Saturday, April 13, 2024

What’s the end game for the military men seizing power in West Africa?

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As socio-economic problems and the inefficiency of civilian governments in the region have made recent coups popular, coup makers are eventually going to become the civilian leaders they detest today.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many of the participants of coups in the continent eventually became civilian politicians either by drafting constitutions in the early 1990s or by joining a political party. Those who handed over came back as civilian politicians.

The current leader of Sierra Leone and the immediate past president of Nigeria were part of juntas in their respective countries in the past. The current civilian regime of Nigeria commenced with retired General Olusegun Obasanjo—the head of a junta in the 1970s.

In Mali, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Niger, Guinea, The Gambia, and in many countries, the political systems have been designed and heavily influenced by former military leaders. Yes, the current systems that are being bastardized by the current coup leaders and their sympathizers were mostly built by the military.

In West Africa, only Cape Verde and Senegal have not experienced a coup. As the current juntas in West Africa justify their taking of power and defend their “legitimacy”, one thing is not in doubt: they are seeking to lead these countries with no clear end in sight. Many cannot tell when they are leaving.

To shore up their legitimacy and be received as guests in capitals around the world, they are going to remove their military uniforms and put on civilian ones. They are going to run for elections and lead mainstream political parties. Some will die in office. The people will eventually have enough of them.

This has been the story. It gets repeated, but like my honorable guests, people always grant them the benefit of the doubt.

Why do coup makers often enter as heroes and exit as villains?

On February 24 1966 and the days that followed, the jubilation in the streets of Accra and major cities across Ghana had not been witnessed in a long while—not since independence day. This euphoria was in response to the overthrow of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah. The coup, backed by the West during the Cold War, occurred when the leader was outside the country.

In 1974, one of the longest and almost uninterrupted monarchies led by Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in Ethiopia, and the people celebrated. This time around the Soviet Union was behind the coup.

Five years later, by 1979, almost all the leaders of Ghana’s first coup had either been killed or gone into oblivion. In Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Miriam—the 1974 coup leader—left the country never to return. Again, the people celebrated.

Men celebrate the military’s successful overthrow of Gabon’s long-time leader, Ali Bongo.

From the French Revolution to many other changes in human history, change has brought some relief to the people. It resuscitates their hopes and makes them grant the system some benefit of the doubt. On the contrary, the nature of coups in Africa often makes their makers villains with time.

Firstly, ethnocentrism in Africa often makes coups inherently divisive. In most cases, the use of force to remove a leader often communicates the loss of power by one ethnicity to another. While this may not be explicit, it becomes clear with time. This is often revealed by the consciousness of the junta to its self-preservation and continued stay in office. Yes, dictators often feel safe when they have members of their ethnic groups surrounding them.

Even in countries like Ghana, where inter-ethnic integration is relatively good, military regimes have often been accused of promoting an ethnic agenda. This makes them unpopular over time.

Also, the need for survival makes many juntas spend huge resources on personal and regime security. Expensive equipment is procured for such purposes at the expense of basic needs. The deals between Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and some Sahel juntas to provide security is a perfect example. Wagner takes resources in exchange for security. As I have always argued, Wagnet was essentially providing security to the juntas and not to the people.

As military rulers become more comfortable, they often become intolerant. Any criticism is seen as a threat or given the colour of “subversion”. Persecution and the use of violence by the state become normal. They become villains while the people wait for the next hero.

Today, Kwame Nkrumah has been voted as the greatest African of the last millennium and Haile Selassie is worshipped—literally. Coups are not the answer.

The “insecurity” excuse: a cliché in Sahel coup

July 26 2023 became another date for the return of African militaries to political office by the barrel of a gun. Niger, the largest territory in ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, experienced a coup. While the country ranks among African states with the highest number of coups in their history, this one has been the only “successful” overthrow for a long while. The last, in 2021, failed. Niger and Mauritania have been the only countries with elected leaders in the Sahel, until now.

Coups are not new to West Africa or the Sahel the current trend has architects using insecurity as a justification for the takeover. In Mali, Burkina Faso, and even Chad, the military has attributed their presence in presidential palaces to ‘insecurity’.

Assimi Goita has twice overthrown the government in Mali. He has served as interim president since 2021.

The leader of the current junta in Niger’s capital Niamey, in his first speech after the putsch, had among other things mentioned insecurity as a major reason for taking power. That’s an “empty” cliché.

Since the middle of the second decade of this century, violent extremism has been on the rise in West Africa, especially in the Sahel. Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates are causing insecurity in the region. Nonetheless, the military taking over the reins of power has not in any instance improved the security situation. Not in Mali or Burkina Faso.  Currently, close to 50% of global terror casualties occur in the Sahel—particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter has been named the home of the most neglected humanitarian crisis on the planet.

Interestingly, while Niger has had its unfortunate share of insecurity in the region, it has been in a better security condition than its junta-ruled neighbours.  Social and political reforms that were implemented after 2013 ensured some level of inclusivity. Consequently, extremist attacks in the country, have been comparatively lower. Admittedly, other clashes between pastoralists and sedentary farmers have been reported; however, Niger was not under any serious security threat that called for military intervention the kind we are seeing.

The mention of insecurity as a reason is therefore becoming part of the playbook of forces that want to grab power. With terrorism still potent in the region, and threatening northern regions of coastal West Africa, is this facade of an excuse going to be repeated?

What will the domination of Russia mean to the Sahel and West Africa?

Recent political instability in the region is paving the way for Moscow to step in as France continues to lose face in its former colonies. In Burkina Faso and Mali, the juntas have ensured the removal of French forces from their soil.

The indignation against France is not only with the juntas; ordinary people have also expressed their hatred towards France. They correctly believe that French policies in Africa after juridical independence have not benefited the people. After most of the recent coups, local citizens have hoisted the flag of the Russian Federation.

Nigerien men wave the Russian flag after Moscow supported the July coup, while others in the crowd hold signs demanding the end of France’s presence in Niger.

While the juntas and the people seem to welcome Moscow as a replacement for Paris, a lot appears ironic in their quest. If France is removed, what does Moscow bring on board, and how are the people ready for it?

Firstly, when weaker states associate with more powerful ones, they become politically influenced. They either adopt political systems or some features that seek to mimic the more powerful state. Consequently, the constitutions and political systems of most countries in Francophone Africa copied the French system in the worst ways possible.

Interestingly, two of the most similar political systems in Europe are that of France and Russia. They maintain powerful presidents who are technically not heads of government. They appoint prime ministers they can sack. The two presidents have the power to dissolve the governments.

Worse, the Russian system is illiberal and run by a dictatorial leader who does not tolerate dissent or any challenge to his authority. Again, like many African leaders, Vladimir Putin does “not know” when he is leaving office.

Contrary to what many in Africa think, today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. The present-day Russian Federation’s “oligarchs” are men with overwhelming wealth and overseas properties who are major players in Russia’s economy. Their system for running the country and forming foreign policy is vastly different from Soviet Marxism-Leninism.

Russia, just like any other power, seeks wants to enhance its great power status in world affairs. With China showing that economic growth and expansion come with power, Russia’s relations with Africa will allow it to exploit the continent’s resources. Wagner has already taken African natural resources in exchange for security.

“Show me your friend and I will show you your character” is a proverb almost every young person in Ghana knows. Africans who are eager to receive Russia as a savior need to understand the internal politics of the country.

If you want Russia in your country you must be prepared to see its worst features.

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An international relations and security expert who previously served as a special assistant to the Vice President of Ghana and a research assistant to the office of the President. He is currently a senior analyst for the Conflict Research Consortium for Africa.


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