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Last Updated: 03/15/2006
The Logic of the Coup
Ajong Mbapndah Laurean

In loose terms a coup d’etat can be defined as the unconstitutional action of acceding to political power, often with the use of force. The military often uses this method of taking power, and for a long time it was en vogue in parts of Africa, Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, etc. The first coup d’etats on the African continent came barely a few years after the wave of independence in the late 50s and early 60s. Today, virtually every country on the continent has experienced a coup or attempted coup at one point or another in its history.

But for some very rare exceptions, coup d’etats generally lead to dictatorships and gross human rights violations. Coups are often accompanied by bloodshed. In the struggle between those out to grab power and those out to maintain the status quo, there are often casualties with civilians paying the highest price. The barrel of the gun reigns supreme as those who come to power through coup d’etats hardly see themselves as accountable to the people. Despite cosmetic progress made in some areas, the damage inflicted by military regimes in countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Congo is immeasurable. Apart from pushing economies into ruin, blatant mismanagement of resources, the usurpation of all forms of liberty, and the perpetrating of gross human rights violations, it is on record that it was through coup d’etats that the visions of some of the most illustrious sons Africa will ever boast of like Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba were cut shot.

With the advent of democracy in the 90s there was a net decline in the number of coup d’etats but paradoxically without a corresponding decline in the number of dictatorships. Though no longer in military outfits, it remained difficult to consider people like Eyadema (the father-RIP) of Togo and Obieng Nguema of Equitorial Guinea, for example, as any thing but despots. At the Algiers OAU conference of the 12-16 July 1999, a resolution was taken to view all forms of unconstitutional accessions to political power with scorn. Per the resolution, any leader who accedes to power through a coup d’etat or any means considered unconstitutional will be barred from attending future OAU summits. The principle remained in force with the advent of the African Union with even greater emphasis. Worthy as this principle may be, it should not be forgotten that the bulk of the leaders who form the African Union themselves came to power through coup d’etats and have persistently used heavily flawed elections to maintain a firm grip on political power in their countries. Be it Gabon, Chad, Togo, Guinea, ,Congo, Burkina Faso, or Cameroon, leaders of these countries have for a long time been using unorthodox means to cling to power. Those who did not come to power using coup d’etats can hardly boast of any credit-worthy elections that have kept them in power.

It is difficult to draw a meaningful distinction between a leader who comes to power through a coup d’etat and one who survives on heavily flawed elections or day light robbery at the polls to stay in power. Despite the good will of some of the key actors on the continental scene now - such as Thabo Mbeki, Abdoulaye Wade, ,Olusegun Obasanjo, and others - who want to see democracy thrive at any cost, one is tempted to believe that others have accepted the principle out of the ardent desire to see members of a club of comrades with doubtful credentials and legitimacy to stay on. Coups in all forms must be condemned - so too should be leaders who specialize in thwarting the verdict from the polls. But the right to condemn or accept should be reserved first for a country’s people. If a leader is booted out of office and instead of crying foul the people tend to welcome the new leader as a hero, then all forms of condemnation from the international community may not have the desired effect. In the Ivory Coast for example, when President Konan Bedie was dabbling with his highly controversial concept of ‘Ivoirite.’ The coup d’etat which ousted him and brought General Robert Guei to power (RIP) was viewed by many Ivorians as a Christmas present and received with jubilation in the streets of all the major towns in the country. Another proof of the popularity of Guei’s coup was the immediate acceptance of political parties to participate in the Government of National Unity formed by him. Just as his popularity was at its peak when he got to power so too did it drop to an all time low when he was forced to flee in disgrace after a futile attempt to prolong his sojourn in power through flawed elections whose consequences are still been felt till date.

If there is any means of acceding to power in countries not ruled by monarchies then it should be through free and fair elections or in strict appliance of constitutional provisions. African leaders have often been very sheepish in the way they condemn unconstitutional take-overs. In the Republic of Congo, for instance, few are those who raised eye brows when Sassou Nguesso threw out the democratically elected government of Pascal Lissouba, allegedly with the backing of some petroleum companies. After all, he was just an old cadre of the club staging a come back. Few are those in power who condemn their colleagues in Togo, Cameroon, Gabon etc., when they deliberately fail to organize elections which meet basic democratic norms.

The difficulty in the proper interpretation and application of the principle came to the fore during the imbroglio which characterized the Madagascan presidential elections of December 2001. Whereas initial results indicated that a second round would be needed to choose between the challenger, Mark Ravalomanana, and the incumbent, former military dictator Didier Ratsiraka, dependable sources claimed that Ravalomanana had made it in the first round. Backed by his supporters Ravalomanana declared himself president. The African Union did not take this kindly and made futile attempts to mediate between the feuding parties. Backed by the principle of not accepting leaders who come to power through unconstitutional means, Ravalomanana’s government was shunned by virtually all the countries of The African Union even after Ratsiraka had thrown in the towel. Despite overwhelming support from the masses for Ravalomanana, the attitude of the leaders of the AU, especially those gifted in the art of rigging elections, left much to be desired. All the moves initiated by the AU to break the impasse appeared more or less as a covert means to rescue their old pal Ratsiraka from trouble. Because of this, the seat of Madagascar at the Durban summit to inaugurate the African Union stayed vacant. It was only after the USA, France, and Germany recognised the government of Ravalomanana that the African Union followed suit.

