Coups and Mega Trends of Democracy



0805 500 1974                    

In a very engaging interview on ARISE NEWS last week, a former permanent representative of African Union to the United States, Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao, drew attention to the mega trends that should be studied in order to understand  the epidemic of coups in Africa.

For clarity, she made this  statement without prejudice to  the immediate steps that the AU and ECOWAS should take  in response to the military take-over of power in some African countries. The bigger picture of things in the African democratic landscape is really the focus of the Zimbabwean medical doctor and activist.

Conceptually, to study mega trends is to look at the patterns of events and locate major shifts while relating the whole movement to the macroenvironment. In the specific matters of recent  coups in Africa, Chihombori-Quao pointed to a fact: “Interference from the Western world is the biggest challenge that all African countries are running into.”

For instance, in the case of the latest coup in Gabon, she called for restraint in drawing hasty conclusions: “We don’t know if France is involved. We need to take time, the situation is too fresh and fluid, and premature for us to make a statement to say France is not involved.” With a compelling analysis of event, Chihombori-Quao put at the centre the  factor of France, a neo-colonial power, in apprehending the plague of coups afflicting Francophone Africa. She drew a pattern of the West always supporting the “opposition” regardless of the political dynamic in the respective African countries. Such a blind support for a so-called democratic opposition and an  irresponsible intervention in Libya by the West has put that country in a political quagmire with terrible consequences for regional security. Before the neoliberals dismiss Chihombori’s  position as  another case of an African needlessly blaming the West for a problem for which Africans themselves  are responsible, they should,  at least, ponder  the mega trends of what passes for democracy in Africa today  in historical terms.     

In recent years, military coups have succeeded in  Burkina Faso (January 2020; Chad (April 2021); Mali (August 2021); Guinea (September 2021); Sudan (October 2021); Niger (July 2023) and in  Gabon only last week. In one study, it has been shown  that of the 242  coups which have succeeded in the world in over seven decades, Africa has had a share of 106. No fewer than 45 of the 54 African countries have also experienced  coups.

Chihombori’s  position that what happens in Africa is largely inspired or influenced by the West has a lot of proof in history. Take a sample. A  political symmetry could  be drawn between coups happening in Francophone Africa today and the  “wave of democratisation” sweeping the Francophone Africa in the early 1990s. It is  akin to a  30- year cycle of  autocracy and liberal democracy. Today, from the landlocked Burkina Faso in West Africa to the oil-rich Gabon in Central Africa, there have  been stories of the military torpedoing  civil rule. Correspondingly,  about 30 years ago  there were popular  revolts against autocrats in power from Togo in West Africa and Zaire in Central Africa. That was when the convocation of  Sovereign National Conference  (“Conference Nationale Souveraine”) was the political fashion. For instance, the 1991 Togolese Sovereign National Conference was convened by opposition elements with a lot of support from abroad to put an end to the rule of President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had been in power for 24 years   at the time. While the conference proceedings went on,  Eyadema was beleaguered in the presidential palace as delegates seemed to be determining the fate of Togo at last. But this turned out to be a pyrrhic victory  for the democrats. All the Sovereign National Conference (SNC) achieved was the setting up of a transitional government that organised a multi-party elections which Eyadema eventually won. Eyadema remained president until  his death in 2005. His son, Faure Gnassingbe, who succeed him, is still in  power. Does this look  like a parallel to the Gabonese story? By the way, Eyadema was in the group of soldiers who assassinated  President Sylvanus Olympio in 1963 and installed another civilian, Nicolas Grunitzky, as President.  Eyadema was made  Chief of Army  Staff. Eventually the military took over fully in 1967 and Eyadema became  President.

Eyadema’s story  was also  similar to that of Mobutu Seseko in Zaire (now  Democratic Republic of Congo). Mobutu seized power in 1965, removing President Joseph Kasavubu. Earlier  in 1961, as the minister  of defence, Mobutu had supported the same Kasavubu in the power tussle between Prime Minster  Lumumba and  the president after the Congolese  soldiers mutinied against Belgian officers. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was arrested and killed in Katanga. Aided by the West, Mobutu  embarked on a process of “neutralising” politicians. Not a few of such politicians were killed in a resurgence of a right-wing dictatorship  Mobutu  remained in power until  he was forced to relinquish power following the rebellion led by Laurent Kabila in May 1997. Mobutu  died  four month later. Such was Mobutu’s enormous hold on power despite the efforts at democratisation in the country.  The name of the country was changed from Zaire (given to it by Mobutu) to Democratic Republic of Congo. But Mobutu remained in power for almost a decade  after the Sovereign National Conference convened to steer the country on the  democratic path.

