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Putting coups in context: The role of the government, AU, and regional blocs in Africa

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By Madi Jobarteh

The incidence of coups, riots, civil wars, and popular uprisings such as the Arab Spring in Africa cannot be explained only by the politicians and technocrats in power. It cannot simply be that anytime a military overthrow of a civilian government happens immediately the focus and the end should be that soldiers return power or risk forceful removal while the country is suspended from its bloc and the AU. African governments, regional blocs such as ECOWAS, and the AU must be challenged on the issue of unconstitutional change of government in terms of its cause and prevention lest it continues to perpetuate unabated. The conduct of AU and its regional blocs as well as governments cannot be divorced from the reasons riots, coups, civil wars, and uprisings take place in Africa.

When African countries became independent, they were established as republics with the exception of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) which remained an absolute monarch until today. These republics all opted for and established a democratic governance system as their political modus operandi. A democratic republic is a nation-state in which sovereign power resides in the people. The State and all its organs and agents are only entrusted with the power of the people to serve the people.

For example, in the Gambian Constitution, Section 1(2) states that,

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“The Sovereignty of The Gambia resides in the people of The Gambia from whom all organs of government derive their authority and, in whose name, and for whose welfare and prosperity the powers of government are to be exercised in accordance with this Constitution.”

A democratic governance system is situated on the principle that government is derived from or formed by the opinion of the people. Such opinion is exercised through free, fair, and credible elections as their will. It also establishes that the government operates according to the rule of law which is meant to restrain its power and guide its decisions and actions, hence accountability. Since government is the will and opinion of the people it means citizens have all the fundamental rights necessary to be able to hold the government accountable without fear of reprisal. These are the values and standards that underpin a republican and a democratic dispensation.

In the constitution, the government is the primary duty bearer with only one mandate which is to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of citizens. This is why the constitution would stipulate all the rights of citizens, and identify the authority, powers, immunity, and obligations of the government necessary to empower it to perform its mandate, i.e., to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of citizens. These rights are civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. It is the protection and fulfillment of these rights that provide the necessary goods, services, and opportunities to guarantee the human development of society. For the government to be effective in delivering these goods, services, and opportunities, necessary policies, laws, institutions, processes, tools, and facilities are created, and competent officials are appointed to efficiently manage the affairs and resources of the society for the benefit of the people.

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In addition to the individual laws and constitutions of the respective countries, nations have also come together to form blocs and associations around shared values, standards, and objectives purposely to further guarantee the sanctity of human rights and dignity in their individual and collective space. They agree on common standards of governance and development that all governments must abide by in the interest of citizens. Thus, in Africa, in addition to the continental body AU, various regional blocs were established and bound by various treaties, protocols, and declarations to ensure democracy, good governance and sustainable development are achieved. All member states are required to uphold the terms of these instruments as obligations to their people.

The question now is why and how come constitutionally elected governments in Africa fail to uphold these instruments and fulfill their obligations without facing any meaningful pushback from the AU and the regional blocs? The dire socio-economic conditions across Africa directly point to the usefulness or the lack thereof of African governments. Amidst the abundance of resources, the vast majority of Africans continue to live in and with poverty, deprivation, and hopelessness. What then is the purpose of the African government and the regional and subregional bodies?

There is no argument that Africa is hugely rich in human resources as it is also among the richest place on earth in terms of natural resources including minerals. It is these human and natural resources of Africa which have been responsible for the wealth of many foreign nations through exploitation during slavery, colonialism and in the present era. Today, it is observed that the US, EU, and China each make billions of US dollars annually from the natural resources of Africa which go to give their people the development that Africans envy and yearn for.

In fact, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had said that,

“For much of the region’s history, Africa’s resource wealth has been plundered and squandered. It has served the interests of the few, not the many. Revenues that could have been used to improve lives have instead been used to build personal fortunes, finance civil wars, and support corrupt and unaccountable political elites.”

This is why Kwame Nkrumah observed that, “it has often been said that Africa is poor. What nonsense! It is not Africa that is poor. It is the Africans, who are improvised by centuries of exploitation and domination.”

Therefore, the question is why is it that until today, more than half a century of independence, Africa remains the poorest, weakest and most marginalized region of the world even though its human and natural resources continue to be the source of wealth and comfort for the rest of the world? A report by Oxfam in 2021 noted that West Africa alone is the poorest and the most unequal region in Africa. It “revealed that the wealthiest 1% of West Africans owned more than everyone else in the region combined,” noting that “West African governments are again the least committed to reducing inequality in Africa.”

