Africa and the Resurgence of Military Coups – THISDAY Newspapers


On the 30th of August 2023, the world woke up to yet another military coup in a small Central African country of Gabon. This is coming at a time the neighbouring West Africa is still engaged in diplomatic shuttles to resolve the 26 July military overthrow of a democratic government in Niger Republic. Just like in Niger, the coupists were jubilantly received by the people of Gabon who poured out into the streets to herald the end of a dynasty that has lasted almost 56 years. 

Safe for two unsuccessful attempted coups, Gabon a former French colony which gained independence in 1960, has basically been under democratic rule. From December 1967 after the death of the first democratically elected president Leon M’ba, Gabon has remained under the leadership of the Bongo family, first with late President Omar Bongo who ruled from 1967 to 2009, and then the son Ali Bongo who became president in 2009, and just won a third term re-election before the military struck in what has now gone into history as the first successful military overthrow of Government in Gabon.

Unlike in Gabon, West African countries have been notorious for illegitimate overthrow of democratic governments. From the 1963 military coup in Togo, West Africa has seen many other coups especially between the 1960s and 1970s. A recent article co-authored by Muhammad Dan Suleiman of Curtin University and Hakeem Onapajo of the Nile University, ascertained that by 2012, there had been over 200 coups and attempted coups in Africa with West Africa having the highest number and accounts for about 44.4 percent. Interestingly, most of the coups in West Africa occurred in former French colonies, and this typifies the recent coup surge that is ravaging the sub-region. Since 2021, some zealous military coupists have overthrown legitimate governments in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger, prompting the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to state that ‘military coups are back’ and adding that ‘geo-political divisions are undermining international cooperation, and a sense of impunity is taking hold’.    

Many commentators have attributed the recent rage of coups to a failure of Western liberal democracy and the repressive policies of France in its former colonies.  These reasons cannot be simply wished away. The fact however is that most countries in the sub-region are grappling with issues of bad governance, self-perpetration in office, peoples’ lack of confidence in the electoral system, corruption, politics of non-inclusiveness and peoples’ frustration at the growing cases of insecurity.  The affected countries are some of the poorest in the world, held down by abject poverty, low level of development and sense of hopelessness among the people. Many of the coups are therefore driven by crass opportunism as well as internal politics, and their success, according to Sky News Africa correspondence Yousra Elbagir should not be taken for peoples’ power. 

On the African continent today, to say that the political class are not jittery of the developing situation is an understatement.  In a classic fashion akin to the Yoruba proverb translated literarily as ‘no one has fire on his roof and goes to bed’, there are reports that Rwanda, Cameroon, and Uganda a few days after the coup in Gabon, have promptly taken steps to rejig their military high command possibly to obviate any attempt against their governments.  It is apparent that other countries are watching and remarkably those who have been under some sit tight leaders on tenures beyond what the constitution prescribed at the time of their ascension to power. Similar concerns are also expressed on countries within the region which are grappling with issue of legitimacy, poor governance, insecurity, and some sense of hopelessness by the people.  Against this backdrop, is there any reason for panic by the Nigerian political elites?

Nigeria has in the past had its own fair share of military coups. Between 1960 and 1999, the country had a total of nine coups, with three of them unsuccessful.  Thankfully, since the advent of the Fourth Republic in 1999, there has been no reported case of any military coup in Nigeria. There are a couple of reasons for this.  Firstly, Nigeria’s democratic journey from 1999, was not achieved on a platter of gold. The decade preceding it was characterised by mass mobilisation and confrontations by the political elites, civil society organisations, media, trade union organisations, student bodies, and the masses, with massive foreign diplomatic support against the military regime.

Globally, Nigeria was treated as a pariah state and the military suffered from internal crises of distrust, disunity, erosion of professionalism, while their welfare plummeted far beyond manageable limit. It was a period when some African countries barred their personnel from interaction with Nigerian military officers to insulate them from coup plotting antics. At the end, the military was thoroughly humiliated out of power.  The history and lessons of the struggle for democracy is not lost on the military, making the issue of coups now more poignant to its officers than any other category of people in the country.

