The recent escalation of coup d’états in the Africa region and West Africa, especially, which UN Secretary-General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres has tagged as an epidemic—is not as dire as the political elite would lead us to believe.
Make no mistake, I do not support a system of governance propelled by absolutism and founded on imposition, neither do I subscribe to the putschist philosophies of reactionaries or putschism itself as a first port of call when a people grow tired of the rulers.
This notwithstanding, the question as regards the propriety or necessity for deposing elected officials via unconstitutional means has been flooded with one-sided depositions far enough.
This piece, brief as it is, seeks to examine the justifications that coup makers have given for their otherwise, treasonous acts—as well as the campaign against a repeat of a time when Africa and West Africa, to be specific was defined by violent or unconstitutional changes of government.
The piece also journeys into the minds of the so-called ordinary people to assess what sort of government they want and rests while venturing a solution to the coup d’état menace.
The Unsung Value Of Escalating Coups On A Failing Continent: & The Justified Alarm Of Politicians
Describing the political stability in the region as one riddled with an escalation of coups could cause some controversy owing to the judgmental overtone of the word ‘escalate.’
That notwithstanding, seven coup attempts between April 2019 and February 2022 with a success rate of 71% is not a phenomenon democratically elected leaders in the region or analysts for that matter have or will take lightly.
This is evident in the spirited attacks being launched on military men who march out of the barracks to seats of government, such denunciations coming from within the region and abroad, as high as the United Nations Secretariat.
In Ghana, the topic has engaged the attention of journalists not just because President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo is Chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) but also due to the chequered history the country has had with violent overthrows of elected governments.
It comes as no surprise to anyone monitoring events that officials in Ghana, including the Ranking Member of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa, MP-North Tongu, have taken serious exception to the situation in neighbouring countries.
After all, when the president is deposed, it usually means all MPs, Ministers and other government officials are dismissed from office as well.
He does have personal interest in the matter. In proposing a solution to the issue, Ablakwa writes:
“The only viable way forward, particularly taking into consideration the mass popular support that greets these military interventions, is to urgently address the current crisis of confidence in democracy. African leaders have no option but to change paradigm and exhibit transformational vision so the African people who can no longer wait…to reap the democratic dividend of improved quality of life, decent jobs, opportunities, stability, industrialization, investment in social services, incorruptibility of public officials and expansion of the democratic space.”
The legislator, in the quote above, speaks of economic benefit of democratic leadership to the citizenry. History has however proven that this is only one of the reasons, and in the genesis, a secondary motivation for coup leaders. What then is the cause of coups? What motivates soldiers to march out of the barracks to detain or even kill elected officials?
Lt. General Akwasi Afrifa, one of the prime architects of the coup that deposed the government of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah writes while justifying their February 24, 1966 revolt:
He begins the book, ‘The Ghana Coup’ with this paragraph: A coup d’état is the last resort in the range of means whereby an unpopular government may be overthrown.
But in our case where there were no constitutional means of offering a political opposition to the one-party government, the Armed Forces were automatically made to become the official opposition of the government. This may also be true of other one-party states on the continent of Africa.
There is ample justification for our moves on the 23rd of February, 1966; and when the operation commenced we had no doubts in our minds as to the justness of our cause.
This conviction gave us the additional courage to carry the exercise through at all costs and if the worse came to the worst to fight a civil war and stand our ground until the Nkrumah government was overthrown.
Afrifa, however, sought to absolve himself of the treasonable act with some sort of lamentation and reassurance as to the necessity of the revolt:
“I have always felt it painful to associate myself with a coup to overthrow a constitutional government, however perverted that constitution may be (emphasis mine).
Oliver Cromwell was a good general, but he did not take his rightful place in the glorious gallery of British generals because he overthrew a constitutional authority by force of arms. It was painful, therefore, to come to the conclusion that the coup was necessary to save our country and our people.
We owed allegiance and loyalty to the Government of Ghana by practice of our profession. But we also owed allegiance to the people of Ghana for their protection and to us it was Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori” – to wit, it is an honour to die for one’s country.
Why did I bore you with these extracts? Let’s return to contemporary coups and see the link between them and what the old guard used to justify their acts.
President Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso maintained power in November 2020 after disenfranchising a sizable number of the population in the voting process.
The justification was that those areas of the country were war torn with terrorist activities and there was no plausible means of holding an election without suffering unneeded casualties. It was no surprise then to see residents in these areas celebrate the fall of a president they had no say in electing 14 months earlier—not to assert that they necessarily craved the idea of a military dictatorship.
The army cited Kaboré’s apparent inept handling of the threat terrorism posed to the country as well as adequate infrastructure to fight it.