In the report, it made the following conclusions,

“The three richest men in West Africa saw their wealth increase by $6.4 billion in the first 17 months of the pandemic, which is more than the funds it would take to vaccinate all West Africans… Nigeria loses $2.9 billion a year due to tax incentives to corporations, while its health budget is the third lowest in the world (3.6% of the overall budget). Forty percent of the population does not have access to healthcare services… In Sierra Leone, large corporations pocketed 92% of government pandemic support funding, while 1.5% was spent on social protection. Only 1% of the poorest children complete secondary schooling.”

This picture clearly shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the governance and development process in West Africa alone that needs to be addressed. For example, several think tanks, organizations, and universities including the UN agency for trade and development (UNCTAD) and the African Union have all concluded that Africa is losing billions of dollars in capital flight every year.

Both UNCTAD and the AU concluded that between 1970 to 2018, the continent lost 2 trillion US dollars through capital flight, saying,

“Which is almost the annual gross domestic product of all sub-Saharan African countries combined. Compared to $47 billion of aid inflows, African countries lose an estimated $60 billion a year through capital flight. Angola, a country rich in oil, lost over $100 billion in capital flight from 1986-2018 due to the mismanagement of oil resources through the collusion between the political elite, multinational companies, and international banks.”

Capital flight out of Africa is so serious that the AU had to make a declaration in 2015 to curb it. It says that the AU is, 

“Aware that the problem of illicit financial flows is exacerbated by corrupt tendencies of government agencies, lack of or weak African institutions both at national and continental levels in all sectors, governance challenges, political instability and conflicts, weak tax administration, and lack of capacity to monitor and curb such criminal activities among others.”

What the AU is saying without qualification is that the governments in Africa are fantastically incompetent and corrupt. This means even without a civil war or a coup, the lives of African citizens continue to be characterized by political oppression, economic exploitation, and social exclusion. Social and economic indicators across Africa show low literacy rates, and high incidence of health mortality and morbidity. Until now childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, whooping cough among others account for most unpreventable deaths of African children.

Ironically, if you live in the Gambia or Senegal, not to mention Congo or Uganda, Angola or Niger or any other African country, it is not difficult to see how government officials enjoy the best of opportunities and higher quality of life while the ordinary woman and man continue to face dire social and economic conditions. Furthermore, the African government assumes that once it is in power it will not tolerate dissent much more to be replaced. While they pontificate about the rule of law and democracy, they harangue everyone and anyone who seeks to peacefully and nonviolently challenge or replace them.

Look at what Pres. Macky Sall is doing in Senegal as he clampdowns on the opposition, journalists, and activists only because they peacefully challenge his government, democratically. Pres. Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast and before him former president Alpha Conde of Guinea just like Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo or Paul Kagame of Rwanda triggered sham referendums just to change the constitution to give themselves a third term or more, after already serving 10 years in office. In the Gambia, Pres. Adama Barrow is now serving his second term yet wants to hide behind the lack of a term limit in the constitution to seek a third term. In all these countries, public sector corruption and inefficiency are rampant without any accountability. If there is accountability it is carried out selectively and in a piecemeal.

But even where an African leader who is notorious for corruption and human rights violations has been either overthrown by the military or popular uprising, the tendency is for fellow African leaders to stand by the deposed leader. For example, the Gambia’s tinpot dictator Yahya Jammeh was forced out by ECOWAS forces after refusing to hand over power when he lost the elections in 2016. But since then, he is lodged by Pres. Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, a dictator of his own league, who has refused to hand him over to the Gambian authorities for accountability. Mengistu Haile Mariam, former Ethiopian tyrant is still living comfortably in Zimbabwe since his overthrow and exile in 1991. Even though Hissene Habre of Chad and Blaise Campoare of Burkina Faso were eventually tried and sentenced but it took both the Senegalese and Ivorian governments respectively, and AU so long before these former dictators were held accountable. This is not helpful for democracy.

What the above indicates is the incidence of unethical leadership for self-perpetuation in power, weaponization of laws and institutions to suppress human rights, flagrant abuse of the rule of law to plunder public wealth, and poor service delivery by public institutions. These conditions are the basis for the high levels of poverty, high cost of living, lack of opportunities and overall underdevelopment in the region. These are what needs to be addressed otherwise the specter of riots, civil wars, uprisings, and coups shall remain ever present in Africa.

