The conventional narratives that coups are much fewer today compared to their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s are a myth that must be unpacked! While the obvious associate coups with violent overthrow and forceful military power seizure, the actual causes of coups in Africa remain widely unheard of. This article contends that whilst the military cannot be excluded from Africa’s coup narratives, political elites are the real perpetrators of coups on the continent. These types of coups are less heard of, never publicized, and usually defended by many. Largely military led, several literatures affirm that during the 1960s and 70s, there were power seizure attempts in Africa every 55 days. This was largely credited to undemocratic governance, ethnic tension, and institutional failures. Today, the root causes of these narratives literarily remain unchanged. But usually taken for granted is ‘’constitutional coup d’état’’ championed by men in ‘’civilian garments.’’ This malady has not only created a dent in democratic sanity, but has bred fertile grounds for stratocracy in Africa. Mostly perpetuated by ruling political elites, the military has capitalized on this governance deficit to make their way to political power. Attributed to what I call ‘’overstayers’ syndrome’’, African leaders would normally decide to keep grip on power because they insist ‘’the people demand of them to do so’’. At the same time, the military sees coup d’état as a means of ‘’saving the state’’ from leaders who intended to prolong their stay in power. This scramble for state control and power retention undermines democratic governance and creates political uncertainty in Africa. Whether their peak of the 1960s and70s, or their decline in the late 20th and 21st centuries, coup d’états have dual dimensions. One led by the military officers and another championed by political elites. Unless the conventional understanding of coups is unpacked to realize these dual faces, the myth of a decline shall continue to resonate. Coups have never been rare in recent times; the narratives were just one-sided.
Term Limit: Curse or Power Addiction?
Whether elected officials or military heads of state, it appears like African Leaders are not accustomed to regular regime change. It might shock you to know that after a review of several literatures and studies by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, only 21 African countries have respected terms limits since 2015. Prior to the adoption of the Lomé Declaration in July 2000, term limits were changed 47 times in 28 countries from April 2000 to July 2018. Of these, only six attempted changes did not materialize. Countries such as Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Chad, Burundi, Algeria, and even Togo, have not respected term limits. I am highlighting Togo because the Lomé Declaration, which is Africa’s response to unconstitutional change of government (UCG) was adopted in Lomé, Togo. Yet, the very Togo where the declaration was adopted has failed to set an example.
On the other hand, countries like Somalia, Ethiopia, the country that hosts Africa’s biggest decision-making house (the African Union), and Libya have no two-term limits. This implies that leaders in these countries have the latitude to stay in power as they wish. Similarly, commanders-in-chief in Angola, Madagascar, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic, Mali, etc. failed to adhere to any term limits. With this, the ultimate policy prescriptions include but are not limited to: straight adherence to term limits provided for under respective constitutions, those that abolished term limits to restore it, and those that lacked term limits to adopt it.
More Reforms Needed
Whether inconsistency in terms limits, current data affirms that depending on the country, years per term are not harmonized across Africa. For example, whilst leaders in Ghana have a maximum of eight years in power at four years per term, commanders-in-chief in Kenya have a total of ten years at five years per term. Additionally, those in Liberia enjoy a maximum of twelve years at six years per term, while Rwanda has seven years for the presidential term of office. With these inconsistencies in the number of years required per term, it makes a strong case to argue that the number of years per term must be further unpacked and harmonized to reflect consistency. This implies that the longevity per term of office must define the term limit per office across the African region. Delving further, a one term in Rwanda (7 years) is approximately two terms in Ghana, whilst two terms in Liberia (12 years) amounts to three terms in Ghana or Nigeria. These inconsistencies, however, suggest that Africa and its leaders are brilliant at mimicking everything from the West except consistencies in term length per office. With these variations in the number of years per term, the continent must not be shocked to witness further constitutional amendments beyond the seven years, the maximum threshold per the AU guideline. Afterall, implementing punitive measures for contravention of regional and continental agreements have been generally weak.
