The return of authoritarian rule in Africa, By Zainab Suleiman Okino

Zainab Suleiman Okino

Africa is once again going through a turbulent time in form of violent overthrow of governments. However, unlike the decades after independence when such enterprises were greeted with enthusiasm, people are now generally coup weary. Military incursion into civil space is so derided that whenever it happens, the actors have the world to contend with and their country treated as a pariah state. 

 According to a BBC report which quoted two US researchers, Jonathan Powel and clayton Thyne, there have been 200 coup attempts in Africa since the late 1950s, half of them successful. And just when we thought Africa had come of age, and ready to put its ugly past behind her in 21st century, there is resurgence of coups again; mainly engendered by endemic poverty, corruption and bad governance.  In slightly over a year, there have been five coups and attempted coups in Africa—two military takeovers in Mali, a failed one in Niger Republic, that of Guinea and now Sudan.  Burkina Faso has had the most successful coups with seven takeovers and one failed attempt.

In April this year, there was a semi successful coup in Chad when, Idriss Deby was killed in controversial circumstances but his supporters rallied round his son, a military man and installed him. Sudan has had 18 coups and attempted coups and five were successful. Nigeria has had eight, Burundi 11, Sierra Leone eight, while Ghana has had eighth. The political instability arising from uprisings, rebellions and frequent change of government are some of the factors holding the continent down. Unfortunately for Africa, the incessant coups have not engendered the development of the continent. Instead, government institutions have suffered retrogression, while some individuals have become powerful and wealthy at the expense of the state. 

However, notwithstanding their foray into politics again, military rule is no longer fashionable and the excuses are no longer tenable, because the question of starting a revolution does not even arise as most of such ideals ended in the dustbin of history and ignominy. The dichotomy between capitalism/communism and the bipolar war between the West and the former USSR as represented by Russia have all fizzled out; the world has become largely unipolar and the line between both worlds have become thin. The world still fights but today’s wars are no longer based on ideologies, that is, if there was ever any. Support from Russia and Cuba to African countries and would-be coup makers are also no longer available. Russia itself now tries hard to ape the Western type of capitalism. 

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Besides the death of ideologies and dearth of ideologists, records of previous military regimes were even more abysmal than those they sought to supplant. The mantra today, is that the worst democracy is still better than the most benevolent dictatorship. So, any ambitious military politician wishing to get into government through the barrel of the gun would have to do a thorough job of it, to avoid a backlash. 

Sadly, civilian governments have not fared any better as most are preoccupied with self-perpetuation plan even under the guise of democracy. Cameroon strongman, Paul Biya has been in government since November 6, 1982. He is 88 years. Biya who initially subscribed to “more open, more tolerant and more democratic political society”, is today the most reclusive and isolated African leaders. Bereft of any democratic codes, he has amended the constitution specifically to eliminate presidential term limits, while the country battles insolvent economy, endemic corruption, and oppression of the Anglophone side of Cameroon. With people like Paul Biya, many might wish for a populist intervention, which can become another trap. 

Such was the case with Uganda. Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986 after a military rebellion. Touted as a revolutionary and liberator, he was part of the gang that toppled Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Sadly, he did not leave the scene when ovation was loudest and has since turned into a military democrat, having amended the constitution to make him life president, stood for election for six times and won all to sit-tight as president for 35 years and still counting. Meanwhile the situation in Uganda neither inspires confidence in the military, nor their form of democratic regime. Other than the monarchical arrangement in the Middle-east and some parts of Asia, any government that ignores or removes term limits for its leaders cannot be said to mean well for them, so is Museveni.His friend and advisor, 82-year-old John Nagenda has this to say about Museveni: “he was prepared to die for Uganda. I would say that we are very lucky to have him”. 

Here lies the bane of Africa—the “strongman syndrome”. The notion that only one man can solve a nation’s problems even without visible progress, and when that strongman abdicates power, dies or is removed, there are always challenges of how and where to start from. Examples are Egypt, Cote d’voire and Sudan which recently experienced another coup. Two years ago, Omar al-Bashir, after 33 years in office was toppled by Sudanese army, after series of protests. The country began a power-sharing formula between the military and civilians which threw up Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and General Abdel Fattah Burhan as head of the power-sharing transition deal to steer Sudan towards civilian rule before it was again truncated last week. Egypt had this kind of military-civilian deal but it broke down and the military took over the mantle of leadership again. In fact, Sudan appears to be a playground for coup making as there have been many attempts in the last two years and even before Al-Bashir was toppled.    

When a country is badly run, the people wish for a change in whatever form. So was Guinea, a classic example of people’s wish in contrast with democratic norms. In September 2021, the military struck in Guinea after 11 years of Alpha Conde’s rule, another sad commentary on Africa. Col. Mamady Daumbouya, the coup leader accused Conde’s government of corruption and mismanagement. These are old tactics and excuses for coups, but Conde, after a controversial third-term victory at the polls and at age 88, must have done himself in, as activists and opposition viewed his austere as a just dessert for his infractions. But whatever may be his faults, authoritarian regime is no replacement for a democratically elected civilian government.

 Coming after Guinea’s post-independence leader, Ahmadu Sekou Toure’s long tenure from 1958 to his death in 1984, Guinea’s democratic credentials have not been enviable. Already, the junta leaders have told the African Union to stop interfering in the affairs of Guinea and have established what they called “constitutional charter” comprising of 81 members headed by a civilian Prime Minister and a transition council to act as president. The next few months or years would unravel the true intents of the khaki men in Guinea.

Africa is at a crossroad again and will require firm resolutions of the African Union and United Nations to isolate such countries  and treat rebellious leaders with contempt, but it goes beyond condemnation only. Such countries and leaders should be sanctioned and deprived of aides and foreign direct investment, if any.  

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