Why the Lack of Urgency in Curbing incessant Military Coups in Africa is Dangerous

There is a fire in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. And who can predict where it will spread to next? For the second time in eight months, the military in Burkina Faso struck in a palace coup, removing the military leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba.

The coup leader, Captain Ibrahim Traore, cited the same excuses Damiba gave for seizing power in January as reasons for his removal: that the government has proved incompetent in containing the spread of Islamic insurgency, leading to increased loss of lives among military and civilian populations.

Things could not get worse for the landlocked country (population 22 million) where 45% of the population lives below the poverty level — one of Africa’s worst records.

Although things appear to have calmed down as of the weekend, Damiba, who overthrew the elected government of Roch Christian Kaboré in January, was still threatening the potential outbreak of a “fratricidal war” that could make Liberia or Sierra Leone seem like child’s play.

To achieve that from his Togo hideout seems far-fetched. But if we keep in mind the current fragile state of Burkina Faso, which has been the scene of two coups in eight months, out of five coups in the subregion in two years, then there just might be cause to worry. Africa is playing with fire and doing so when the world has too many problems of its own to care about the continent. 

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Times have changed. But it is also fair to say that the sort of nonsense that happened in Ouagadougou last week or eight months ago might have been unlikely when the class of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was in power about 20 years ago.[/perfectpullquote]

Mice can play

The mice can now play because Africa’s cats have lost their felinity. In 2003, when President Fradique de Menezes was visiting Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, and a military band in São Tomé and Príncipe announced the overthrow of De Menezes’ government, Obasanjo stepped up. He did not wait for orders to act.

He simply flew to São Tomé with the embattled De Menezes in a Nigerian aircraft, asked the thugs to stand down and reinstated the elected president. Nigeria’s current president, Muhammadu Buhari, also rallied regional leaders to shoo away Yahya Jammeh in 2017 when he tried to play games after he had been defeated in the Gambian election.

But after that, Buhari, like other regional leaders almost overcome by insurgency at his doorstep, has gone soft. The shuttle diplomacy by Ecowas since Mali fell to soldiers two years ago before Niger and other countries followed, has largely produced talk and more talk. Consequences, the only language bullies understand, have been conspicuously absent.

The greater danger is not only in what is missing but also in what is filling the gap. Where there was public outrage at military coups a decade or more ago, now there is growing acceptance of the aberration as the norm.

The public, tired of the betrayal of trust by politicians, corruption, lack of accountability and the politics of exclusion, does not seem to care any more who is in charge — soldiers or civilians. In fact, there is a dangerously growing nostalgia for military rule.

Crisis of comorbidity

Although the successful elections in Kenya have been a bright spot, Africa, as they say, is largely on its own. Global institutions or countries that might have intervened to mitigate the rising cases of unconstitutional changes in governments are facing a crisis of comorbidity.

The regional body, the African Union, is forlorn and weak. Member states struggling with the predations of Covid-19 and fluctuating commodity prices are buffeted by internal political tensions. The US is facing its own domestic problems, while Russia’s war in Ukraine has left Europe in disarray by compounding already fragile supply chain problems and causing fears of a third world war.

Of the two European powerhouses with strong African ties, one (France) is fast losing face and falling out of favour; while the other (Britain) is losing its way even at home.

It is true that the world has enjoyed considerably more peace since the end of the Cold War and battle-related deaths have declined significantly for decades. It is also true that in the past 30 years more countries around the world, including in Africa, have embraced democratic forms of government, and military coups have become unfashionable. 

Different threat

However, the subregion is facing a different kind of threat. The war in Syria and the destabilisation of Libya and the Sahel have had negative consequences on the efforts of a number of countries in the subregion to consolidate their democratic gains. Armed jihadists trying to find a new home have infiltrated the subregion.

They are exploiting long-standing poverty, corrupt leadership and local animosities to unleash a reign of terror from Mali to Chad and from Niger to the northern parts of Nigeria. With one-fifth of governments in west Africa currently under military rule, the subregion is once again a painful reminder of its ragged past. 

And as we saw in Mali, Guinea and now in Burkina Faso — all French West Africa countries — frustration is spilling beyond borders and tarnishing France, perceived to be maliciously complicit.

Yet despair is not a strategy. Neither is condoning or frustration. Africa cannot afford to roll back decades of significant progress in democratisation in a moment of self-justifying insanity. That needs to stop.

Urgent needs

Two things are needed urgently. One, civil society groups on the continent must play a more active role in condemning the spate of military takeovers; and two, however dire things might be across the continent, the African Union must take the lead not just in speaking up against the gradual normalisation of military rule, but also in demonstrating that there would be serious consequences for unconstitutional changes in governments. 

The peer-review mechanism which allowed leaders to compare notes and served as an early warning system of sorts has broken down. It needs to be repaired immediately.

For example, indications from Sierra Leone ahead of next year’s general elections are not encouraging. That is how trouble starts. If the shenanigans of President Julius Maada Bio, including his heavy-handed treatment of the opposition, are not contained, that volatile country could be headed for a serious post-election crisis. Medicine after death cannot become the norm. 

Also, if Nigeria wants to be regarded as anything remotely resembling Africa’s powerhouse, it must quit its current pussyfooting. How can Buhari be comfortable with stepping down next year and retiring to his cattle ranch in Daura with neighbouring countries infested by thugs? 

How can the military general who was once, to put it bluntly, physically restrained by President Shehu Shagari from using troops from Nigeria’s Third Armoured Division to overrun the Chadian incursion in Borno State in the 1980s not be worried that nothing has changed in spite of Ecowas shuttle diplomacy to rein in regional military usurpers in the past two years?

Buhari’s regression from Nigeria’s tough army general to the boss of his cattle ranch in Daura is not good for him or the country. And it is bad for the continent, too.

The slide cannot continue. It is fine to blame outsiders — particularly shamelessly complicit France — for what is going on in much of French West Africa. But leaders on the continent must, and should, be first to prevent the crime or tackle it when it appears. They must take responsibility or risk exposing their own houses to the spreading flame.

Azubuike Ishiekwene is the editor-in-chief at Leadership Media Group.

The article first appeared in Leadership.

Photo by AMISOM via Iwaria.