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Are the days of military rule on the return? The third wave militarization of governance in Africa

Are the days of military rule on the return? The third wave militarization of governance in Africa

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By Essa Njie


With the attainment of political independence by most African countries, especially then Francophone colonies in 1960, termed the ‘Year of Africa’, the task of post-independence leaders on the continent was in two folds: nation-building and economic development. Kwameh Nkrumah was with the strong conviction that, necessary to seek first was the political kingdom, then all others shall come. In essence, economic development was dependent on political independence. While Benedict Anderson considers nations as ‘imagined communities’, Alex Thomson expounds that nations are both cultural and political entities. One would think, without doubt, that post-independence leaders would have wished to build cultural nations had the colonialists not fragmented and sliced African territories into pieces. Left with no option, Nkrumah and his contemporaries had to build political nations, conscious of the fact that post-colonial African territories were heterogeneous, not homogenous in respect of their multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature. Only Somalia was said to have met the cultural nation benchmark, with one religion, one ethnicity and historical root.

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To inculcate that sense of commonality and unity among Africans in their respective independent territories, leaders at the time had to think of ways to manoeuvre the political terrain; cognizant of the fact that the departed colonial powers had already succeeded in their quest to put initially antagonistic entities and groups against each other, as the North and South became amalgamated in Nigeria in 1914. Impossible to win a comfortable political support in bifurcated societies, with elections becoming avenues for ethnic and religious censuses, it was only prudent on the part of the leaders to gather political support through subtler means- build one-party states for that purpose. Although, criticized in some corners, it was convenient to do so at the time; it was the period of the ideological confrontation/warfare between the former USSR (Soviet Union) and the United States of America. These powers were busy cajoling and wining influences in colonized parts of the world, especially Africa. With the US and allies claiming to have political systems that were characterized by liberal democratic values, nonetheless, it was not in their best interest to preach those values in the wake of the ‘battle of ideas’ (Capitalism v Communism). From Accra to Nairobi, Lusaka to Conakry, one-party state was considered the prophetic way to build a unified nation, with one leader, one political party and one ideology that the citizenry could look up to. 

Cognizant of the political system in place at the time, we now shift attention to these questions: are the days of military rule on the return in Africa? Is there a third wave militarization of governance on the continent? It is important to make a distinction here. While military coup is an event, military rule is a process. The former is shorter, could last for few hours or days; it removes a leader/government and replaces with another, with members of the military doing the job. As Thomson explains, it is easy and quick: just get the keys to the armory; turn out the barracks; take the radio station and television, the post office, control the country’s communication center, the airport and arrest the president. Job done! The latter on the other hand takes a longer period, could last for months, a year, two or more when the military intends to preside over a transition that would return the country to civilian rule. It comes with many complex challenges. Essentially, military rule becomes a process to govern a country. In some cases, instead of returning to the barracks as may be promised, the army stays on the political stage to contest elections. Military coup leads to military rule. In a simple conceptual explanation, militarization of governance is used in the context of the military taking over the governance structure by either presiding over a transitional government or turned itself into a civilian government for the purpose of institutionalizing and legitimizing their rule.

As one-party systems created dictatorships on the continent, mostly civilian, civil society absent or inactive, the media muzzled and dictated by the ruling cabal, citizens not exposed to the idea of challenging the ruling elite, apart from the nationalistic sentiments that were fresh in their minds after the collapse of colonialism, elections largely absent or uncompetitive in nature, military intervention became the only option to free a country from the clutches of one-man rule. Political scientists have tried to isolate factors that lead to military takeovers/regime replacements. Of course, one owes a great debt of intellectual gratitude to Samuel Decalo, whose works on military rule in Africa offer great insights into the nature of governance under the men in uniform. His famous ‘internal and external’ schools of explanations are widely accepted as factors for military takeovers. Extensively, in his widely-read book, Coups and Army Rule in Africa, published in 1976, Decalo argues that military rule has failed to foster socio-economic development and political stability on the continent, using four countries (the Congo, Benin, Uganda and Togo) as case studies. Adding Nigeria in a subsequent edition, he presented compelling arguments to convince the reader how military rule in each of these countries have failed to meet the desired expectations of the people. I consider these and many other countries that Decalo may not have put under his microscopic study of military rule on the continent to have undergone the process of militarization of governance.

