Of militaries and a continent of worried, insecure rulers

Sunday May 30 2021
Millitary pic
By Erick Mwakibete

Mali has gone through another coup, the second one in two years. To be fair, those who carried out the coup last year never went anywhere and remained in charge of the country, fronting civilian leaders who were acceptable to them and the regional bloc, Ecowas, which had threatened sanctions against military rule.

The reasons offered for this latest coup is that, the real powers behind the throne were unhappy with a cabinet reshuffle, saying they were not consulted. Apparently, the civilians who were tasked to run Mali forgot that they could not act within the limits given to them. A harsh reminder was in order, to them, and whoever is installed next. That, the constituency keeping them in power is watching.

During the 2010s alone the continent witnessed nearly forty coups and coup attempts, successful or otherwise, without even including the so-called Arab Spring which cut short long time rules in countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. Or the civil war which ended Laurent Gbagbo’s rule after an election defeat. Of the successful coups were those which toppled long time rulers like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir while in neighbouring Burundi and in Gabon there were near misses, and in the case of the former, the country nearly plunged into another round of civil war.

In the early 1990s as popular participation of the people in the way they are governed/ruled became fashionable through multiparty politics and elections, the idea was that this will reduce the number of violent power takeovers on the continent; that the institutions of the state will slowly improve, increase the diversity of those in charge of these countries, a somewhat participatory approach.

It has not worked out exactly that way.

The reasons for these coups or attempted coups vary but all point to the same thing; that after more than sixty years of different experiments of national building projects on the continent, we are nowhere near political and security stability.


The ‘youngest’ country on the continent has been free for two decades but political stability has proven to be elusive throughout this time. Within the East African Community, for instance, only two countries can claim to be free from constant rumours of coup plots or armed uprisings.

The military has always been neck deep in politics across Africa.

In some countries, it is a product of long, bloody armed struggles which resulted in those who took up arms in charge of the country.

They forgot the reasons of taking up arms against previous rulers, and claimed entitlements against the rest of the country.

This has fuelled resentments to those who find themselves excluded. In others, from the outset, militaries were not an institution to protect the state and its borders against foreign invaders but organs to perpetuate a ruler’s time in office or a clique of individuals running the country. In this scenario, the military is filled with men from the president’s ethnic group.

They effectively turn a country into nearly a personal property with the majority of cabinet posts belonging to family members.

Power struggles are family struggles.

Former colonial powers in some of these countries have never helped matters with regard to the role the military plays in politics.

They have encouraged them, armed them, funded them and trained them because it is the only institution which can guarantee the interests of these colonial powers being left undisturbed by whoever is running the country.

Oppressive rulers are called ‘allies’ in a war against this or that other threat deemed vital to some geo-political calculations regardless of how these rulers have virtually run down their own countries.

For as long as rulers across Africa are not doing their best to serve the rest of their countries, real power to effect political change will always have a violent bent to it.

That way we have remained a continent of worried rulers, spending sleepless nights thinking not so much thinking about building a road or improving the provisions of other service but whether their militaries are happy enough with them around or they have other ideas.

It is a perilous existence.

Mr Mwakibete is a social political commentator and analyst based in Dar es Salaam.