Are African militaries the new guardians of democracy?
Military coup d’etats are back in Africa. Last week, an elite special forces unit of the Guinean military, led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, stormed the Presidential palace, detained the 83-year-old leader, Alpha Conde, and announced they have taken over power to arrest Guinea’s worsening poverty, corruption, misrule and a lack of development. It marked the end of Conde’s illegal rule in the West-African country since last year.
Long-term opposition leader, Alpha Conde, became Guinea’s first democratically elected president in 2010, ending decades of authoritarian rule by his two predecessors – independence leader, Sekou Toure and Lansana Conte, who were in office for 26 and 24 years respectively. Conde won a re-election in 2015, but he undermined the basis of his rule when he pushed through a fraudulent referendum, backed by Russia, to amend the constitution to allow him run for a third term in October 2020.
After a brief interregnum championed by President Obasanjo that got the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) to strongly discourage coups and refuse diplomatic recognition for unconstitutional takeovers, coups are springing back in Africa. Just within five months, West Africa has witnessed three unconstitutional takeovers of power in Guinea, Mali (twice in the past thirteen months actually) and Chad, where the military son of the late President shrugged off all constitutional arrangements to take over power after the death of his father.
Since around 2000 when the AU went tough on coup plotters, there was a noticeable decline in military coup d’etats. Even those who successfully overthrew governments were forced to quit or quickly democratize. However, soldiers across the continent took notice when the AU failed to act when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, in 2013, overthrew the government of Mohammed Morsi, just one year after his election. The exemption given to el-Sisi and his subsequent ascension to the Chairmanship of the African Union in 2019 was all the encouragement ambitions soldiers needed to attempt government overthrows knowing that if they played their cards well, they could get to keep power.
In a way, the resort to military coups is the result of the democratization wave in the continent, where regular, even if flawed, elections are now the norm
Crucially, coup plotters have been careful to ensure that their coups are popular and go with the mood of the country. In Sudan and Algeria in 2019, the army only intervened after long-entrenched rulers’ hold on power had been considerably weakened by constant street protests and demonstrations. In Zimbabwe in 2017, the army intervened to stop the deeply unpopular long-term dictator from handing over power to his wife. And even at that, they go to great lengths trying to prove that the takeovers are not coup d’états in the real sense of the word. In Zimbabwe, the military played a hide-and-seek with Mugabe for several days while holding him hostage to present the façade that he resigned from office. In Sudan and Algeria, the militaries have been in all kinds of arrangements with civilians carefully trying to portray the takeovers as a product of demonstrations and or revolutions by the people. In Mali last year, the coup that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was foreshadowed by demonstrations and protests over the mismanagement of the war against insurgency, government corruption, the floundering economy and poverty.
In a way, the resort to military coups is the result of the democratization wave in the continent, where regular, even if flawed, elections are now the norm. African leaders have however become adept at manipulating the elections and changing the rules all the time to allow them remain in power perpetually. Four years before Al Bashir was overthrown, he had purportedly won a presidential election in a landslide – with 94 percent of the votes. Also, Paul Biya of Cameroon and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who have been in power for 45 and 34 years respectively, still regularly win elections. It is this kind of dubious democracy that increases the possibility of military coups in Africa. And soldiers these days often intervene citing the need to restore, not rupture, the democratic order.
So the AU has its job cut out for it. While seeking to completely outlaw all kinds of military and unconstitutional takeover of power, it must also show little or no tolerance for current leaders changing the rules of the game mid-game to enable them to hang on to power indefinitely. While Biya, Museveni, Conde and their ilk are busy dubiously changing their constitutions to allow them remain in power, the AU keeps silent or prefers not to meddle in the internal affairs of the country only to begin shouting when soldiers intervene ostensibly to restore the democratic order.
The AU or more appropriately, its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had a dubious history as being a “dictator’s club”. The AU must work to shed that garb and don a new one that is ruthlessly intolerant of attempts by rulers to change the rules of the game in the middle of the game.