Three weeks ago on September 5, President Alpha Condé of Guinea was deposed by the country’s armed forces in a coup d’état led by the commander of the Special Forces, Lt Col Mamady Doumbouya.
On Tuesday, a section of the army in Sudan attempted to stage a coup but within hours the Khartoum government had foiled it.
From January 1956 to December 2001, there were a total of 80 successful coups in Africa, 108 attempted coups, and 139 reported coup plots, with about half of all coups and attempted coups coming from West Africa.
Over the past decade (2010-2020) it looks like a “third wave” of coups is underway.
The current 21st Century wave of coups began in the Central African Republic and Guinea-Bissau in 2003, Mauritania in 2005, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Guinea in 2008, then Niger in 2010, Mali and Guinea-Bissau in 2012, the Central African Republic and Egypt in 2013, Zimbabwe in 2017, Sudan in 2019, Mali in 2020, a second one in Mali in 2021, and then the latest in Guinea in 2021.
Along the way, there were coup attempts in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and the Comoros in 2000, the Central African Republic, Comoros, Burundi and Ivory Coast in 2002, Mauritania in 2003, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea in 2004, Madagascar and Ivory Coast in 2006, Madagascar in 2009, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar in 2010, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau and Niger in 2011, Mali, Ivory Coast and Sudan in 2012.
There were also coup attempts in Benin, the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros and Eritrea in 2013, Libya, the Gambia and Lesotho in 2014, Burkina Faso and Burundi in 2015, Burkina Faso and the Gambia in 2016, Equatorial Guinea in 2017, Gabon and Ethiopia in 2019, and the Central African Republic in 2020 and 2021.
Every time a military coup succeeds in Africa, naturally each continent’s head of state thinks a little uneasily that night.
But one in particular seems to have taken the Guinean coup a little more personally than most other African leaders.
That head of state of a country called Uganda wrote a lengthy missive published on September 15.
It opened with a rather defensive tone:
“The military coups that have taken place in Mali and Guinea, must be evaluated by the African freedom fighters so that we correctly take a principled stand.”
President Museveni, went on to trace the African liberation and independence movement over the last century.
Naturally, he was selective and careful to draw distinctions between what he views as illegitimate and counter-revolutionary seizures of power by army officers and a “principled” toppling of governments that needed to be toppled.
His missive ended with some irony that would leave many a Ugandan smiling: “Long live the sovereignty of the African people through regular free elections of one person one vote, by secret ballot.”
President Museveni’s conclusion, about free and fair elections by secret ballot, partly reveals why Africa is so prone to military coups.
General elections, so obviously flawed and emphatically not free and fair, are regularly held, causing frustration to build up in society, and the state feeling insecure clamps, down on pockets of the media, civil society and political opposition, deepening that frustration even more and in certain instances, it explodes into a coup or coup attempt.
Or as Michael Twaddle, a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, put it in a paper published in 1972 about Idi Amin’s January 25, 1971 coup: “It seemed like a general pattern in post-colonial Africa; British colony became parliamentary regime, parliamentary regime becomes one-party state, one-party state is overthrown by army leader when it becomes excessively repressive, tribalistic and corrupt.”
Starting in 1979, there came a new pattern of military coups in Africa, with junior army and air force officers planning and carrying out coups that in the 1960s had been led by army generals.
Master Sergeant Samuel Doe in Liberia in 1980, Flight Lieutenant John (“Jerry”) Rawlings in Ghana in 1979, and Maj Pierre Buyoya in Burundi in 1987 and, of course, Guinea this year, fit that profile, along with many others.
In Uganda, Maj Patrick Kimumwe in June 1977 and Lt Col Peter Oboma in August 1981 were the only two examples at the time of mid-level officers masterminding coup attempts.
The question, then, is why are coups in Africa -- especially West Africa -- usually staged by officers at the rank of Colonel and below?
Typically, in corrupt states, senior officers from Brigadier to four-star General, head departments where corruption is bound to be rife, such as purchases of weapons, uniforms, vehicles, medicine, construction equipment and so forth.
