On Monday morning, a hapless group of soldiers in Gabon tried to stage a military coup against President Ali Bongo Ondimba, and by lunch time, they had been thwarted. Bongo himself has been away from Gabon since he fell ill while in Saudi Arabia last October, where he was treated, and eventually he flew to Morocco in late November, from where he has been recuperating.
Coups have become so old-fashioned even in Africa where they were once the norm, that this was bound to fail. And just as well. An African soldier who oversees a meaningful transition to democracy (as the coup makers in Gabon had promised) is as rare as a Ugandan leader who holds free elections or leaves power voluntarily.
Nigeria got a lucky break with Nigeria’s military ruler Gen Abdulsalam Abubakar. Upon taking over when the murderous Sani Abacha died in June 1998, he hastened to push through changes and hold elections and hand over power to winner Olusegun Obasanjo by May 1999, before the cement had dried properly on his predecessor’s grave. I once listened to Gen Abubakar speak in Durban - an impressive fellow with a marvelous beard to match. However, the real reasons 1970s and 80s-style coups where mutinous soldiers oust a leader and cut off and eat his ears, are rare in today’s Africa, have to do with significant social and political changes within African polities.
We have neglected to study them because they are not as exciting as studying rebel armies, and the fascinating alliances that enable street protests that have ousted leaders on the continent recently. The millions of revolutionaries in Egypt’s Tahrir Square are far sexier than anything soldiers will serve up. And we have not yet got over the women beating pans and waving cooking spoons, as they hounded Blaise Compaore out of power in Burkina Faso in October 2014. The thing is that even armies that have their roots in guerrilla wars, like our UPDF, have a far more elite officer corps than in the past. An Idi Amin simply would not become Army Commander in most of Africa today.
The children of army chiefs go to some of the most exclusive private schools at home or abroad. One reason for this is that the lessons of the coup decades have actually been internalised, and the military has been co-opted in the system of privilege and patronage in ways the colonial-era separation of military and politics wouldn’t recognise. Today, we have mostly civilian-military condominiums, with several bright-eyed securocrats, ruling in Africa.
Whereas in the past there would be tension between the military and civilian government, these days the contest is more within militaries - between people from the president’s community against the rest, between regions, the loyalists and suspected opposition sympathisers, and even between parts of the army (airforce vs infantry, etc).
But the biggest three cleavages are philosophical (should the army go on the streets and fire on protestors or not, an issue that decided Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s fate in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt in 2011); ideological (we saw this when UPDF was in DR Congo, and when Ecowas moved in to kick out Jahya Jammeh in The Gambia in 2017 when he tried to steal back victory from the Opposition); and over class and historical pedigree (partly explains how Robert Mugabe’s long-reign was ended in 2017).
The increased levels of literacy in Africa, have fed armies educated recruits who have formed a middle buffer between the cream of the officer corps who have heated swimming pools in their backyards, and the struggling foot soldiers at the bottom. The kind of quick mobilisation of disaffected segments that made coups possible in times gone by is harder today. But also, education and social mobility, mean that the middle and lower ranks of the military are more diverse than in the past, so you have less of a solid block of northern, eastern, or western soldiers there. The top officer ranks, however, tend to be narrow and sectarian – which is necessary for the cohesion that protects privilege.
There are several other factors that have happened in the wider society, but we shall focus on one – economic liberalisation. In the days of over-centralised economies, when state-controlled producing boards bought all crops, and the government allocated sugar, salt, school uniforms, and housing, the prize of seizing power was big.
A polygamous general would get a government house for each of his three wives. Today, he would have to steal the money once in government to build or rent for them houses. Today, from the underbelly of economic liberalisation, he can still do all that without a military regime, through double dipping – without the political responsibility, in case, as they always do, things go wrong.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site. Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]