If coups and civil wars still find breeding ground in Africa it may be in part due to our sluggish apprenticeship of democracy and its norms. Despite the drop in military-controlled leadership, the civilians in power have in most cases failed to fare any better and are often times more dictatorial. When there is limited accountability, blatant disregard for the rule of law, flagrant abuses of human rights, when politics of exclusion is promoted, when economies are pushed into ruins, when tribalism and ethnic politics are given preference and, above all, when avenues for change through democratic elections are blocked, then coups real and imagined will continue to be on the African menu. Of recent there has be an upsurge in the number of coups .

While at a summit in Niger a few years back, President Ange Felix Patasse of Central Africa was flushed out of power by General Francoise Bozize, who was then not allowed to participate in the African Union Summit of that year. A former minister in the famed dictatorship of Emperor Bokassa, Patasse was first elected in 1993 and re elected in 1999 amidst controversy. His leadership kept moving from one calamity to the other with mutinies and unending strikes ever present. But for his Libyan friends he would have long been kicked out of power. In a desperate bid to secure his grip on power he set a very dangerous precedence by enlisting the support of rebels loyal to Congolese warlord Jean Pierre Bemba. Indicating how unpopular the grey bearded Patasse was, troops loyal to him offered little or no resistance when troops of Bozize hit the capital Bangui. Even the intervention force of the Economic Union of Central African states stationed there were very complacent, fuelling some speculation that they were actually on the side of the rebels. The people of Central Africa considered the ouster of Patasse more or less as good riddance, and leaders with the opposition agreed to work with him in the transition programme. The reaction of the countries of the Central African Sub region and the African Union was very timid. Bozize later legitimized his stay in power by emerging victorious in a two round election.

A few months after the Central African episode, the capital of Mauritania Nouakchott fell briefly to rebel soldiers out to topple President Maouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya in what was considered as the bloodiest coup attempt in the country's 43 years history as a sovereign state. Maouiya Ould Taya was finally toppled last year and the ease with which the new leadership was accepted on the international scene was remarkable. In the wee hours of July 16 2003 the small West African state of Sao Tome and Principe had its own turn as President Frederique De Menezes on a visit to Nigeria was thrown out by the men in khaki. Led by Nigeria, the International Community condemned the coup in very strong terms and after negotiations, Menezes was allowed to return to power less than a month later. Not so lucky as Menezes was Koumba Yala of Guinea Bissau, who was forced to step down in a blood less coup though he had come to power through elections. In recent times there have been reports of foiled coups in Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, D, R, Congo, etc.

It may be worthy, however, to acknowledge that there are countries like Mali where a military coup set the stage for one of the best democratic experiences on the continent at the moment After ousting dictator Moussa Traore in the early 90s, General Amani Toumani Toure offered Mali a fresh constitution by conducting elections and leaving office without rancor within 15 months. Alpha Oumar Konare, who won the elections, stayed in office for the constitutional two terms and then bowed out. Also in Tanzania, Julius Nyerere left office voluntarily, setting the stage for the series of peaceful transfers of power that the country has enjoyed to this day. Sedar Senghor did the same and his successor Abdou Diouf (now Secretary General of the Francophonie) after serving for 17 years was beaten by Abdoulaye Wade in elections, which did Africa proud. Quet Masire of Botswana left power in style and his country remains a reference in Africa. Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique and Nelson Mandela of South Africa have also set standards worth emulating. Attempts by some leaders to prolong their stay in power through unscrupulous tinkering with constitutional provisions (like in Uganda, which was until now been cited as a good example) are a set back. Should the much-respected president of Nigeria and immediate past Chairman of the African Union fall into this category at the end of his present mandate, it will be most unfortunate for the continent as it will serve as a blank cheque for many more to follow suit. Despite the sad reality that mid-way into the first decade of the much-trumpeted new millennium Africa is still talking about coups and civil wars and continues to be tricked by some unscrupulous imperialist forces into killing themselves while they reap the harvest, the examples from South Africa, Mali, Ghana Benin, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, and Senegal, the advent of the African Union, the African proposals for a way forward contained in the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), the Peer Review Mechanism, with so much emphasis on democracy and good governance, a strong and charismatic leader as the Chair of the African Union Commission (former Malian Leader Alpha Oumer Konare), the increasingly strong role of the civil society, and many more - all are strong indications that Africa may indeed be making progress and that slowly, slowly but steadily, the continent will be able to sort out its own complexities.

Ajong Mbapndah Laurean is a Jurist from Cameroon. He is a Member of the Pan African organization AFRICAphonie