This means the way and manner elected leaders and governments operate in Africa is in total contravention of the democratic and republican values and standards opted for at independence. While the intentions of their constitutions call for transparency, accountability and responsiveness of public institutions and officials within a democratic dispensation, the government are actually operating semi-monarchical regimes with the semblance of democracy. This is an untenable reality which is bound to be disrupted by one way or another, and by one group or by the entire society somehow. Unfortunately, and annoyingly indeed both the AU and its regional blocs do notice these unconstitutional and unethical conduct of its presidents but would rather keep quiet until there is a coup or uprising and then intervene. Such firefighting posture of the AU, ECOWAS, SADC and EAC and others is unreasonable, expensive, and unproductive. 

Government does not exist for itself. It exists for the people. This is why Africans fought for human rights and independence against slavery and colonialism in which thousands were massacred. Colonial regimes existed only for themselves and not for the governed, even though they also built schools, hospitals and roads and provided opportunities to our people. But these were self-serving interventions laden with laws and institutions that controlled the people for the benefit of the colonialists. The Africa government is operating in a similar way.

Therefore, Africans will not tolerate their own elected representatives to lord it over them simply because one claims that such a government was democratically elected. So long as African leaders and governments are corrupt and not serving their people while using laws and institutions as weapons to suppress freedoms, there is bound to be reaction from one corner or another. Indeed, soldiers are not governors of society in any way, but since they have guns, it has made their unfortunate intrusion into governance possible.

I strongly believe that if it were doctors or teachers, farmers or students who had guns surely, they would have also staged coups. This is evident in the fact that teachers, doctors, farmers, or students have always engaged in protests, riots, and uprisings against corrupt and inefficient government, meaning if they had guns, they would have used them as soldiers do. Therefore, the time has come to stand up against these corrupt and incompetent leaders to demand total adherence to the constitution and the regional and international instruments they ratified. African governments have proven so far that they are not fit to govern as they have turned the continent into a huge field of oppression and exploitation thanks to their corruption and incompetence thereby making Africa a weakling surviving on begging and patronage.

By its nature, the foundation of a democratic republic should be such that it must be durable to withstand crises that would inevitably happen within the ambits of its constitution. But democracy has the incredible ability to correct itself where all actors, more so the government, uphold and abide by the rule of law. One can observe how citizens would engage in weeks and months of protests in democracies in Western Europe for example, without shooting to death of protesters or a military overthrow. This is simply because such governments there largely respect and protect the right to freedom of assembly. Democracy has enough laws, processes, tools, and institutions to facilitate accountability to address corruption, abuse of power and bring about peaceful political change. But democracy and governance are not only about elections. Rather their end goal is to ensure freedom, security, and prosperity for all within the shortest possible time.

Hence it should not be for transient matters that citizens or soldiers should just overthrow a government because of any crisis in a democracy. But where those in power not only continuously fail to address challenges such as poverty, deprivation, inequality, and corruption but also go further to suppress divergent and dissenting voices in the opposition, civil society, the media and across society, then governance and democracy are under severe threat. It is absolutely evident that African presidents and governments have consistently made nonviolent, peaceful, and democratic change hugely difficult and risky. Where such is the case the tendency for violent and unconstitutional attempts to remove a government will result. This is the unsolved tragedy facing Africa since Independence.

Africans must therefore demand change in the situation of governance in the continent. The current dispensation is not working and certainly not sustainable. African governments, the AU and its regional blocs must practice what they preach in their constitutions and regional instruments. The masses of Africa people have lost faith in their governments and regional bodies because these institutions are no longer responding to the needs and aspirations of the people. African people merely see the assembly of heads of state of the AU and its regional blocs as only clubs of self-serving gentlemen and a few ladies, aka presidents and prime ministers.

Like all other peoples of the world, African people also desire and seek effective and efficient governments that perform and deliver much-needed opportunities to the people. They yearn for their elected and appointed public officials to be ethical and to be true servants who respond to and fulfill the hopes and aspirations of their people. Africa is so endowed that there is absolutely no justification why a single poor person should exist anywhere on the continent. Africa’s human and natural resources and potential justify that.  There is no reason whatsoever for deprivation and hopelessness to exist in Africa such that an African man or woman will embark on dangerous journeys across the Sahara Desert and into the Mediterranean Sea like slaves only to perish. Like all peoples, Africans also want peace, prosperity, happiness, and security in their lives.

The ball is therefore in the court of the African government, the AU, and its regional blocs to end the spectre of coups, riots, civil wars, and uprisings by either upholding republican and democratic values and standards or continue business as usual to face risks of more and unending upheavals. If the AU and its regional blocs could respond to the leaders and governments who flout their rules with the same swiftness and vigor with which they respond to coup makers surely, they could have prevented these upheavals from occurring in the first place. But why do the AU and its regional blocs always fail to confront wayward presidents and governments on time but allow the bough to break and then cry foul?!

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