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Thomson explains that, in a ‘Guardian’ coup, the military intervenes to ‘rescue’ the state from a corrupt and an inept civilian government. Sanna Sabally’s testimony at The Gambia’s truth commission explains this, when he claimed they (the junta) thought that it was a moral duty on their part to save The Gambia from the Dawda Jawara-led government which was blamed for entertaining corruption in the country. However, it is common knowledge that the military becomes worse than the government it has forcefully dislodged from power. The Yahya Jammeh-led regime in The Gambia was not different; in fact, arguably, more corrupt than the Jawara-led regime as corruption-the cancer to Africa’s development became centralized under Jammeh. A ‘breakthrough’ coup tends to remove long-standing authoritarian rulers and bring about general societal change. Ethiopia’s 1974 military takeover which deposed Emperor Haile Selassie, ending his 44-year reign of power and brought Meriam Mengistu’s military rule was a case in point.

Explaining the problems associated with military rule, Thomson highlights that the military possess little or no training in governance, with coup leaders realizing that it is easier to overthrow a regime than to correct the wrongs of governance. Another danger associated with military rule is linked to the economic front. Now having access to resources, military regimes tend to increase defense budgets. After the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966, Ghana’s defense spending reportedly increased by 22%, despite the economic and social hardships the country was enduring as a result of the falling price in Cocoa. As if these are not enough, there is the problem of personalization and highhandedness of the army as the regime has the tendency to create ‘political soldiers’, a term used by Andrew Heywood which explains how soldiers owe unquestionable loyalty to the military regime.

The first wave

While the desire to stay long in power by all means is now a major factor for military takeovers, the military also suffer from this syndrome of self-perpetuating rule. It was reported that between late 1950 and 2008, a total of 88 military coups took place on the continent, both failed and successful. From 1950s to 1960s, 29 army coups took place. Nkrumah deposed in 1966, two years later, Modibo Keita was deposed in Mali, Idi Amin presided over a military regime in Uganda from 1971 to 1979 with a high degree of militarization, characterized by right violations and the plundering of Uganda’s wealth. Lest we forget, Joseph Desire Mobutu Sese Seko also led a military regime in Zaire, termed by Martin Meredith, ‘the great plunderer’. A New York Times article, published in 1975, reveals that, as of the same year, 18 of the 35 independent states that were not under white-minority rule in Sub-Saharan Africa had military governments. These included Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, the Congo Republic (Congo Brazzaville), Dahomey (now Benin), Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, the Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo).  The same article reveals that, across the continent, with the exception of Sierra Leone where a year-old military regime was deposed in 1968 and replaced by a civilian government headed by Siaka Stevens, transition to civilian rule had failed in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin among others, opening doors for the men in uniform to consolidate their base in power. I consider this period, the first wave militarization of governance in Africa.

The second wave

With multi-party democracy established on the continent during the ‘third-wave’ democratization period (beginning in 1991), observers were hoping that military rule will become history on the continent as citizens now have the choice to replace one government with another through the ballot. There was progress in the 1990s as the continent recorded only 14 military takeovers, compared to 20 in the 1980s, 22 in the 1970s and 29 in the 1950s/1960s. This progress is linked to the trend of democratization (multi-party democracy) that swept across the continent. Mathieu Kéréko’s military regime lost elections in Benin. Instead of using the barrel of gun, Zambians voted out Kenneth David Kaunda in 1991. To follow suit, Malawians used the ballot to remove Hastings Kamusu Banda in 1994. In Mauritania, Colonel Maaouya transitioned the country to multiparty democracy by contesting elections in 1992 as a military-turned-civilian candidate. Multi-party democracy was indeed alive and taking momentum. However, concomitantly, Algeria, Burundi, The Comoros, The Gambia, Lesotho, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé and Principe, and Sierra Leone defied odds when democracy was hijacked in these countries with army takeovers. In the case of Nigeria, between 1983 and 1993, three military regimes existed, from Generals Buhari, to Babaginda to Abacha- Abacha only replaced Babaginda after the latter’s resignation.

