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A fresh look at coups in Africa

Ali Bongo of Gabon is now under house arrest. VIDEO GRAB

Why the Gabon coup is a wake-up call to intellectuals in Africa to rethink politics on the continent

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda There has been yet another a successful military coup in Africa, this time in Gabon. This is a country that has not known a military coup in all its history. It has been under a family dynasty for 56 years. The coup in Gabon follows one in Niger and before that, others in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan, Mali, CAR, Sudan, Zimbabwe etc. And it will not be the last.

There is an urgent need to review the debate about Africa from the stale arguments over democracy versus authoritarianism. We need to recast it on the fragility of the postcolonial state, the legitimacy of inherited institutions and procedures which produce our leaders. We used to think coups are caused by dictatorial leaders clinging to power. Yet the governments in Mali, Guinea, Niger and Burkina Faso that have been overthrown were democracies where an opposition party and candidate had defeated an incumbent.

The West African customs union, ECOWAS, has been threatening to intervene militarily in Niger claiming it is because the army overthrew a democratically elected government. Now the soldiers in Gabon claim to have intervened to defend democracy because elections had been rigged. What will be the attitude of ECOWAS? And if coups continue in West Africa, will ECOWAS intervene everywhere to restore democratic governments that are incapable of protecting themselves from military upstarts?

Of course, ECOWAS is acting on the instigation of big powers, most especially France and the USA, with a vested interest in that country’s uranium. The French and Americans, through their client “regimes” in ECOWAS, are using claims of restoring “democratic government” to mask and justify what is really naked economic greed. Some of these military coups in West Africa may be seeking to reassert sovereignty against foreign domination and exploitation. Whether they will succeed is another matter.

In this column last week, I referred to a debate I had on Twitter Spaces with a democracy jihadist, Jeffrey Smith. He claimed that despots are on the march in Africa. Apparently, his job it to help us Africans regain our freedom. Smith may be a genuine idealist. But regardless of his subjective motivations, the objective outcome of his campaign for democracy is to help Western powers and their corporations gain control over our countries and their resources. In the 19th Century, Christian missionaries came claiming to seek to save our souls. This only helped their home governments establish ideological hold on us, leading to colonization. Democracy has replaced Christianity as the ideological weapon the West uses to masks and justify its imperial ambitions.

For the new colonialism to work, it needs an evangelical priesthood. For this priesthood to be effective, it has to be genuine in its idealism. So, people like Smith could be well intentioned. If they were obvious self-seeking foot-soldiers of the economic ambitions of their home governments and corporations, they would not be believable. Dr. David Livingstone, like so many of his ilk across Africa, was genuinely committed to “emancipating” African souls from “Satanic” worship. To gain ideological hold over us, Europeans needed to win our souls. That meant discrediting our religions as Satanic. This is happening today where our leaders are labelled corrupt tyrants and our political systems, despotic.

This is not to say that claims by the secular priesthood of democracy are pulled out of thin air. On the contrary, many of their accusations are felt deeply by Africans. But nowhere is propaganda more effective (and dangerous) than when it uses (and abuses) obvious facts. Many of our leaders and governments are incompetent and corrupt. However, the West seeks to exploit these internal weaknesses, not to liberate us, but to justify its interventions as it did in Libya, with devastating consequences. Many African elites don’t see this hypocrisy. Neither do many appreciate the need to be our own liberators. No external force helped America or France or Britain or Italy become a democracy. Why then do many white democracy evangelists think Africa needs them to democratize?

The emergence of an evangelical priesthood in the West to spread democracy as a universal secular religion began after the end of the Second World War. This was largely because Europe had witnessed powerful totalitarian governments under communism, Nazism and fascism during the interwar years. Here individual liberty was severely circumscribed by powerful states. The democracy priesthood in the West emerged to counter the power of the state in defense of individual freedom.

But this context is the opposite in Africa. Our biggest challenge is not of powerful states stifling individual freedom but weak states unable to ensure the protection of personal life and property. The challenge is therefore not to constrain powerful states but to build the capabilities of weak states so that they perform the basic function of ensuring a stable political order. By making the spread of democracy the core aim of its missionary activity, the Western democracy jihad is imposing its circumstances on an entirely different context. The results are often counterproductive.

The success of military coups in West Africa is a result of weak states and even weaker civil society. Democracy is an ideal some may desire but there is lack of basic political and economic infrastructure to sustain it. In our countries, the most organized group able to act effectively is the army. Soldiers in Africa come from our societies. They are sons, husbands, brothers, cousins, and neighbors of other Africans. They suffer the same problems as other citizens. Hence, they are often driven to act to the desires of their fellow citizens. Coups may, therefore, reflect popular aspirations.

