ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER COUP IN AFRICA? HAS THE DEMOCRACY PROJECT FAILED IN OUR CONTINENT?
The rising number of coups in our continent has shown that almost half a century after most of our African countries gained independence, the gains of democracy have started to roll back.
There was a time when the continent faced a wave of dictatorship and one-party states at a continental scale. Whether this was in Nigeria or Tanzania, Central African Republic or Libya Burkina Faso or even Congo, Angola or Kenya it was a gloomy picture all over. Almost everywhere the continent was ruled by what was then known as a strong man syndrome, where the leader was more powerful than the state. Nothing personifies this more than the authoritarian dictatorship of Pual Biya, Omar Bongo or even King Sobhuza II.
Then slowly as a continent, we started to consolidate democracy. Civil wars gave way to peace and dialogue. Multi party elections were reintroduced and a semblance of democracy seemed to be taking root. Our elections began to change governments without compromising the state. Leaders like Thabo Mbeki sold us the idea of an African Renaissance and promoted African solutions to African problems. The world agreed.
Even in instances where there were coups African regional bodies spoke with courage and condemned the military meddling in politics. The concept of African peer review started to take shape as a way for the continent to hold each other accountable. But still, the conditions of our people never improved. Even as democracy consolidated, civil wars died down and Africa began to show promise, our people still did not eat the fruits of this "democratic " change. Poverty, hunger, unemployment and underdevelopment continued to wear the face of Africa.
To the doom-sayers, democracy was failing to transform the lives of our people. Elections were leading to violence. One needed to look at the post elections violence in Kenya in 2008, the violence in Zimbabwe in early 2000, the violence that erupted in Côte d'Ivoire and so many other countries. What was wrong with Africa, we all asked. Others went so far as to claim democracy is not good for us and were willing to embrace anything so long as there was stability, development and peace.
That is why African leaders only condemned King Mswati´s Tinkhundla system in a language of circumlocutions. The foremost question to African leaders (working on the advantage of hindsight and continental experience) Should Swaziland replace their peace, stability and relative development to experiment with a democracy that may come with instability, wars and internal wrangling? With that answer, King Mswati escaped with murder.
Everywhere in the continent, our leaders were insistent on ruling till they died. Mugabe was contesting an election at 83 years for god sake. He had been in power for 37 years. Gadaffi was clocking 40 years in power, and Gabon´s Omar Bongo was in power for 42 years before parcelling power to his son. Our leaders were getting richer than the state. The world wondered what was wrong with Africans.
Then something happened at the turn of the century, post 2010 to be exact. The authoritarian rulers started to fall one by one. The Arab Spring washed them all out from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria to Libya the rulers were kicked out screaming and whining. The Arab Spring wave caught on, even though sometimes not too pretty (as in the case of the coup that removed Mugabe) but the end justified the means, we said. Even the hereto "peaceful" Swaziland gave the rulers a scare by attempting an uprising in 2011 and 2021.
The people all over our continent found their voice, buoyed of course by the success of the Arab Spring. Soon Blaise Compaoré was gone, then Sudan´s Omar al-Bashir. Some leaders left power voluntarily: Angola´s Do Santos left and so too was Congo strong man, Joseph Kabila. Smooth transitions, we a rare exception than the norm. We thought the continent had entered a new phase. But we were wrong.
We were wrong because the wave of protests, uprisings or even smooth electoral victories of opposition parties in countries like Malawi, Ghana, Zambia or even Botswana (smooth transfer of power between Khama and Masisi), masked a far sinister seismic shift in Africa´s politics: the rise of coup and involvement of the military in politics.
Beneath the veneer of transitions (calm or turbulent) lurked danger. The recent coup in Niger and the furore surrounding it has demonstrated the desperation of Africans for change, whatever that change means or how it comes. Instead of supporting the principled position of ECOWAS to reverse the coup, the same way they took a principled stand to stand up against Gambia President Yahya Jammeh, who attempted to steal an election even after conceding defeat, here we are supporting the military coup.
It is understandable why we are this desperate but we must never throw away principles for political expediency. Just as we condemn authoritarian leaders who steal elections and subvert democracy we must never celebrate the military involving itself in politics. We must never be so despondent about our fate that we willingly eat poisoned fruits with our eyes wide open.
The recent civil war in Sudan should have taught us exactly why the army must never join politics. The army´s place is in the barracks and must never come near politics. After all, we have still not healed from the military directorship of Nigeria in the 70´s. Others may very well argue that it was a coup that gave us Thomas Sankara but I argue that for every one Sankara, we have had five Albashirs of this world. Sankara was a rare exception just as Chavez was a rare exception in Venezuela.
Even though our despondency with our African institutions is at an all-time high, we must not throw the baby with the bath water. Even though some are excited at the politics of Burkina Faso President Ibrahim Traore the fact that the country has experienced two coups in nine months is a cause for concern. In case you didn't know, Ibrahim Traore came to power courtesy of two coups in under nine months – January and September 2022.
This shows a growing trend in the country. Instead of calling our regional institutions like SADC and ECOWAS all sorts of names (coming short of demanding the disbandment even), we must rather call for them to have more teeth, to stand up against stealing elections (like they are doing in Zimbabwe) or approving toy ones (like in Swaziland).
The answers do not lie in dismantling our regional bodies or surrendering our fate to the military. The answer lies in consolidating democracy in the continent, building institutions of accountability and strong, independent and vibrant civil society. At the end of the day, Africa has not been failed by democracy. It is failed by our leaders.
The fact that we still have Uganda´s Museveni, Equatorial Guinea´s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Cameroon´s Paul Biya, Congo´s Denis Sassou Nguesso and Eritrea´s Isaias Afwerki means we have a lot to do.