Africa’s post-colonial state and the spectre of military coups

Sunday September 12 2021
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People celebrate in the streets with members of Guinea's armed forces after the arrest of Guinea's president, Alpha Conde, in a coup d'etat in Conakry, September 5, 2021. PHOTO| AFP.

By Erick Mwakibete

Soldiers in Guinea launched a successful coup against Alpha Conde, 83, who had increasingly become unpopular following a controversial third term victory last year. The coup in Guinea came as two other coups were launched in Mali (successful), and another one failed in Niger. In Chad, after the death of Idris Derby Itno, the military handed power to one of his sons.

The latest developments out of West Africa have raised concerns of whether the region is slipping back into the dreaded era of military takeovers. Truth is, African states have been haunted by the spectre of military coups right from the outset. This has never changed.

The leading opposition leader in Guinea even celebrated the takeover of state power by soldiers, saying it will help the country start a new chapter. This too is not new to the continent. Soldiers wait for things to boil over or nearly reach that point before stepping in, and that gives them the justification and the breathing space they need to topple a government, elected or not.

To better understand this continued state of affairs in Africa, scholars have always looked back at what the continent inherited from its colonial masters. One academic, specifically dealing with West African postcolonial experiences put it this way: “Postcolonial West African history can be understood in terms of transitions across three successive eras: a post-independence era of high nationalism; the military era, characterized by profound political and socio-economic instability; and, finally, since the early 1990s, a democratization era, marked by continued swings between fevered hopes and anguished realities.”

In many ways, Africa as a continent is still going through all three eras concurrently.

The first era which was characterized by high nationalism was about what the identity of a post-colonial state should be, its priorities and the modalities to be used to build a new nation. One with distinctive characteristics from the colonial state bequeathed to us by former rulers. However, what emerged out the experiences of this era was disappointment and dashed dreams. The new states were never an organic process driven by realities on the ground. They were, to borrow a term from another academic, “implants” of former colonial state. It is for this reason, to date, there are many parts of Africa where the governments have never fully established control, or had long disappeared or lost some of the areas to other forces challenging their supremacy.

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Politicians did a terrible job in their national building projects and we ended up with fragmented “republics” which were too focused on empowering one ethnic group over others or one religious group over others. The African state became nothing more than a means to keep at bay all other competitors.

The second era of soldiers taking charge of countries or attempting to do so was a chaotic bloody affair. Many of these soldiers had come up through the ranks from colonial armies, and nation-building was not part of the curriculum. In some countries, armies were (and are still) dominated by a certain ethnic group or religious group at the expense of the rest. Seizing control of the military meant control of the country. Soldiers realized there was nothing to politics after all as they saw the new rulers becoming scandalously rich with no accountability at all to the people, they made the logical conclusion that they were equally better placed to call the shots and not politicians.

This era has not passed as well. In some countries on the continent some “democratically elected” presidents rule in absentia. They are away from their countries from their countries for most of the time because of a range of reasons from vacations to medical treatments. It is easier to burgle a house whose owner is constantly away. The third era of democratization has increased the appetite of soldiers and other actors to vie for control of the state. People’s participation in deciding how they are ruled/governed has had little impact on the excesses of politicians in charge of the country. Elections have come to be another excuse for politicians to keep soldiers out of politics even when they are doing such a terrible job at ruling these countries. Elections have come to be another political ritual on the continent characterized by deep uncertainties and constant episodes of unrest.

As such we are yet to find a way to break free from the cycle of elites and their gimmicks which have real life consequences to mere mortals. The continent is a long way from getting out of the spectre of military coups because neither politicians nor soldiers consider themselves to be real accountable to the people.