Intellectually we see governments dichotomously as democratic or authoritarian. But this dichotomy is a Western notion. Governments in Africa run on what we can call “traditional” systems. Their character, practices and conduct are based on evolved norms, values and beliefs embedded in our social consciousness. Their actions, which we may see as dysfunctional, are often ways leaders seek to domesticate a foreign imposed state.

Democracy is not always a solution to our problems. Elections do not necessarily confer legitimacy on the state and its political leaders. Often, they deepen social divisions and heighten political tensions. The genocide in Rwanda was incubated in the context of opening the country to democratic participation and contestation. Military men may act as arbiters in political conflicts even though their interventions may not solve, but instead exacerbate, the crisis of the state. Coups are not about democracy versus authoritarianism but the legitimacy of the state.



  1. I have grown disillusioned with my home continent as I have come to a realization that even a Vietnam that endured a beating that the American military industrial complex could deliver in a 20 year war recovered to have a gdp of over $400bn while Tanzania here that has been peaceful hasn’t created that level of wealth. The indians sent an unmanned mission to the moon recently on a budget of $75m which is peanuts to the oil revenues Gabon harvests per year but instead the aspirations of the Bongos have been to buy boulevards in paris with the Gabonese a poor peasant people. All this is like a chapter in Edward Banfield’s classic Moral Basis of a backward society.

  2. Well said. You could not have put it better. I hope this is read by all our people and I wish this would be a must read for all A level students

  3. Its as if Ugandans are excited about the coups happening in West Africa Uganda is safe coz;
    1. Our immediate neighbors like TZ and Kenya dont have bad manners of entertaining coups.
    2.Radio Uganda no longer exits where will the coup be announced from?
    3.We are economically in a comfort trade zone.
    4.The middle class has achieved alot through hard work and loan facilities they will protect their property and the Nation from war.
    5.We speak English therefore we can not betray the Common Wealth States.
    6. Have you ever heard of a coup in a former British colony State?
    7.The government in Niger has threatened to cut off water,electricity and communication services in the Residence of the French Ambassador really why does France not let it go after all its a temporary situation and that circus of coups will never end in that region provided the people are poor.
    8.Everyone one knows that being a friend with the G7 nation is a big deal we may pretend that we dont need them but behind the closed doors alot happens to keep the relationship alive.
    9.Which kind of recolonization is suitable for Africa today?What can we accept when it comes to social and economic reforms?
    10.West African Leaders have letdown their people;they own Villias in Paris ,marry pretty white women,they make secret trade deals with foreign companies that have ties with powerful Presidents and their families so a failed African state appeals to them.
    11.Our love for Muhoozi is voluntary and we shall vote for him just to thank M7 because there will be no other leader like him in Uganda.Actually there should an amendment in the constitution to allow Muhoozi to immediately rule for 10 Years after M7 has left power.

  4. This is an insightful analysis Mwenda. My only problem with the army-takeover is that they are not offering the best or the least of what the civilians expect from them. Look at Zimbabwe and S. Sudan, the situations are worse than the previous. Let the army focus on liberating and developing the citizens they are claiming of saving from educators

  5. The fundamental problem here and almost everywhere in the world today, is what president Museveni has called ideological bankruptcy. We live in a world where form has has replaced substance. At the bottom of this I see little but greed, shameless greed that has permeated all social institutions. To be rich is glorious, spurred on especially by social media, we have set aside all pretensions of moderation in getting ahead in this rat race existence we live in. Even in church today, fabulous wealth is attributable to God working and living in us regardless of how we came about the said riches.
    Soldiers no longer want to be silent -behind the scene- actors waiting on executive orders. They want in, they have opinions and personal ambitions that go beyond promotion.

  6. Quite confusing argument Mr Anderea! Democracy is bad and despotism isn’t good either!!! So African despots should be left alone to slaughter their fellows as they please; by way of stealing anything and everything they can lay their hands on as long as it’s not the Whites stealing! The Whites’ position is to continue propping up African despots but not ask about accountability of those funds.
    In a nutshell, Mwenda’s argument is too vague, and therefore crap since it has no clearly defined solution for the plight of African peasants!!!

  7. Andrew Mwenda and his fellow influencers would rather join Dr Arikina Chihombori-Quao who appears to be the lone voice crusading against the France’s nefarious”pact for continuation of colonialism” forced down on francophonie Africa conditional on grant for ‘independence’. Guinea and Mali refused to play ball and were severely punished for it. The Arab north won their independence through armed struggle hence the pact never applied thus they remain truly free unlike the Africans in the west and central Africa!

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