Senior-ranking military officers, in corrupt countries, are the ones who make the major decisions, sign off procurement contracts and so are more likely to amass unexplained wealth.
It is no surprise that in Uganda, reports and rumours of army officers who own square miles of land, hotels, fleets of buses and large farms are typically Lieutenant Generals, Brigadiers, Major Generals and Generals.
The most senior officers will also usually be promoted because of their loyalty to the head of state or regime.
So, while frustration builds up in society, officers above the rank of Brigadier or its equivalent in the navy are insulated from the general public good.
In this sense, then, junior to mid-level military officers are like their restless counterparts in the civilian population in the media, civil society, political activists and so forth, the only difference is that they are armed and militarily trained.
Why coups take place
For a coup to succeed, it requires four sets of reaction – angry mutineers and coup plotters; a section of the army loyal to the government or the president that deploys to quash the coup attempt; another section of the security forces that is aloof from the unfolding coup, neither supporting the coup plotters not opposing them; and then a civilian population that pours out onto the streets in jubilation at the coup.
The specific question then is: What causes coups to succeed?
Here we can quote the words of President Museveni, spoken in June 2015 in a video message he issued in response to an earlier video message by former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, in which the latter announced his presidential bid for 2016.
“Yes, there is tiredness,” admitted Mr Museveni in an unusually frank and reflective admission.
Following the comprehensive defeat of the ruling NRM party in the politically crucial central region in the January 2021 general election, then minister of Trade and Industry and MP from Mpigi Amelia Kyambadde echoed Mr Museveni’s 2015 admission, when she publicly said among the reasons for the NRM’s heavy loss in Buganda was that the population was simply “tired of us.”
So, “tiredness” or sheer fatigue with governments in power for decades has created conditions for military coups in Africa. Public protests have become the norm in some of these countries. During the riots, it is striking how today’s youthful population seem to enjoy the drama.
Too many demonstrations and too much regular deployment of the army, police and teargas have made these youth accustomed to these situations.
When riot police and soldiers fire at them or above their heads, one notices the youth, including girls, running away not screaming but laughing and cracking jokes.
The same frustration over late wages, a shortage of money, poor housing, disgust at the almost daily reports of rampant corruption, the perception of certain tribes or regions being above the law or getting most state jobs are felt as much by junior soldiers, policemen, prisons officers and intelligence officers as the rest of the population in which they live and interact with.
And then, soldiers and policemen are not like civilians. Crowds of angry civilians can gather on the streets to protest but just a few rounds of AK-47 fire blasted into the air makes them scamper for cover.
Soldiers have weapons, they are used to the sound of rifle, artillery and tank fire, can tell the direction of fire and can tell from the way a sub-machinegun trigger is held whether it is a threat or not.
In other words, when foot soldiers and policemen get angry and decide to take to the streets in a large-scale mutiny, they are unlikely to panic and flee at the mere sound of a few rounds of gunfire.
As this writer stated in Sunday Monitor several weeks ago, perhaps what has so far prevented uprisings against some governments by the armed forces is that most of the top-ranking officers double as businessmen and, therefore, feel little incentive to change the status quo.
The section of the army more likely to take on coup plotters or mutineering sections of armies are the Special Forces, which are the presidential guard in many African countries.
But then, it was Guinea’s Special Forces that recently staged the coup and in 1971 it was the army’s elite and mechanised regiment, Malire, that staged the coup that brought Maj Gen Idi Amin to power.
In summary, the only reason there has not been a military coup in some countries is simply because there has not been one. Everything seems impossible until the day it happens.
There have been coup attempts in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Comoros in 2000, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Comoros, Burundi and Ivory Coast in 2002, Mauritania in 2003, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea in 2004, Madagascar and Ivory Coast in 2006, Madagascar in 2009, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar in 2010, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau and Niger in 2011, Mali, Ivory Coast and Sudan in 2012, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros and Eritrea in 2013, Libya, the Gambia and Lesotho in 2014, Burkina Faso and Burundi in 2015, Burkina Faso and the Gambia in 2016, Equatorial Guinea in 2017, Gabon and Ethiopia in 2019, and CAR in 2020 and 2021.