The examples of Eyadema and Mobutu are to illustrate the point that the West selectively  embraced dictatorship  on the continent for about  30 years after the independence was achieved  by African nations in 1960s in the spirit of the Cold War. Mobutu was a welcome guest in the White House in the United  States just as Eyadema was warmly received in Elysėe Palace in France. Mobutu, for instance, was a veritable tool in the hands of the West to fulfil its   geo-political mission  in the neighbouring countries of Congo Democratic Republic.

The exogenous inspiration and background to the ferment of  democratisation in Africa were already  manifest early 1990s.  Things began to change in the political macroenvironment  with the Fall of the Berlin Wall marking the end of the Cold war in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991. Francis Fukuyama became the intellectual toast globally with his famous 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” putting  liberal democracy magisterially as the apogee of political and ideological evolution for humanity. A nexus was drawn between liberal democracy and development. Capitalism and democracy were presented to Africa as two sides of the same coin. Africa could not have one without the order, according the victors of the Cold War. Globalisation (a euphemism for the unrestrained spread of global capitalism) became the orthodox economic doctrine. Logically, if the West led by America was  celebrating the  “victory of liberal democracy” in Eastern Europe following the disappearance  of the Warsaw Pact, it could have no reason not to frown at activities of  its autocratic proteges in Africa. This was a factor in the so-called spread of democracy in Africa. It was more than a coincidence that dismantling of apartheid in South Africa  also took  place at this period. Up till, the late 1980s America insisted on “constructive engagement”  with the apartheid regime  while opposing economic sanctions against the racist government. The feeble argument was that sanctions would hurt the oppressed black people. As recent as 1988, the British Minister, Margaret Thatcher,  still called the African National Congress (ANC) a “terrorist organisation.” Barely six years later  apartheid was dismantled and Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the president of a multi-racial South Africa. Non-governmental organisations pursuing various  democratic projects  mushroomed in Africa with steady official and non-official funding from the West. The mood in many parts of Africa was that of a festival of democracy.

Now, after 30 years of  the experiment with  liberal democracy the external and internal contexts  have changed in the politics of African countries. For instance, the democratic enthusiasm is waning in the West itself what with the upsurge of  right-wing populism and pure  illiberalism  in some  western democracies.

Only yesterday, a former leader  of the right-wing Proud Boys group, Enrique Tarrio, was  sentenced to 22 years in prison  for his ignoble role in the January 6, 2021  grand assault on the United States  Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. They were trying to overturn the 2020  election won by President Joe Biden. It would be unpredictable in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed  that 30 years later some thugs would storm the American parliament to truncate an electoral process under the inspiration of an American president. Well, such is the new climate of liberal democracy. America is the self-appointed global policeman of democracy. Now some American right-wing extremists are inflicting unimaginable assaults on democracy at home. The world  policeman of democracy now  has a lot of  job to do at  home. Indeed, the West has lost the moral basis to teach “the third world” anything about democracy. 

In fact, the theoreticians of western democracies are already documenting these mega trends and their universal implications. For instance, the author of the 1992 book entitled  “The End of History”  has reversed himself  with a tempered optimism about the triumph of liberal democracy. With the stupendous socio-economic  success of China, putting liberal democracy as a condition for development is more debatable today  that it was 30 years ago. Globalisation itself  appears to have a reached a dead end in in spite of the  neo-liberal pontifications around the globe. What is left of globalisation when President Biden could order American tech companies not invest in China “for national security reasons”?  Is that part of the logic of global capitalism?   Whatever happened  to the free movement  of capital  across national boundaries  that is  the holy grail of globalisation? The ruinous effects of the excesses of neo-liberalism in the economy, polity and society of nations constitute a grave threat to democracy. An environment of poverty and injustice is not the most suitable for the growth of liberal democracy. Some western scholars have admitted the retreat of liberalism in recent years. This is one of the points emphasised in Fukuyama’s  2022 book entitled  “Liberalism and its Discontents.”

So the point is that while democratic observers should worry about spread of coups in Africa the trend should be  put within the context of  the global assaults on liberal democracy and  the huge  democratic reversals.  In early 1990s the triumph of liberal democracy from the view-point of the West provided the canopy for demilitarisation and democratisation in Africa. Is it not also possible that the attack on liberal democracy  in its metropolitan centres could also be an external factor encouraging  the surge of militarism in Africa?

To be sure, within the context of liberal democratic discussions, military coups cannot be rationalised, let alone justified at this stage of African  political evolution. Ultimately, the path to African development is popular democracy which should  encompass socio-economic justice for the people. The efforts of AU and ECOWAS to find  political solutions to the problems in  the zone of coups should be encouraged. These solutions should  be better articulated. The military option should be taken off the table because of the  complexity of the African situation. Meanwhile, for  a more strategic solution  the wider context of the problems should be well understood. For instance, as Chihombori-Quao has advised the  role of imperialism should be not be  discounted offhand in pondering the cycle of democratisation and militarisation in Africa.

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