The other consideration is the character and quality of the Nigerian military of today as compared to the military of the coup eras of the 1960s to 1990s. It is an incontrovertible fact that the Nigerian military is perhaps the most professional in Africa in terms of organisation, training, courage, and discipline.  It’s organization and doctrinal teaching promotes a purposeful social cohesion that makes its ranks fully obedient and respectful to the officers’ corps for leadership, direction, and guidance unlike the loose cohesion in many of the militaries in the French West African colonies. We saw this factor played out in 2013 after the Malian troops suffered massive casualties against insurgent fighters in Northern Mali. They all stopped fighting and withdrew back to the capital city Bamako until the French forces arrived to lead them back into battle.  This can never happen in the Nigerian military.

Faced with similar situation, Nigerian troops could withdraw, but would reorganise and fight its way back like we saw in the Northeast operations in 2014.  It is for this reason also, that the Nigerian Military would rather fight to the last man than acquiesce to assistance of any foreign military or mercenaries in its current operations. Its level of patriotism, self-sacrifice, commitment to duty and sense of national pride are virtues that the Nigerian Military would not be ready to wish away, never again in the pursuit of political powers. 

The question may be asked that what gives the officers of the Armed Forces of Nigeria the exposure and democratic leaning it boasts of. Currently, there is no officer in the Nigerian military that does not have a university degree, while nearly all those above the rank of Colonel and its equivalent in the other Services have higher degrees of masters and even PhD across various fields. Beyond the ugly past experiences of military rule, many of the top military officers have interacted and had exposure to higher management of defence and its interplay with statecraft in advanced democracies.  They have come to realise that their career progression, job security, welfare and post-service relevance are better served under a democratic government. 

Without any iota of doubt, the Nigerian political elites should be fully assured that they have a military that is ready to defend democracy even to the last drop of their blood.  President Bola Ahmed Tinubu must note this fact and continuously engage the military including the professionals among them in the task of nation building, even beyond their constitutional imperatives.  The military abhors idleness, and their continuous engagement including post-service will further promote inclusiveness. 

Going forward, the ruling class must focus its attention on the people as they, and not the military have the potential to stimulate regime change in our democracy.  It’s indeed a truism that in a democracy, power belongs absolutely to the people.  It thus suggests that the process of emergence of political leadership must truly reflect the wishes of absolute majority of the people.  The situation as we have where the ruling APC emerged with just 36.6 percent of the votes as against 63 percent in opposition to it does not convey a true popular or absolute majority.  This is the underbelly of the loud voice against the current ruling party despite meeting the constitutional requirement in its emergence.  

With the plurality of our society, we can take a cue from countries like France, Brazil, Argentina, Romania, Chile etc which relies on 50 percent majority votes in either first ballot or a rerun in their elections.  This is a constitutional issue that would require the attention of the National Assembly as part of the process to deepen our democracy.  Such amendment would upscale the legitimacy of government and reduce the dissent at early stage of an administration until its policies and programmes tilt the balance for good or otherwise. 

The object of collision that underpins and fuels dissent between the government and the people has always been in the formulation and implementation of policies and programmes. No matter how well intentioned, when government’s policies and programmes produce outcomes that are not beneficial, the people are bound to react and sometimes in a manner that could bring the government down.  We have seen this nearly happened in the 2012 protest against removal of fuel subsidy by the President Goodluck Jonathan administration. The same hydra headed issue is still alive and President Tinubu must create a deft approach to wriggle out of it.  So far, he has shown a listening hear on issue of palliatives and negotiations with the Labour Congress.  But let it be said that there is no time for delay, and Nigerians are groaning under the yoke of the new petrol price regime with the resultant economic effects. 

What is required urgently is a truly altruistic approach to tackle the issues which have combined to keep the people in poverty and not allowing them to ‘breath’.  The issues are no doubt multifaceted; economic hardship occasioned by fuel subsidy removal, dollarisation of our economy, decadence in our education system especially the lingering issue of ASUU, insecurity, near collapse of health care facilities, unemployment, decaying infrastructure, and unending power crises. At the pace Mr President is trotting, he seems to be genuinely concerned with advancing the fortune of the nation which dipped unassailably low in the past 8 years.  He must continue to listen to the voices of the people. It is by so doing that he can be guaranteed of their support and win over those who were ‘ab initio’ ‘obediently’ against him.

Olawumi, a retired Major General of the Nigerian Army and former Director of Policy in Defence Headquarters, is a member of THISDAY editorial board.


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