On Wednesday, August 30, 2023, Gabon, whose presidential envoy was in Abuja two weeks ago on a solidarity visit to President Bola Tinubu, the ECOWAS Chairman, over the Niger coup debacle, became the latest bride of coupists on the African continent.
During the visit, President Tinubu said the special message of support and solidarity from President Bongo, who doubles as the Chairman of Economic Community of Central African States, for the full support for ECOWAS resolutions on the unconstitutional takeover of government in Niger proved once more that military interference in democratic governance was not acceptable anywhere, including the African continent.
Tinubu, also Chairman of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, promised to work with President Bongo and the ECCAS to restore constitutional order in Niger. While the special envoy was dining in Abuja, the storm had gathered over the firmament of Congo.
On Saturday, August 26, 2023, Gabon went to the polls for the country’s presidential election. And on Wednesday, August 30, the Gabonese national electoral authority announced that Bongo, who had been in power for 14 years, was re-elected for a third term with 64.27 per cent of votes cast. Soon after, a group of mutinous soldiers appeared on state TV saying they were seizing power, cancelling the election results and putting an end to the current administration.
In the last three years, coups d’état have taken place in the West African states of Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Military governments are still in place in these countries. Not a few experts also agree that a new wave of military coups in West and Central Africa is pushing the continent backward in terms of consolidating democracy.The continent has actually witnessed eight coups in the last three years, with the latest military takeover announced in Gabon only a month after a military intervention in Niger ousted the president.
On July 26, military officers in Niger led by Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, a former commander of the presidential guard, carried out a military intervention, ousting President Mohamed Bazoum. The military has since held Bazoum hostage despite international calls for his release. The military in Sudan ousted President Omar Al-Bashir on April 11, 2019, after months of protests following increased prices of goods – including fuel and bread. Al-Bashir had ruled Sudan for nearly 30 years. A power-sharing agreement was reached between the army and civilians, but they later refused to hand over power.
On October 25, 2021, Sudan experienced another military takeover when Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who headed the power-sharing deal, seized power, citing infighting between military and civilians. In Burkina Faso, the army ousted and detained President Roch Kabore on January 23, 2022, leading to two other coups. In neighboring Mali, the military overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 75, before the country witnessed a second coup on May 24, 2021, when Col. Assimi Goita dismissed the transitional civilian president and prime minister.
There was also a military coup in Guinea on September 5, 2021, when the army overthrew President Alpha Conde. In April 2021, the Chadian army installed Gen. Mahamat Itno as interim president after the death of his father, Idriss Deby. The opposition said the move was tantamount to a coup. The roots of this wave, political analysts argue, lie in regional instability, poor governance by elected leaders, and many successful past coups.
Other West African states offer evidence that future coups are not inevitable and democratic progress is possible.
Twenty years back, Mr Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim, a former students leader, pro- democracy leader, business mogul and Nigeria’s notable politician, had warned that if the wave of democracy in Africa did not lead to development in the social and welfare condition of the people, the continent risked relapsing to authoritarian rule, including a gale of coups. According to him, the close of the 20th century democracy is the most canvassed global concern.
He stated that “the year 1989 appeared to have been the turning point in the democratisation wave that swept the entire globe from Tiananmen square in China where the students revolted, to the massive rebellion against military dictatorship on the streets of Lagos, Kano and the length and breadth of Nigeria.”
In a paper delivered at the University of Jos in 2003, Olawepo-Hashim posited that “since the late 80s, the democratic wave has refused to abate -sweeping the pariah regimes of apartheid in South Africa and semi dictatorship in Indonesia in the 90s.” So profound was the wind of democracy that Omar Bongo the strong man of Congo explained that “the winds of the east are shaking the coconut trees!”
He stated that “to appreciate the depth of the democratic current of the mid-80s and 90s we may have to turn to statistics.”
Quoting David Porter et al in democratisation, Olawepo-Hashim said, “In 1975, 68 per cent of countries throughout the world were authoritarian, and by the end of 1995 only about 26 per cent of countries of the world remained so.”
He however submitted that “the pattern, tempo and the direction of democratisation in Africa did not follow the patterns of the French and the American revolutions, essentially because the socio-economic framework of Africa was not the same as that of Europe and America.”
