Africa is on the boil once again. The rule by the ballot box is being replaced with the rule of the gun. The military is no longer content to remain in the barracks but has chosen to be at the steering wheel of power, driving the politicians away from the public arena into infamy and political obscurity. From West Africa, especially the Sahel, down to Central Africa, and Northeast Africa, the military has seized power sending dictators out of business.
The contagion of coups is having a domino effect on the continent. The military is back in the centre stage of political power. Coups in Africa appear to be a continuation of political process and leadership by another means, as some have argued that there are only two political parties in the continent namely the political class and the military. But the question on the lips of most Africans is who is next?
Because of this democracy is in peril in the sense that once the military takes over power the first step usually undertaken includes the suspension of the Constitution and abrogation of democratic institutions. On this score, the rule of law is kept in abeyance, and human rights and basic personal freedoms are curtailed. Therefore authoritarianism takes over while all democratic norms take a backseat.
Military rule viewed as an aberration is becoming fashionable once again. What’s the reason for this? Simply put, African leaders have made a short-shrift of democracy ranging from tenure elongation, brazen theft and manipulation of the electoral process and a series of unconstitutional acts to perpetuate themselves in power. That’s why the political landscape in Africa is littered with sit-tight leaders whose rule has ranged from 20 years to 44 years, with the longest record being held by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Coming on the heels of Nguema is President Paul Biya of Cameroon who has been in power since 1982. Next is Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who has clung to power for 37 years. Museveni shot his way to power in 1986. Nguema has been in power since 1979.
Worst of all, democracy in many parts of Africa has hardly translated to improved living conditions and economic emancipation for the people. Instead, for several years democratic rule has witnessed increased poverty, inequality, and further strangulation of the masses through severe and harsh economic policies, mostly inspired and dictated by Western institutions namely the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, IMF as well as other multilateral institutions. Moreover, widespread corruption has further worsened the situation. Plus African rulers have muddied the political waters by setting up family dynasties whereby sons are well-positioned to succeed their fathers. In this regard, the opposition is muzzled and harassed, thereby making it difficult to ensure effective participation in the democratic process. Moreover, there is erosion of the electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, and political participation.
No doubt military incursion into politics is no panacea for the ills bedevilling many African nations. Thus the change from democracy to military rule can only be cosmetic rather than being far-reaching. In hindsight, the military has not fared better than the civilians they removed from office. Without a doubt, the military may further compound the existing situation further sending those nations into a tailspin from which they may not recover for a long time to come.
The contagion of the coup in the continent spilt over to Gabon last Wednesday. Amidst growing scrutiny and widespread protests over the conduct of the elections in Gabon, the Armed Forces of Gabon launched a pre-dawn coup on 30 August.
Thus for the umpteenth, the continent witnessed a political tremor with its latest coup and the second one in 2023 when a group of military officers led by General Brice Oligui Nguema, head of the presidential guards seized power in Gabon and placed the ousted President, Ali Bongo, and his family members under house arrest. General Nguema has since been named the leader of the Transition Committee and the Restoration of Institutions (CTRI) Gabon.
The military coup in Gabon brought to seven the number of coups on the continent within the past three years. With the ouster of President Ali Bongo, the soldiers announced the annulment of last Saturday’s presidential election that renewed Bongo’s prolonged rule, bringing to an abrupt end the Bongo family’s 56-year rule in the country. The new military junta is not inclined to right the wrongs of the democratic process by validating the elections presumably won by the opposition. Gabon’s opposition leader, Albert Ondo Ossa says the coup is a family affair aimed at keeping the Bongo family in power. It is instructive to note that both General Nguema and Ali Bongo are cousins.
It will be recalled that Ali’s father, Omar Bongo, ruled the country from 1967 to 2009, and after his death, his son took over and remained in power until last Wednesday.
Barely a month ago, some soldiers in the Niger Republic, Nigeria’s neighbour to the northwest, on July 26, 2023, also seized power and placed the ousted President, Mohamed Bazoum, under house arrest. The junta has since appointed Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine as prime minister and appears to be buying time with a plan for a three-year transition period, which the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS rejected, insisting that the junta should return the country to democracy or be prepared for military intervention by the regional body’s military stand-by force.
Also, on January 24, 2002, the military in Burkina Faso ousted the then President Roch Marc Christian Kabore and installed Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba as the new head of state. Colonel Damiba’s reign was short-lived as he was also overthrown eight months later by comrades in arms who subsequently installed Captain Ibrahim Traore as the new strongman there.