In Guinea, Alpha Condé had the Constitution amended in 2020 to allow him run a third term contrary to the provisions of The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance – 2007 and without heed to months of protest against such decision.
Before long, the army marched in and deposed him. According to the army, Condé had run down the country’s economy and they sought to bring it back on track while restoring the political integrity of the country which had suffered due to the ousted president’s lust for the helm.
Mamady Doumbouya the leader of the junta quotes Jerry John Rawlings, former president of Ghana who attempted a coup himself in 1979 and finally succeeded in his second attempt in 1981 and led the country from military rule to democracy as follows: “If the people are crushed by their own elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom”.
In Mali, the Soldiers who overthrew the Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) regime cited deteriorating conditions of service for soldiers. In fact, when the coup began, it seemed as a mere mutiny against the senior ranking officers who the junior ranks believed to be complicit in their poor conditions of service.
Despite these latent reasons, the growing unpopularity of the regime which was characterized by months of intense protests and unheeded calls for IBK to step down was the trigger.
In the stated situations, it is apparent the leaders either did not enjoy a true mandate of their people or they had lost it. The military’s justifications has therefore been easy, “to restore true democracy and hand power back to elected officials.”
This is no further than the assurances given by the traitors of February 24, 1966. Here is what Afrifa says:
The Constitution itself was perverted, parliament was a mockery, the judiciary had lost its independence and the executive had become autocratic…When all else failed, we did what we did.
Our fathers’ generation, during Nkrumah’s rule, sold their souls and consciences for money…as a result, our God-given freedom was lost.
The aim of the unconstitutional military action we took is to regain this freedom and to create the conditions and atmosphere in which true democracy can thrive. This is our defence.
This seems harmless, noble even. After all “the coups represent only a reaction to unconstitutional means adopted by some African leaderships to entrench themselves in power,” Professor Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua of University of Ghana writes in his article; The bigger picture of unconstitutional changes in government in Africa.
However, the bloody nature of coups, the fear and scars it leaves on the state, coupled with endemic underdevelopment and corruption associated with them, have made them the less desirable form of changing governments, or so we are led to believe.
John Mahama, in his book, My First Coup D’État describes the era of widespread coups on the continent as the Lost Decades of Africa.
The New Patriotic Party’s Kwabena Agyepong in JoyNews’ documentary, Who Killed the Judges, asserts that he would forever choose a system that allows for change of government by “counting of heads rather than cutting of heads.”
His father was among the three judges who were abducted and killed, apparently by some soldiers and members of the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) which toppled the Hilla Limann government. JoyNews describes the murders as “crimes that shook the nation.”
A government led by civilians and elected by free and fair elections, it appears is what scholars favour over military interventions to change from a regime to the other. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, for instance acknowledged some corruption related activities of at least one member in the Nkrumah government; Krobo Edusei—nonetheless, he denounced coups as the way to go and expressly writes in his book ‘From Third World to First that’:
I was not optimistic about Africa. In less than 10 years after independence in 1957, Nigeria had had a coup and Ghana a failed coup.
I thought their tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood. This was especially so in Nigeria, where there was a deep cleavage between the Muslim Hausa northerners and the Christian and pagan southerners. As in Malaysia, the British had handed power, especially the army and police, to the Muslims. In Ghana, without this north-south divide, the problem was less acute, but there were still clear tribal divisions. Unlike India, Ghana did not have long years of training and tutelage in the methods and discipline of modern government.
To sustain democracies on the continent and subregion, therefore, the Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government (2000), The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (2007) and the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy & Good Governance (2001) were adopted. The question then arises as to the enforcement measures which leaders in the region have accorded these laws which they enacted.
The provisions contained in these laws have arguably been enforced to a visible degree only when there is an intervention by the army. During the Ivory Coast civil war, however, ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) did denounce Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to relinquish power after his defeat at the polls in 2010. Where leaders in the subregion are found wanting, is their loud silence on democratic coups which the Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance describes succinctly as “any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments that constitute an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government”.
Evidently, fellow leaders in the region have failed to call out their colleagues who fall foul of these provisions and upset their constitutions in order to earn additional terms in office. Contrary to legal expectations, fellow presidents in the region including our very own Nana Akufo-Addo rather run to re-ingratiate themselves with these ‘coup’ makers. When such repressive regimes are also deposed, the speed with which ECOWAS then reboots makes one wonder where the leaders’ loyalty lie; with the people, or they themselves?