He also pointed out that “extreme inequalities, alienation and absolutism in very pronounced terms were to become more evident in Africa, only with the development of orientally influenced empires or the advent of colonialism which necessitated that freedom that were taken for granted in pre-colonial African state would have to be bitterly fought for and canonised into a defined constitution.”
It is therefore not surprising that the struggle for democracy in Africa was the struggle against both the direct rule brand in British West Africa and settler colonialism in Africa.
According to Olawepo-Hashim, “while the first wave of resistance to colonialism was first from the traditional elite of pre-colonial Africa, it is in the second wave of nationalism that modern democratic concepts similar to those expressed by democratic agitators of Europe and America emerged.” Although the agitations and the bitter struggle for political independence yielded the desired fruits, independence and the triumph of elected government were short-lived in Africa.
According to Olawepo-Hashim, as from around 1966 most of the elected governments on pluralist-multiparty basis in Africa began to degenerate into one party rule, or were already overthrown by military coups d’état. This, however, is not a political disease peculiar to Africa.
Olawepo-Hashim submitted that the “lesson from history instructs us that where you have democracy arrived at without the requisite balance of internal forces, and an economic environment that generates the prosperity of a majority of people, especially when democratic institutions are still fledging and fragile, a relapse to autocracy is possible. Warning signs can be deciphered from the experience of Europe between1919 and 1939.”
He argued that for instance, “At the end of World War 1, it initially appeared that liberal democratic governance triumphed in Europe following the terms imposed by victors and campaign led by American President Woodrow Wilson that the world be made safe for democracy following the defeat of the German-Austro Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
“But 20 years later after 1919, a catastrophic reversal of the initial democratisation wave in Europe had taken place and given way to authoritarian and military government in most of Europe, sparing only the British Isle, Scandinavian, benignly countries and Switzerland.”
Here is the sad chronology: 1922 Mussolini marched on Rome, Pilsudski made a coup in Warsaw in 1926; Salazar made his own in 1929 Portugal; Hitler arrived at the Berlin Chancery in 1933 and Gen. Franco became victorious in the Spanish Civil War in 1939.
Quoting Scholars like David Porter et al (British), who have argued in their book – democratisation, Olawepo-Hashim posited that “severe economic difficulties, terrible social divisions, and the consequences of massive economic obligations of the loser state in the war, in the face of fragile democratic institutions, provided a fertile ground for the return of authoritarian rule and the collapse of democracy in most states of Europe after World War II.”
He added that “for democratisation and fledging African democracies after three decades of mostly authoritarian and military rule, there is a lesson to learn. We can appreciate it if we draw similarities between Africa in the post military and authoritarian eras with Europe after World War 1.”
Not a few analysts across the continent also agree with him that democracy is a political process to cement freedom and happiness for the greater majority. They submitted that if democracy could no longer guarantee freedom and happiness, this sad scenario might push them to have a glimpse at, and wave at authoritarianism.
Like it happened in Nigeria on December 31, 1983, when the military sacked the Shagari-led civilian administration, many of the current coups received applause from the frustrated people who had largely been schemed out of the democratic process by rampaging civilian dictators who had held the process by the jugular.
A Nigerian political analyst and social commentator at the weekend posted that “President Paul Biya of Cameroon has reshuffled his military command. On the same day, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda approved the retirement of 924 military officers. President Yoweri Museveni just shuffled 35 military leaders. Collectively, the three of them have been in power for 101 years (Biya 41, Museveni 37, Kagame 23).
“Instead of these panic measures, is it not better for African leaders to accept and respect term limits?”
On his part, Olawepo-Hashim submitted that “for most military and dictatorial regimes of Africa after the overthrow of the popularly elected government in the wake of independence of Africa were rampaging armies of internal colonisation.
“They killed, they maimed, they raped and they looted. They marginalised and degraded; they conducted politics like warfare, and saw civil opposition as enemy maneuvres that must be crushed. Critics were seen as enemies to be decimated, captured and destroyed.”
He added that “the dictatorial regimes embarked on massive borrowing as a result of their inability to efficiently run the economy as self-reliant entities while also embarking on massive transfer of loot to Europe.
“The consequence of this is the low productive base in Africa, massive illiteracy, chronic underdevelopment, lack of substantial internal capital formation, high unemployment rate, inflation and deflation, and massive foreign debts.”
All these are the ingredients that have given massive impetus to the current wind of coup blowing across the continent.
The question is, can we still the storm?