Furthermore, soldiers in Sudan, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, sacked the civilian rule in place in the country and arrested political leaders while declaring a state of emergency. Sudan was plunged into chaos after monthslong tensions between the military, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces, commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, exploded into open fighting on April 15. The situation in Sudan has since escalated into a civil war.
About two years ago, on September 5, 2021, precisely, the then President of Guinea, Alpha Conde, was sacked by the military and was replaced by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya. After his sacking, Conde was detained by the military until April 2023. The junta promised to return the country to civil rule by the end of 2024.
Earlier on, Mali, also in West Africa, witnessed two coups within a year. On August 18, 2020, the President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was ousted by the military and a transitional leader was installed. But by May 2021, about nine months later, the military arrested the President and the Prime Minister, after which they inaugurated Colonel Assimi Goita as the transitional President. As usual, the military has also promised a return to democracy in 2024.
On another pedestal is Chad where the military also retained its hold on power after its President, Idriss Deby, was killed on the battlefield on April 20, 2021. His son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, stepped into his father’s shoes and has been in power since then despite a promised two-year transitional period. The current situation in Chad further reinforces the potential for the perpetuation of the family dynasty syndrome.
There’s a form of disequilibrium in Africa’s political ecosystem with the latest coup in Gabon. Little wonder the ouster of Ali Bongo in Gabon has triggered a wave of reorganization in the military in both Cameroon and Rwanda. Both presidents Paul Kagame and Paul Biya are not prepared to take any chances with the military. To preempt any military uprising they have taken steps to further consolidate their grip on power.
Already the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) has retired 12 generals and others in a move to reshuffle the military while Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has made changes to the Central African country’s Ministry of Defence. Both moves are coming in the wake of the Gabon coup, the latest in a series of military takeovers in Africa.
A statement by the RDF said President Paul Kagame has retired 83 military personnel including 12 generals. The Rwandan president, a poster boy for good governance in the continent, who has been in power since 2000, is one of the continent’s longest-serving leaders. Kagame has tinkered with term limits and has extended his tenure. A 2015 amendment to the country’s constitution means he can stay in power until 2034.
Before the RDF’s statement, Biya announced a reshuffling in the Central African country’s defence ministry. The Cameroonian president began his reign in 1982. Even though he later allowed for elections after a barrage of criticisms by the opposition and civil rights groups over oppression and human rights abuses, Biya, 90, has remained president and is expected to seek another term in office.
Last Wednesday’s move comes shortly after military officers seized power in Gabon, prompting criticisms from world leaders and jubilation by the residents of the oil-rich Central African nation as well as citizens of other parts of Africa that are under the yoke of dictatorships. The African Union had since suspended Gabon following the coup.
In a way, democracy which had gained a toehold in Africa is gradually regressing instead of taking firm roots as would be expected. Democracy has been on a worrying decline in the last few years. It is particularly telling that most of the military takeover had been in former French colonies and countries in the Sahelian region battling against Islamist Jihadist forces. The former British colonies seem to be the exception.
Having held out hope as a continent on the mend and gradually turning out as a bastion of democratic advancement, the current reversals are extremely worrying. Besides there’s been serious manoeuvres and manipulations of the democratic process by the incumbents in Togo, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire. At the same time, there’s growing intolerance exhibited by the leadership in Senegal towards the opposition. Opposition leader Ousmane Sonko is being hunted and hounded to drop his ambition of running for president. After a lot of rigmarole, President Macky Sall of Senegal has finally jettisoned his bid for tenure elongation. Also, Ugandan opposition leader, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, commonly known as Bobi Wine, has been emasculated by the Yoweri Museveni administration, which barely tolerates the opposition. A former Member of Parliament, Wine has been detained severally for challenging the status quo.
Arguably the military takeover in former French colonies reflects the growing anti-French sentiments in its former colonies where France has been accused of pursuing neocolonial policies that were detrimental to the former colonies. However, the coup in Gabon was long overdue and it is a product of the revenue of greed which has led to the decapitation of the Bongo dynasty. On the other hand, the military takeover in the Sahelian region is seen as a strategic move by the ex-colonies to take their destinies into their own hands. The current revolt appears to be the real independence for the former French colonies that have ostensibly exchanged the initial flag independence for freedom and economic independence. To a significant extent, the current trend is partly a repudiation of France and failure of its African policy.