Entering the 21st century, the idea of sanitizing governance to ensure that the military stayed away from politics gained momentum. However, returning to the days of military rule, marking the beginning of second wave militarization of governance on the continent, General Francois Bozize led a decade-long military regime in the Central African Republic (C.A.R) from 2003 until rebel fighters overthrew his government in 2013. Under his rule, he was accused of committing crimes against humanity with his removal plunging the country into civil war and serious humanitarian crisis. It is noteworthy that there was significant reduction in the number of coups that occurred on the continent between 2000 and 2008- only 5 military takeovers, compared to 14 in the 1990s. The five locations were C.A.R, The Comoros, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Mauritania. In Mauritania, the country’s democracy was hijacked by a fifth military coup in 2005 which led to the removal of Colonel Maaouya by Colonel Vall who led a two-year military government under the Military Council for Justice and Democracy. In 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh, a civilian, won elections but only to be overthrown by General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz a year later in 2008. Another military-turned-civilian president, General Abdelaziz served as the eight President of Mauritania until 2019.

The third wave

In a move to end self-perpetuating rule and the tendency of military rule in its sub region, in May 2015, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) proposed for member states to introduce term-limit in their national constitutions. This was flatly rejected by The Gambia and Togo. The former was ruled with an iron fist by a military-turned-civilian president, Yahya Jammeh until his shocking electoral defeat in 2016, while longtime ruler Gnassingbé Eyadéma only won his third presidential term in April 2015 and was preparing for a fourth term run in 2020 which he subsequently won with a reported 59% of the votes. Jammeh’s defeat in 2016 was a victory for democracy, for it ended the reign of one of Africa’s long-standing dictators. Three years later (2019), following a popular protest, Sudan’s longtime ruler, Omar Al Bashir who rose to power through military coup in 1989 was removed by the military. With a military government in place since the removal of Al- Bashir, a week ago, thousands of protesters demanded the establishment of a civilian-led transition to democracy. It was only in late September 2021 that the country witnessed an attempted coup.

In August 2020, Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) was removed by the military. Having agreed to hold elections in 2022, the military under Col Assimi Goïta, the leader of the 2020 coup led another take over, disrupting the transition from military to a civilian-led government. Despite widespread condemnation from world leaders and the international community, Mali remains under military rule, dealing with security threats both within (Tuareg infiltration) and outside (terrorism in the Sahel region). Latest in Africa, on September 5, 2021, Guineans woke up to the news of Alpha Conde’s arrest by the military, a man who wanted to perpetuate himself in power. Despite pressure from the international community, specifically ECOWAS, for a return to civilian rule, Col Mamadou Dumbuya, the coup leader was sworn in as the country’s interim president. While he promised that neither him nor any of his men will take part in future elections, Dumbuya is unclear how long his interim presidency will last.   

With recent happenings of the military renewing interest in African politics, one could argue that there exists the third wave militarization of governance on the continent. Two more coups are likely to hit West Africa by December, says security expert, Kwesi Aning, on the condition that abuse of power and leadership failure persist in the sub region.  These men are not only here to remove a government, but to stay in power. While their intervention may be justified in some corners as means to end self-perpetuating rule and correct societal ills, their presence in the political landscape threatens democratic governance, constitutional order and political stability in Africa. 

Essa Njie is a political science lecturer at the University of The Gambia and a researcher with the Centre for Research and Policy Development.

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