Africa is diverse, and so is its political culture and systems. Although a one-size-fits-all approach to democratic governance might sound unrealistic, critical conditions like the institutionalization and uniformity in the number of years per term would prove extremely vital. Hence, any reform must consider the two prescriptions below:
- Ensure that the number of years required per term is harmonized across the African region.
- Minimize the term limits for countries with longer years per term.
Defiance amid Policies
Rather than coups alone, unlimited or no adherence to presidential term limits poses the biggest threat to democratic governance in Africa. Consequently, the OAU in July 2000 adopted the Lomé Declaration at the 36th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of States of Governments in Lomé, Togo. The Declaration is the continent’s response to the ‘’Unconstitutional Change of Government’’ (UCG) in Africa. It defines four key situations that constitute UCG. They include:
- A military coup d’état against a democratically elected government.
- An intervention by mercenaries to replace a democratically elected government.
- The replacement of a democratically elected government by armed dissident groups and rebel movements; and
- The refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair, and regular elections.
You might observe that while changing term limits poses grave challenges to democratic governance in Africa, the four situations addressing UCG place more emphasis on military takeovers than constitutional reversals. As such, and whilst a military takeover might not be the best alternative, the army is usually viewed as the lead perpetrator of coups in Africa. In a policy brief authored by then Chief of Staff to the Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Ambassador Said Djinni, he asserts that the Lomé Declaration initially contained a fifth situation. The fifth situation focused on amendments for retaining power as an infringement on democratic principles. He termed such inclusion as vital in lending credibility to the Lomé Declaration. Unfortunately, the fifth situation was removed by the Committee of Ambassadors at the OAU Summit in July 2000. Ambassador Djinni termed the situation as ‘’very disappointing’’ because the framers were convinced that the Assembly of Heads of State would have retained it. Interestingly though, the Lomé Declaration was welcomed as a progressive policy document. To date, it is the guiding instrument of the AU with respect to unconstitutional change of government.
Looking further beyond, evidence shows that the adoption of the July 2000 Lomé Declaration brought along several contraventions in term limits in several African countries. In fact, whilst historical evidence shows that military coups faded considerably between the mid-1990s and 2000s, some African leaders were busy amending their constitutions to cling to power.
The Dilemma of Effectiveness
So why are coup resurgences and frequent constitutional reversals still prevalent in Africa? Whilst the nature and scope of this question may not allow for a single sentence response, it is important to highlight that even with good and noble intentions, good policies can still face enormous challenges in addressing problems they intend to address. Thus, it seems difficult to gauge their measurable outcomes or preventive effects.
Despite a few regional successes in restoring constitutional orders and preventing some coups, evidence also shows that little has been done to curtail Africa’s governance woes. For example, Article 23 of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance highlights sanction as a consequence of UCG, yet there is little evidence to demonstrate that this has been effective. From a human behavior and resilience perspective, I would rather argue that economic and political sanctions are gradually becoming a thing of the past. The world must now realize that human agency and sanctioned states are intelligent enough to optimize the coping mechanisms most suitable to survive in difficult times. Moreover, it appears like sanctions are to military takeovers; whilst diplomatic interventions are to constitutional reversals. Did the AU impose sanctions when countries such as Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon, Chad, and Rwanda reversed their constitutions? What did the AU do when leaders in Uganda, Burundi Comoros, and Egypt, amended their constitutions to retain power? This limited will by African leaders to implement regional instruments poses a real dilemma of policy legitimacy on the continent.
It is also important to note that even sanctioned states have friends in the comity of nations. Knowing this, and endeavoring to flex global dominance, some superpowers stand ready to establish lasting ties with sanctioned states. Similarly, tyrannical and unconstitutional regimes have allies. Moreover, historical evidence demonstrates that some countries with the longest serving leaders in Africa enjoy the perennial confidence of other dominant global powers. Take a while to ask yourself this question, why was Mugabe globally criticized than Museveni? Paul Biya is still the president of Cameroon, is he a better overstayer? By the way, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogohas been presidentof Equatorial Guinea since 1979. There is certainly a lot to do! Just as the repeated occurrences of crimes in a particular community do not automatically infer that law enforcement officers are not doing their jobs; these limitations do not imply that nothing is being done. Rather, they ignite an immediate call for institutional strengthening and collective enlightenment for democratic governance.
