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Rita T.M. Kufandarerwa
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The culture of coups in Africa

10 April 2018, 10:22

In 1963, Togo became the first country in West Africa to experience a coup. 54 years later, Zimbabwe joined the African states that underwent post-independence military coups. With great theatrics, it was termed the most peaceful coup that had been experienced in Africa. Scenes of coups are banally enacted in Africa. The reasoning behind military interventions in Africa is common – pilloried heads of state inebriated on power, unbearable civil strife, capitulation of monarchic dynasties, anachronistic economic policies and personality politics. What seeks to be clarified is – is there a good or a bad coup? Is a coup really about the people? Is military power the impetus driving many African democracies and are coups insidiously becoming a part of our political culture? 

The welcome and unwelcome coup

The motives of coup perpetrators can be national and ideological or regional and factional. The 1966 Ghanaian coup, which saw the exit of Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, was deemed legitimate by the army officers who took over his power. Their plight was in consonance with the people, the economy was comatose and poverty was consuming all citizens piece by piece. The coup was welcome, a better government was anticipated.

In November 2017 when Robert Mugabe was put under house arrest by his military men, Zimbabweans welcomed the move as the nonagenarian had truly overstayed his presidency and was now being used as a puppet by metaphorical ventriloquists – his wife Grace and her G40 cabal. What is common here is that the economic challenges that the people were enduring resolved themselves into the coups. Ghanaians were without soap, food, water and healthcare at the time of the Nkrumah coup. Zimbabweans were living on less than 2 US dollars per day. There was a crippling cash shortage and civil servants had not been paid in years. When economic heat roasts and steams every citizen, a coup d’état is welcome and legitimised to a certain extent.  

Coups in Africa could have different origins, causes and effects. The 1966 Nigerian coup spearheaded by General Nzeogwu rested on tribalism, even though the participants carefully concealed their motives and pointed to corruption in the Tafawa Balewa administration. The rift between the easterners (Igbo) and the northerners (Hausa and Fulani) widened to dangerous levels when Nigeria went through a ghoulish civil war that left Biafrans dead, maimed and destitute. The Nzeogwu coup created a dangerous precedent as a succession of coups that bedeviled Nigeria throughout the 70s to the 90s. The motives behind these coups were simply drawn on tribal and personality clashes. The Nigerian case is quintessential of military interventions that split nations and are consequently unwelcome.

Factionalism - ANC and ZANU PF 

In 2008, South Africa witnessed the dramatic exit of Thabo Mbeki. To some, it is a mistake that they still rue today. The events leading to the toppling of Mbeki had all the undercurrents of a factional coup. Those who were there just hours before Mbeki’s resignation as president describe the situation as tense and the language in the presidential residence corridors as bellicose. There were two vicious camps – the pro-Mbeki and the anti-Mbeki. With pressure augmenting from the anti-Mbeki camp, Mbeki the pacifist tendered his resignation. Although rifles and bullets were not used to drive Mbeki out of power, the words and actions of his rivals were synonymous with a palace coup. And so Mbeki stepped down, after a clash of personalities and locking horns with Jacob Zuma.

The former Zimbabwean first lady, Grace Mugabe locked horns with the then Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. In a ZANU PF succession battle that had morbidly become heated, Grace Mugabe launched vitriol attacks on Mnangagwa and what followed was an intervention by the securocrats who were unflinching allies of Mnangagwa. In exaggerated theatrics, the nonagenarian Mugabe tendered his resignation and Mnangagwa outmaneuvered his opponents. The Mnangagwa-Mugabe and the Mbeki-Zuma personality clashes fiercely divided political parties and led to coups.

The return to democratic rule after a coup – a sophism

The Ugandan coup led by Idi Amin, the Burkina Faso coup spearheaded by Blaise Compaore and the 1993 Nigerian coup led by Sani Abacha were premised on the return to civilian rule. The promises to return to democratic rule never materialised in the aforementioned coups. When Idi Amin was propelled into power, his sadist government had no intention of paying even lip service to democracy. Blaise Compaore engineered a dictatorship and catapulted himself to the presidency. Sani Abacha transmogrified into the tyrant who finally met his death atop a French prostitute. The return to civilian rule is the black swan of military coups in Africa – an occurrence that deviates from the norm and in most cases, non-existent.

The incumbent Zimbabwean government is showing latent signs of a military state. General Chiwenga, the man who led the army to topple Mugabe was appointed as the vice president. Service chiefs were handed ministerial positions after the coup. Extrinsically, Zimbabwe has the face of a country under civilian rule but the grip of the military junta points to a government bordering on a military state. The promised return to civilian rule is dying a slow death.

The military – a political red button

Evidently, he who has the support of the army in Africa is propelled into power. This was seen in Zimbabwe.

In South Africa, Jacob Zuma deployed the army at Parliament in 2017 as he delivered his State Of the Nation Address. This deplorable move by all democratic standards testifies how politicians co-opt the military into instilling fear in opposition parties while amassing uncontestable power. Ian Khama in Botswana – an army man himself – thwarts opposition voices through espionage by the military intelligence. In what is becoming a culture, the men in camouflage carrying bullets and the message of death are the anchor keeping many African leaders in power.

Is a coup ever about the people?

If one man, with the help of the people who love and believe him, arrives at power and uses it for himself – what does it mean? If other men, with the help of guns come to the same power – what would it mean? The will of the people and the quest of power by politicians is intricately inconsequential.

“A soldier without any political or ideological training is a potential criminal.”- Thomas Sankara.

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