The third aspect worth examining is the query as to which form of government does the ordinary man prefer? Obviously democratic regimes cloak themselves with the people’s mandate, but what does that really mean? Does being presented with a Yes or No option in a referendum to adopt to a constitution you had very little or perhaps absolutely nothing to do with as far as its drafting was concerned, really pass for an unreserved vote of confidence if you do vote Yes? The answer to that, I leave to the reader.
Leaders of democratic and autocratic and even kakistocratic regimes have constantly tickled themselves about enjoying the support of their citizenry and then being missed by the people when they are out of power, how misleading! Blatant falsehood. The ordinary man simply wants a low cost but high standard of living, no matter who sits at the helm. To quote George R. R. Martin who is now famous for the Game of Thrones series,
“The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.” (Ser Jorah, speaking to Daenerys Targaryen).
In this brief exchange, R. R. Martin exposes a flaw in the thinking of such politicians. The emphasis, “…so long as they are left in peace” highlights the tentative absence human right abuses which are associated with totalitarian regimes. The only point to be made then is as Mr. Agyepong puts it supra, (i.e.) it is better to change governments with counting of heads rather than cutting of heads.
That notwithstanding, I’m not entirely convinced voters will choose the four year cycle which has proven inefficient—in Africa, at least—over a military dictatorship “so long as they are left in peace” and which promises to guarantee their freedoms and economic independence, especially, economic freedom devoid of interference from the neo-colonial imperialists working through the Bretton Wood institutions or directly through their respective state Departments. Kwamena Ahwoi for instance eulogizes the PNDC regime which was a military regime as one which redeemed the country from endemic corruption and saw the introduction of many public sector reforms superintended by Jerry Rawlings.
Be that as it may, it is well established that military interventions have taken Africa backwards and not forward.
How then do we stop the coup menace? How do African leaders ensure that the interventions from the barracks seen in recent years do not achieve a domino effect as they did in the decades succeeding independence? The question has been answered. Whether or not the admonitions are politically correct, acceptable or practical, is a matter of subjectivity but it has been answered.
The founding fathers of the United States ensured that no single state or group of states for that matter can successfully secede by forming not just a union but a nation from multiple states. When Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on the banner of ending slavery, the so-called Confederates struck. Robert Lee and his army fought with fervor but it is their surrender at the Battle of Appomattox Court House that is remembered, at least by non-Americans who know little about the events.
How were they defeated? The size of the Union Army was enough reason for the Confederates to have abandoned the idea. In Netflix’s famous drama, House of Cards the character, Frank Underwood puts it simply:
In Gaffney people called it the War of Northern Aggression. I personally take no pride in the Confederacy. Avoid wars you can’t win (emphasis mine) and never raise your flag for an asinine course like slavery.
Why should the Confederates avoid wars they cannot win? The military power of the other states combined simply outclassed theirs and their “asinine course” was certainly going to end in defeat.
Why am I sharing American history in a piece about coups in Africa? The prevalence of military coups within the African Union is reinforced by the Union’s inability to respond in a military manner like the United States responded to the rebel states in the 1860s.
To avoid such constraints when the military in one of the states mutinies and even to avoid balkanization and to promote effective economic and political development, Kwame Nkrumah and other founding fathers proposed the unification of Africa, with the Ghanaian leader known to be the force behind expedited unification to form a Socialist Republic of Africa. Of course the events of February 24, 1966 and other treasonable acts across the region interfered with those plans and we have what we have now.
Nkrumah details his plans, the modus operandi and consequences for Africa should the continent fail to join forces in his book ‘Africa Must Unite’ and any reader of that masterpiece can confirm the Osagyefo prophesied into the continent’s future; a prophesy which is playing out today. Balkanization is increasing on the continent, neo-imperialist forces are inspiring reactionaries and corrupt elements on the continent to take up arms against progressive leaders who threaten the position of such imperial countries in the West and all Africa can do is to sit and watch a couple dissident soldiers take Africa backwards because they cannot order military actions to put these soldiers in place the way the Union fought against the Confederates when the United States of America found itself in similar circumstances.
To end the coup d’états, African leaders must stick to the protocols they have bequeathed unto themselves and keep to the core principles of probity and accountability; proper decentralization which ensures a bottom-up approach and eschew corruption, nepotism, despotism and democratic totalitarianism. In addition, Africa Must Unite! This point cannot be overemphasized, there is unity in strength and a section of the army in one state cannot fight against an African Army and successfully topple the government. Besides resisting dissident soldiers, what can stop a continental force led by progressive leaders from expelling terrorism from the region?
African regional organizations must resist foreign interference in African countries that leads to political instability, writes Hakeem Onapajo and Muhammad Dan Suleiman for The Conversation. These Nigerian scholars, in their elaborate piece echo what Nkrumah said in Africa Must Unite and reiterated when he responded to the stooges of the West who betrayed their uniform and marched on the Flagstaff House when Nkrumah was on his way to Hanoi.
