About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

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.



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