The Ghosts of Africa's Military Past


Recent events in Africa reawakened a ghost many of us thought was exorcised at the end of the last millennium, but the past few weeks have shown that the spirit of military coup d’états has not yet been laid to rest. It was resurrected on March 22 when the Malian Armed Forces, led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure and suspended the constitution. The mutineers quickly formed a group known as the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR). Similar events transpired in Guinea Bissau on April 12, when the election front-runner, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Jr. together with other senior officials, was taken into custody by the army. The so-called "Military Command" announced that it had overthrown the government because of a “secret” agreement between the prime minister and Angolan forces aimed at suppressing the armed forces of Guinea Bissau. The question remains: Can Africa afford to return to its old ways of political transition?

There was a time on the African continent when coup d’états were hard to judge, ethically and morally. While countries like Nigeria witnessed several military coups without much improvements in subsequent political leadership, others like Ghana, were put on the path of democracy by military leaders. The years immediately following most African independence chronicled the overthrow of freedom fighters turned dictators and their replacement with colonels and brigadiers, some of whom pursued their own dictatorships, while others conducted façade referenda to accentuate their so-called civilian leadership.

Consequently, brigadiers and dictators occupied the chairs at the Organization of African Unity (OAU), precursor to the African Union (AU). In those days, when our leaders gathered in Addis Ababa, one could almost hear that biblical challenge: let he who is without sin cast the first stone. As you can only imagine, he who pelts another with pebbles asks for rocks in kind, so our leaders focused instead on invisible threats to Africa, while the African people continued to suffer at home and political prisoners languished in jail.

However, as Nelson Mandela has put it, “The African rebirth is now more than an idea. Its seeds are being sown in the regional communities we are busy building and in the continent as a whole.” From Tunis, Cairo, to Benghazi, we have witnessed recent popular uprisings that have overthrown three of those incumbent African tyrants. In Nigeria, we briefly witnessed what was dubbed Occupy Nigeria, replicating the Occupy movement in the U.S. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) refused to succumb to the wishes of Moussa Dadis Camara, former head of the Guinean junta, and Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast who is currently at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. All over the continent, there are light manifestations of the wishes of the African people for democratic leadership and the rule of law. Where, such as in Senegal, the old guard has refused to bow out with dignity, the people have forced them to do so at the polls.

There is no doubt that Mali, Guinea Bissau, and many other African countries need political change, but the African people should not settle for regression in governance. What we aspire to in the 21st century are governments of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is the people who hold the right to change their government, not the armed forces. The African people should remain adamant against reversing our humble achievements in democratic governance, and our regional organizations must stand by the will of the people, which is ballots not bullets.

The African Union and ECOWAS should be commended for insisting on return to civilian rule in Mali as a unanimous rejection of coups as a method of political change. Both organizations should maintain similar stance against the junta in Guinea Bissau, and all subsequent military attempts to overthrow popularly elected governments. What our soldiers can do for us is, instead of opening fire at the whims of dictators, stand with the people in their call for change.

Some of the corrupt principles of the OAU, coined of course by those it would have limited, were nonintervention and national sovereignty, but in this moment of African reckoning, the continent must heed Mandela’s advice that “we cannot abuse the concept of national sovereignty to deny the rest of the continent the right and duty to intervene when, behind those sovereign boundaries, people are being slaughtered to protect tyranny.” The African people, like Europeans, must be able to look to our regional organizations when national leaders fail us. This is one way these regional organizations can improve their appalling record among the African people.