Linda Apollo

As coups reappear on the African continent, there is a growing body of commentary that has problematically sought to compare them with electoral democracy.  So, do coups signal an end to democracy and thus a return of the scary opposite, authoritarianism?

The BBC, which officially never publishes opinions, ran a curious opinion piece, “Coups in Africa: why they don’t spell an end to democracy” by Nic Cheeseman and Leonard Mbulle-Nziege. As indicated in the title, the piece aggressively connects coups to authoritarianism and discusses coups as a competitor or threat to democracy.

Framing coups in comparison with electoral democracies is not only crude but is also distractive in the sense that it reduces coups to just a mode of government, problematically viewing them as a highway to authoritarianism.

Coups are much more than a mode of government or a means to power. Coups in Africa are a colonial question related to the modern state. Coups constitute a part of those events that have come to define the search for the soul of the independent African state. Phrased differently, if independence concerned itself with uplifting the formerly colonized, in all spheres of human development such as education, health, income, access to food and water, access to capital, civil liberties and dignity of Africans, then we would not be having the conversation of democracy

The dreams of quality education, access to food and water, access to capital and income etc have been defined and continue to undergo different political processes in different moments in the life of the postcolonial state. What is however historically accurate is that the soul and promise of independence are above any form of government (democratic, authoritative, cultural-hereditary, monarchy etc.) Rather, it is constitutive of different political events. Therefore, these coup-vs-democracy analyses are not only ahistorical and theoretically handicapped, but they also ought to be seen as absolute neo-colonialist distortions. They blur the people’s history, national politics, and economies. They camouflage regimes of power and plunder in which major global political shifts continue to shape the African continent,

In truth, while actors of these coups are responding to or may claim visible local grievances, they are at the same time, sadly, responding to, and are inspired and riding on shifts in political regimes in Europe and North America from where, also, coup execution resources come from. The shifts in European-North American politics which influence local events on the continent often relate to how African resources continue to be plundered.

Africa since independence

One can draw a periodized graph reflecting shifts in African politics and how leaders have changed since independence in the 1950s and 1960s to the present.  These shifts in local African politics were responses to shifts to superior forces in neo-colonial politics. Oftentimes, these shifts have little to do with the men who emerge as new leaders in Africa, except through a little positioning and sheer luck. It could be anybody. This is not to say that African actors are deprived of all action. Not at all.

African actors, especially ordinary folks, have continued to exercise agency in seeking to find meaning in their independent nation-states. But often, they are crushed or exploited by superior international players who are quick to influence and recruit the public through violent means.

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Of course, there are, and will always overlap. But the table captures the most prominent political orders of every decade. For instance, Congolese politician Denis Sassou Nguesso is the living embodiment of these overlaps, having participated in most of these different phases (led coups, liberation wars, and currently wins elections).

Independence saw anti-colonial leaders naturally emerge as presidents and prime ministers: Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana; Patrice Lumumba in Congo-Kinshasa; Milton Obote in Uganda; Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya; Aden Adde in Somalia; Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia; Agostinho Neto in Angola; etc.

The heterogeneous and multiple global structures put in place over years did not evaporate with the juridical-political decolonization of the periphery. Indeed, with African independence, colonialists had only strategically withdrawn but were too impatient to return. As Africa’s leaders sought to consolidate the promise of independence, the “former” sought ways of continued access to resources in the so-called formerly colonized places.

In addition to assassinations, such as, more prominently, that of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (in which Americans and Belgians supported Mobutu Sese Seko), coups were the more prominent feature of the new wave of colonial tinkering starting in the early 1960s and running through the 1980s.

It is important to note that while these coups were the product of local grievances, they were masterminded by former colonizers pushing for access to resources. (In West Africa, to this day, France has sustained its grip on 14 countries using its central bank, its currency, and its military.) With the culture of coups introduced, one coup led to another, and more leaders sought to portray themselves as the most compliant with the demands of their former colonizers.

Then came the Cold War

As superpowers wrestled each other, again over our resources. proxy guerrilla wars gave us the next crop of leaders (1980-90s). Africa became the battleground for “liberation wars”, with contending groups aligned to a superpower, seeking to overthrow the dictator that had come to power through a coup.

Former guerrilla leaders quickly started chanting multiparty politics and surviving coup presidents mutated into capitalist democrats. They promulgated constitutions, and periodically held elections.  But their actual hold on power was not through elections; rather, it was focused on giving former colonizers unlimited access to resources.

These leaders include Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Joseph Kabila of DRC, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, etc. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, former rebels and earlier coup leaders, now democrats and incumbents, organized and won one election after another. In truth, how an election unfolded did not matter; what mattered was the holding of an election itself, which translated into legitimacy for loans and grants.

During this time, with one single power dominating the world, and already granted access to resources across Africa, there was a phase of relative political stability, with leaders enjoying long spells in office.  It did not matter who oversaw the country or which policies they implemented if they implemented free-market economics, which in effect allowed Europe and North America unrestricted access to resources.

Human Rights movements

It is important to note that while these coups were a product of local grievances, they were masterminded by former colonizers jostling for access to resources. Then came the era of human rights movements and discourses, especially within the context of 9/11, the birth of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect doctrines. Emboldened by one of the doctrines, which is protection against human rights and other violations (with potential for intervention), street protests as a legitimate means of political negotiation were born.

Presently, human rights discourses have not necessarily become obsolete, but they have lost their salience and their urgency. They have been overtaken by events. There is dullness around them, especially in black Africa, where current governments freely give foreign banks and Western monopoly capital all the access they need.  But at the same time, our democracy-practising former rebels have found smarter ways of preventing protests from taking place while some communities simply lack the intellectual and material resources to pull off successful protests.

The problem with democracy discourses

Coups have nothing to do with democracy, and nor does democracy have anything to do with coups. But coups point to the revolving life cycle of foreign and local interests, and the quest for meaning in Africa. Democratic or “un-democratic” African countries remain the same: exploited, their economies dominated by Western bankers (and African banks are the most profitable across the world) They are exporters of raw materials (and not because they are unable to add value) and have heavily impoverished populations and a youth problem.

From Nigeria to South Africa, Zambia to Ghana, Kenya, or Uganda, with regular elections and chants of democracy, these countries remain the same in most growth indices.

The poor performance of authoritarian forms of government on African soil helps to explain why the support for democracy is high, perhaps to create the contrast that authoritarian governments elsewhere have performed better. But how does one generate a firm understanding through such ahistorical and untheoretical analyses? It becomes clear that democracy discourses in the present “problem space” of African politics ought to be understood not as necessarily obsolete but overtaken by events ironically emanating from Europe and North America, and their contestations.

Africans remain colonized. New problem spaces require that we ask questions that are specific to the discursive context. Clearly, coups are back because of the nature of the new phase we are in, in the life of the neo-colonized postcolonial state.


Photo credit : Alpha Ousmane Souare