The poisoned chalice of the coup d’état

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • The coup d’état has mostly been a poisoned chalice, enticing and clutched onto by those clamouring for change

Africa’s year of independence is generally taken to be 1960. More than a dozen states gained sovereignty in that year alone, after which it was a matter of when, not if, other countries still under colonial rule would gain independence.  Several North African nations became independent earlier, but it was Ghana’s in 1957 that marked the signature turn in a march to freeing the continent from European colonial rule.

However, before long, Egypt registered Africa’s first military coup d’état in 1952 and Sudan followed in 1958. Further south and across to the west, the bloody overthrow of President Sylvanus Olympio in Togo in 1963 became the bookend to an unfolding wave.

When the men in uniform turned on President Kwame Nkrumah in 1966, the reverberations rang loud across the continent, indeed around the world. Nkrumah was not just the doyen of Africa’s struggle for liberation, he was the chief architect of a united continent. His overthrow was a clear harbinger of what lay ahead for the continent.

By the end of the 1970s, there had been a staggering 40 successful military coups. In Benin, the historian Richard Reid has laconically noted a revolving-door regularity of soldiers overthrowing soldiers: in 10 years, there had been five coups in that country.  The overthrow of Dr Nkrumah in 1966 introduced a coup-culture that dogged Ghana for a long time. After a brief return to civilian, democratic rule in 1969, President Kofi Busia was overthrown in 1972 by Col Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, in turn overthrown in a palace coup in 1978 by his deputy, Gen Frederick Akuffo, only for the latter too to be overthrown months later in a junior officer’s coup in June 1979!

It was a tempestuous time in Ghana. Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings and others had mutinied in May 1979, were arrested and condemned to death for attempting to overthrow Gen Akuffo’s ruling junta, the Supreme Military Council.

As he awaited execution, a small group of junior officers daringly freed Rawlings, who then announced the overthrow of Akuffo and a new government under the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC then went on a rampage called ‘house-cleaning’.  In what was arguably the most extreme and chilling public act, the ‘small boys’ running the show in Ghana publically executed half a dozen senior army officers, including three former heads of state: Generals Akuffo, Acheampong and Afrifa, who in 1966, co-led the coup against Nkrumah. 

Allegedly, the ‘big men’ in the army and their civilian counterparts had visited so much wrong on the country through corruption, abuse of power and runaway malfeasance such that there was need for an operation of exorcism. The mantra of the time, given moral currency and credibility by a controversial Catholic priest, the Rev Dr Kwabena Damuah, was ‘let the blood flow’. And flow, it did.

For what it was worth, elections were swiftly held at the end of 1979 and a new civilian president, Dr Hilla Limann, took over, only to be overthrown on the last day of 1981 in what became Rawlings’ second coming under a new junta name, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC). It was another junior officers’ coup.

The PNDC ruled with an iron-first up to 1992 when Rawlings transitioned to an elected, civilian president and stepped down in 2000 after serving two elective terms. During the first three years of PNDC rule, between 1982 and 1985, there were at least five attempted coups, heroically foiled by a Sandhurst trained officer with a rather curious name: Maj Courage Quashigah!

Junior officers overthrowing governments, including the extant military hierarchy, became somewhat a modal trend replicated in Liberia, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) and most infamously in Sierra Leone, where in 1992, Capt Valentine Strasser, became the world’s youngest head of state at 24, perhaps clueless what to do with the power that came with that position!

At any rate, the painful experience of numerous coups and failed coups in Ghana, especially at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, appears to have entrenched an anti-coup norm that has held firm.  Today, Ghana runs on a precarious governing system with democratic pretensions and citizens’ disillusionment at the failed promises of democracy, elite corruption and alternation of power between two parties with little socioeconomic transformation. But the average Ghanaian civilian, and in the armed forces, is unlikely to view a military takeover as a necessary remedy.

In many African countries, nearly every successful coup receives rapturous public celebrations from citizens desperate for better government and accountable leadership. Yet, as I argued last week, the record of military rulers and militarism is deeply appalling and hardly worth embracing.  The coup d’état has mostly been a poisoned chalice, enticing and clutched onto by those clamouring for change, but in the end little more than another power grab by self-seeking individuals, hardly different from rigged elections that in any event happen at the behest of uniformed personnel or civilian-cloaked military actors.