Afrifa and his reactionary fellow, Busia who forwarded the former’s sad excuse of a book, go all out to sell their putschist ascent to power as a homegrown idea in all 140 pages. Declassified documents from America’s CIA, however, confirm that the plot to dethrone the government of Nkrumah was hatched in the so-called mother of democracies. The BBC writes:
Nkrumah later suspected that the US had a role in his downfall and in a 1978 book. Former CIA intelligence officer John Stockwell backed this theory up. In In Search of Enemies he writes that an official sanction for the coup does not appear in CIA documents, but he writes: “the Accra station was nevertheless encouraged by headquarters to maintain contact with dissidents. It was given a generous budget, and maintained intimate contact with the plotters as a coup was hatched.” He says that the CIA in Ghana got more involved and its operatives were given unofficial credit for the eventual coup.
Nkrumah himself replies Afrifa’s book at length. He writes in part:
The “coup d’état” on its surface was a military revolt against myself and what I stood for. If it is analyzed more deeply, however, it is a mark of the breakdown of the western attempt to influence and control Africa. The Western countries, having failed to control democratically supported African governments, were forced into the final extremity of substituting regimes which depended upon no other mandate than the weapons which they held in their hands. Such puppet governments cannot survive for long either in Ghana or elsewhere in Africa.
Are these elements missing from Africa today? Certainly not! They operate even more aggressively in what has become known as the new scramble for Africa; a reference to their early on race which eventually ended up in the partitioning of the continent at the Berlin Conference. The West is overtly withdrawing from the continent. The latest manifestation of this is the announcement by French President Emmanuel Macron that they are withdrawing their forces from Mali after decades of so-called war against terror which has seen no more success than the botched USA siege in Afghanistan. The withdrawal is not to say they are cutting ties with the Sahel state, or other francophone countries in the region for that matter. The French’s efforts in the like of Ivory Coast has seen Ouattara extend his grip on the country while ECOWAS sits idle. The fact that the Economic stability and even the currency of French West Africa is still tied to the EU country should be enough worry for all of ECOWAS and AU. Without cutting off such umbilical cords and fighting off China, Turkey, Germany and the like who are rushing to the continent—and fighting them as a single unit, it is highly unlikely that the “coup epidemic” can be stopped. Nkrumah’s experience and others who suffered the same fate including Patrice Lumumba’s assassination which was masterminded by Belgium is enough evidence that the Commonwealth club which Afrifa eloquently eulogizes and other “friendly” powers in the West are not the solution to Africa’s political stability which is ultimately tied to economic freedom and stability.
A Coup d’état is not the ideal way of transitioning from one regime to the other. Without prejudice to that fact, one cannot blame soldiers for marching out to do the needful when the government of the day becomes an albatross around the necks of its citizens. The famous philosopher John Locke makes it clear in his “Treatise on the State of Nature and the Social Contract”. The Englishman simply puts it that when the government fails to pursue the commonwealth for which it was instituted, it becomes not only the right, but the moral responsibility of the people to disband said government and institute new ones. Assuming without admitting that Afrifa was right about Nkrumah eliminating all means of a free and fair means of transfer of power, a coup becomes the only option, whether the powers that be like to hear same or not—for this reason, I feel no pity for the likes of Alpha Condé.
Africa must put its resources, manpower and will together to fight unconstitutional changes in government. The cost of not doing this is far greater than allowing soldiers to run the affairs of the country. There aren’t enough differences which can overcome such a union for “the forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.”
Working with Rawlings – Kwamena Ahwoi, Former Government Appointee, Ghana (PNDC/NDC)
Files from Sam Okudzeto Ablakwa – Ranking Member House Foreign Affairs C’tee, Ghana
Dark Days in Ghana – Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, PM/President of Ghana (1957-1966)
My First Coup D’État – John Dramani Mahama, Veep/President of Ghana (2009-2017)
Africa Must Unite – Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, PM/President of Ghana (1957-1966)
From Third World to First – Lee Kuan Yew – Prime Minister of Singapore (1959-1990)
The Ghana Coup – Col. (As he then was) Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa, Coup Leader
Who Killed the Judges – Additional Files from The Multimedia Group – JoyNews
Four More Ways the CIA has Meddled in Africa – Additional Files from the BBC
Files from Prof. Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua – Law Lecturer, University of Ghana
Lomé Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government – 2000
The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance – 2007
Supplementary Protocol on Democracy & Good Governance – 2001
Elections in Ghana – Alex Kaakyire Duku Frempong, Lecturer, UG
A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin