Making noise for Ali Bongo




They are illegal, abominable anddisruptive and we are angry and disturbed that they are happening in quick succession. But in one respect at least, military coups in Africa these days have shown a qualitative improvement over what they used to be in the 1960s to 1980s. That is, they are bloodless.

A good indicator of that was when toppled President of Niger Mohammed Bazoum was able to get an op-ed article published in Washington Post. Days later, when Chadian President Mahamat Idris Deby visited Niamey, he was allowed to meet with Bazoum. And still later, we saw a video of Bazoum walking unsteadily out of the presidential lodge to his own home. The coupists allowed him to walk out because they said  he signed a resignation letter. It was wise of Bazoum to have signed that letter, knowing it is illegal. I have not read the Constitution of Niger Republic but I believe it made no provision for resignation at gunpoint.

Bazoum said the soldiers cut off light, water and food supplies to his house and he ate only dry rice. That was mean of them, but it was still an improvement over 1974, when Seyni Kountche toppled President Diori Hamani, sent him to a detention camp deep inside the Sahara Desert, and kept him there in solitary confinement until he went blind. In signing an illegal resignation letter, Bazoum borrowed a leaf from former Adamawa State Deputy Governor Bala Ngilari, who was told in 2014 to write a resignation letter addressed to the State Assembly Speaker, or else he will be impeached alongside Governor Murtala Nyako. Knowing, as a lawyer, that such a letter should be addressed to the Governor, Ngilari handed in the letter, waited until the dust settled and then went to court. The court declared his resignation null and void and ordered him to take over from the Speaker following the governor’s impeachment. 

After Bazoum, another sign of the improved quality of African coups came from Gabon. We saw a video of toppled President Ali Bongo, sitting in The Residence [as he himself described it], his hand trembling from a stroke he had four years ago. He complained, in English, which was unusual for a Francophone elite, that he was sitting there and nothing was happening, not knowing what was afoot, and that his wife and son were kept in other places. He then appealed to his “friends all over the world to make noise.” “Make noise,” he repeatedly said, in order to reverse the coup.

Compared to the noise made following the overthrow of Bazoum, Ali Bongo must be disappointed that relatively shrill noise has been made over his own overthrow. One reason is that Gabon, which is just down the Atlantic coast from West Africa, is not a member of ECOWAS. Even though ECOWAS Chairman and President of Nigeria Bola Tinubu condemned the coup, he did not follow up with sanctions and threats to use force as he did in the case of Niger. African Union [AU] however condemned the coup and suspended Gabon from its councils. Gabonese soldiers do not appear to be feeling the heat like their Nigerien counterparts. They designated General Brice Oligui Nguema as Transitional President, carried him shoulder-high in the streets and scheduled his swearing-in for this morning, September 4.

As a fan, not so much of Ali Bongo but of his father Omar Bongo, only because as a young reporter I saw him from a distance at the OAU Summit in Abuja in 1991, I want to make noise for Ali Bongo. Never mind that the Bongos did not ask for any noise to be made when the father took over from President Leon Mba in 1967. One probable reason why the noise for Bongo’s reinstatement is shrill is because, between his father and himself, they ruled Gabon for 56 years. Most citizens of Gabon were born within that time frame; few Gabonese ever knew any ruler whose name was not Bongo. Days before this coup, Ali Bongo had been declared winner of a presidential election for a third term in office. In Nigeria, as in most of Africa, “third term” is a very bad word indeed. I will not say why. 

To call the coup in Gabon an “overthrow of democracy” is a bit of  a stretch. In 1996 when Nigerian troops were trying to restore President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to power in Sierra Leone, a man phoned during a BBC phone-in program and asked why President Dauda Jawara of Gambia was not restored to power after he was toppled in a coup in 1994. Kabbah’s ambassador to Nigeria Joe Blell, who was on the program, said, “You see, Dauda Jawara was in power for 33 years. You can hardly insist on his return.”

Among the factors that discredit civilian rule in the eyes of African citizens is too much longevity in power. When one person rules a country for decades, beyond constitutional term limits and with no end in sight to his rule, it is an invitation for others to resort to unconstitutional means to end his rule. One example was the late President Robert Mugabe. In 1980 when Zimbabwe was to hold its first independence elections, tertiary school students all over Nigeria staged noisy demonstrations  in support of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and against Joshua Nkomo, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and Ian Smith. Many years before Nelson Mandela came along, we regarded Mugabe as the top African nationalist hero. But by 2017 when he was toppled in a coup, we didn’t make noise, because he was in power for 37 years.

Some African rulers remained in power until they were completely senile. Mugabe was 95 in 2017 and almost senile. When President Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi was toppled in a coup in 1994, he was 96, senile and did not even know he had been toppled. His “Official Hostess” Cecilia Kadzamira took him to another house. When Tunisia’s President Habib Bourguiba was toppled in 1987, he was 85 and senile. AFRICA magazine reported that he used to sleep for 15 hours a day. Right now, the oldest African ruler is Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, who is 90, senile, lives in Switzerland and has been in power since 1982. There was this video last year of Biya at a UN conference, and aides were whispering into his ears where he was.

Even when an African ruler is not senile, too long a stay in power damages his standing with his people. Examples included Dauda Jawara [33 years], Kenneth Kaunda [27 years], Hosni Mubarak [30 years], Biya [41 years], Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore [27 years], Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea [44 years],  Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea [32 years] and Paul Kagame [23 years]. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, who is 78, is still alert and intellectual but after 37 years in power, he hardly represents Ugandan democracy. Alassane Ouattara, who is 81, has ruled Ivory Coast non-stop for 14 years even though it took a combined French/rebel military action in 2010 to chase out Laurent Gbagbo with his sit-tight bid.

Not all long-serving African rulers ended up being discredited. How one leaves power is also important. In 1984 when Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, after ruling for 22 years, served his Chama Cha Mapinduzi party with a year’s notice that he was retiring, Vice President Ali Hassan Mwinyi led party leaders to plead with him not to retire. Mwalimu firmly rejected the plea and ordered them to go and select a successor. Within an hour they chose Mwinyi. Another good way to leave is to carry out a credible transition program, such as Generals Obasanjo and Abdulsalami Abubakar did in Nigeria in 1979 and 1999, Ahmadou Tamani Toure in Mali in 1992, General Ali Saibou in Niger in 1993, General Swar al-Dhahab in Sudan in 1986, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings in Ghana in 1979 and Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi in Egypt in 2012. 

Hereditary rulership also discredits democracy in Africa. After Arabia’s absolute Kings, Europe’s ceremonial monarchs, Thai and Cambodian Kings and the old Indian Maharajas, Africa is the home of hereditary monarchs at the sub-national level. It is a problem when this is transplanted to national level. Ali Bongo suffered this image problem when he succeeded his father, and Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe is another African ruler who succeeded his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled for 30 years from 1967 to 1997. When Ian Khama  became Botswana’s President in 2008, it was not seen in the same light because his father, Sir Seretse Khama, left the seat in 1980.

What should AU and ECOWAS do to arrest the expanding coup belt in Africa and possibly reverse it? Well, they should continue to insist on democratic rule and punish coupists, but it is probably time also to amend the definition of democratic rule in Africa to exclude third term, too much longevity, senility and hereditary rule at the national level. I know some people will like to add human rights abuse, corruption and servile attitude to imperial powers to the list. One step at a time. If we add all those, few people will be qualified to attend AU meetings. 

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