years, there have been seven military coup d’états in Africa. Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso and now Niger Republic. Burkina Faso seemed to like the idea so much they had two in one year. All seven have branded themselves as some sort of revolution, a desperate rescue mission, an intervention that the country—could not have survived without. True, all the countries were besieged by problems, mostly insecurity and woeful economies.

The latest was in Niger, when last week, the presidential guards decided they had had enough of the president and decided to make the presidential villa his prison. They took for themselves the throne they swore to protect.

This has apparently got African leaders excited, not in the good way, and talks have been bandied about a possible military intervention in Niger Republic to re-institute the ousted democratically elected government. But apparently, the junta in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso have threatened to fight to defend the new dictatorship in our neighbours to the north. Talk about a possible World War Africa. I sincerely hope it doesn’t get to that.

One dictatorship that has been exciting people within and outside the country has been the one in Burkina Faso where Capt. Ibrahim Traore overthrew the interim government of Paul-Henri Damiba, 10 months after he himself had overthrown a democratically elected government in 2022. Traore has been saying the sort of things that frustrated Africans want to hear, with the exact cadence that they want to hear them.

Is it a coincidence that Capt. Traore has a vague resemblance to a certain Capt. Thomas Sankara, who dressed in the same way—fatigue and red beret folded at a jaunty angle—and spoke with the same mannerism, and that both men overthrew the government of Burkina Faso in their mid-thirties. Sankara, as we all know, did not last. While most people liked the sound of what he said, the brilliant radical ideas he espoused, some power brokers didn’t and they had him assassinated.

These power brokers might still be well and alive in the West. The question has been raised about why the ousted leaders in the recent coups in West Africa have talked up policies that go against the interest of their old and (maybe shadow) colonial overlords, France. In Burkina Faso, supporters of the coup have been waving Russian flags.

I don’t know if the vested foreign powers anticipated Traore to be a meek puppet but he is talking the talk that got Sankara assassinated and overthrown. Would he walk the walk, I wonder. If he does, that would be great for Burkina Faso but we all know how revolutions go, don’t we?

The spate of “revolutions” in Africa in the last few years should be worrying for the continent, especially with a poster boy like Capt. Traore and the mass appeal he seems to have among his country folks. It might just inspire some young officers in other countries to want to mimic him. It is easy for coup plotters to find excuses in every country. In any case, that is not good.

As shitty as democracy has been on the continent, it has provided a level of stability in government that we haven’t experienced for any considerable length of time. In the last 22 years, Nigeria has enjoyed democratic stability, even if we haven’t enjoyed the best governments in these years. But then again, we never did during the military regimes either.

The question of the right to choose who leads us as a people, even as flawed as that process often is, remains far better than that of having a shady soldierly figure install himself as president or head of state. The military coups have not only damaged the country but have damaged the military institution as a whole. The collision of the military and power has left the military with severe trauma, the depth of which we have not yet understood.

So, while recent happenings in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic might make coup plotting seem trendy and cool, we must remember the dangers of the dark ages that military rules have fostered on us. Those days should be behind us for good and any change of government should be through legitimate processes. After all, the most successful revolutions are the ones that are short-lived. The ones that did not have the chance to outlive the optimism they birthed. 

 

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