From Liberators to Tyrants
Following the Malian coup led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo on 22nd March 2012, President Alassane Ouattara, the then chairperson of ECOWAS led a high-level delegation to restore political order in Mali. It might interest you to know that even Blaise Compaoré, the former president of Burkina Faso who ousted Thomas Sankara through a coup d’etat in 1987 was a member of that delegation. Eight years later, and despite warnings from the opposition, the constitutional council confirmed incumbent President Ouattara, re-election bid to contest in 2020. Well, he might have learned from his Malian counterpart. Additionally, some pundits also asserted that Ouattara’s third term bid was further triggered by the passing of his anointed successor, Prime Minister Amadou Gon. Although this is no justification for cleaving to power, this is a real testament that Africa’s governance woes are created by its leaders.
In the case of Gabon, Dr. Omar Bongo Ondimba, one of Africa’s most Francophile head of states that ever-lived dominated Gabonese politics and ruled for 42 years. Throughout is reign, he had connection with key political actors and every French president. From Presidents Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac, through Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, François Mitterand, and Nicolas Sarkozy, he was strongly connected. He also a paramount chief with all the benefits thereof, he would tour the country dishing out millions of CFA, solving community issues, and attending wedding ceremonies. He would respond to those who coitized him this way: “There are people like François Mitterrand (France’s longest serving president) and I for whom the critics cause no insomnia.” On 8 June 2009, former president Bongo breathed his last in Barcelona, Spain. His son, Ali Bongo Ondimba, the then funk singer and playboy, a man view by others as an ‘’outsider’’ would then succeed his father to continue the Bongo’s dynasty. Born as Alain Bernard Bongo in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville, there are also controversies about his paternity. With persistent rumors that he was adopted from South-Eastern Nigeria during the Biafran war. The French historian and author, François Gaulme, put it like this, “He wasn’t born in the presidential palace, but almost. He was about eight when his father became president,” Today, the Gabonese state stands at a crossroad, with allegations that the Bongo family turned the country into a kleptocratic regime, marred by controversial elections and coup d’état.
Let’s have a brief look at the Republic of Uganda. When President Yoweri Kaguta Museveniwas first inaugurated as President in 1986, he attributed Africa’s troubles to leaders who outstayed their term of office. A speech widely applauded and seen by many as the beginning of a new dawn for the Republic of Uganda. About thirty-seven years now, President Museveni is still in charge of state machinery. In an unwritten statement during the State of Nation Address in 2017, President Museveni responded to continuous interruptions from opposition members of parliament regarding his longevity in power, stating: “Being president for a very long time is not a bad thing. That is why I am experienced…Even if you woke me up at night, I will tell you what is happening.” Former president Robert Mugabe would say ‘’Only God who appointed me will remove me-not the MDC, not the British, only God will remove me.”
Whether it is Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Museveni of Uganda, Assoumani of Comoros, Biya of Cameroon, African leaders have a lot in common. The goal is all about how to retain power without uncompromising or losing it. If the constitution does, they would circumvent it, if a particular government functionary does, it is subverted, if political opponents did, they are silenced for good. They begin as liberators but end up as tyrants.
Whether it is military led or championed through constitutional reversals, all coups are dangerous for democracy. They put democratic governance at a crossroad and breed fertile grounds for stratocracy in Africa. Despite continental, regional, and national policy measures to mitigate coups, their frequent occurrences are largely attributed to bad governance and institutional paralysis. From the independence decades of the 1960s to the twentieth and twentieth first centuries, coups have always been a part of Africa’s governance narratives. They have never faded away, neither have they been a thing of the past. They only took a new dimension toward constitutional reversals; the story lines have long been one-sided.
Emmanuel is an International and Rural Development professional. He has deep rooted interest in international political economy, regional governance, food security, and sustainable livelihood. He holds a master’s degree in development studies from the China Agricultural University, Beijing, China and another Master of Development Policy from the KDI School of Public Policy and Management, South
Korea. He can be reached via: [email protected],