What you need to know:
- The record of military rulers has been as bad, if not altogether more atrocious, than when civilians have been in charge. What is more, there are very few countries that one can point to where the military has not had an oversized role or been active players even when the top leadership is civilian.
We have been here before. On Wednesday, army officers in Libreville announced they had ousted Mr Ali Bongo, president of Gabon. This is Bongo Junior, not that he is that young. Rather, that in 2009, he inherited the reins of power from his father, Omar, who had ruled the oil-rich but sparsely populated Central African nation since 1967, a whopping 42 years.
Between Bongo Senior (1967-2009) and Bongo Junior (2009-2023), the Bongos have ruled Gabon for a combined 55 years, a record only comparable to the Eyadema family in Togo, where Gnassingbe, the father, and his son Faure, have together ruled the West African nation for 55 years! Gnassingbe passed away in 2005 and the baton passed on to the son, Faure. Military coups have for long been a common feature of the African political landscape. They are often received with rapturous celebrations. Yet, a careful analysis shows they have hurt more than they have helped .
The record of military rulers has been as bad, if not altogether more atrocious, than when civilians have been in charge. What is more, there are very few countries that one can point to where the military has not had an oversized role or been active players even when the top leadership is civilian.
That is, whether or not whoever is at the top is draped in military fatigues, the armed forces and men in khaki have been prominent, in fact the most consequential actors in the politics of most African states, post-independence. Put another way, even if the military does not overtly overthrow civilian rulers through coups, the uniformed personnel and their corporate group, nevertheless, tend to drive politics indirectly, including determining election results, aiding dubious constitutional amendments like removal of term limits to entrench incumbents, committing rights violations on behalf of civilian politicians, among others egregious acts.
This was the message of a book I and some colleagues published last year on civil-military relations in Africa, whose subtitle is Beyond the Coup D’état? While we placed a question mark to the subtitle, in the main, our core argument was that there was need to move beyond the focus and obsession with the coup d’état. Coups are dramatic and make for salacious media reporting, but they seldom tell us the full story of the role of the armed forces in African politics and society.
Our book argues that coups had been such a common phenomenon for most of the first decades of independent Africa, but given that since about the mid-2000s, they were on the decline, it was somewhat sterile to remain fixated on them. In fact even with the recent recrudescence that has caused so much animation and chatter, taken decade-by-decade, there were fewer coups in Africa in 2010s than previous decades and it is too early to say if the 2020s will necessarily give us more coups than, say, in the 1990s or 1980s.
In the momentous environment and heat of triumphalism, there is often misguided celebration of military coups, but this betrays a lack of historical context and grasp of Africa’s post-independence politics.
In the Gabonese case, for example, the man who stepped forward to claim to take charge has been a key member of the rulership, in fact a blood relative of the Bongos and a beneficiary of the grand corruption of the country’s ruling class. He represents continuity, not change.
This is precisely what happened with the ouster of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar Bashir in Sudan. Military coups have scarcely been the route to structural change and a break with the status quo in African states. Instead, coups are a convenient power grab, just like rigging elections.
Take the recent cases of Niger and earlier Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. The same army officers running the show in fighting jihadists turned around to overthrow civilian rulers under the pretext of the latter’s failure to defeat jihadist insurgency! But it should be civilian leaders to fire the armed personnel for counterterrorism or counterinsurgency failures, not the other way around. How can the army blame civilian leaders for failures under the former’s remit? Also worth noting, despite the feel-good public sentiment that welcomes military coups, the reality is an appalling track-record of performance when the men in uniform have occupied the presidential mansions of African states. It is not just that military rulers tend to have a horrible human rights record, it is also that African economies never do well under military rulership. Overall social welfare is not necessarily better when armed men take over.
Quite to the contrary, countries that have had long periods of civilian leadership, however underwhelming and less visionary, also tend to do better in a variety of measures of growth, political stability and social development: Botswana, Mauritius, Kenya, Senegal, Zambia, South Africa, among others.
Bottom-line is that coups are never a revolutionary force that can turn around the political landscape in African states.