Many people agree that the high-handedness and deployment of brutal police power against opposition leaders in the just-concluded general elections in Uganda spells doom for the growth of democracy in Africa. If the Ugandan example is not checked, it could easily be copied and replicated by other African states.
After the military toppled the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Mursi in Egypt, there has been a creeping and worrying feeling that Africa is sliding back to its ‘dark age’ as one country after another trashes constitutionalism and starts embracing the concept of presidential term without limits.
Growing up as high school students in the early 1980s, many of us who are presently in our late 40s or early 50s must have been fascinated by a crop of African leaders who had come to power through military coups.
It was not strange in those days for a general assembly of the Organization of African Unity – the predecessor of the African Union – to have half of the African heads of state in attendance clad in military uniforms because they were military rulers who had seized power in their respective countries through coups d'état.
Former Liberian strongman, the late Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, attended the 1980 OAU meeting in Nairobi in full military camouflage fatigues just months after he seized power. In those days, it was almost fashionable for an African country to be ruled by a military dictator, and this made many of us habour ambitions of joining the army because we thought it was the best and only ticket for one to catapult to power.
Later, I read Samuel Decalo’s book titled Coups and Army Rule in Africa. In this book, the author acknowledges that the period between 1960 and 1970 and slightly beyond is generally referred to as the “decade of coups in Africa”.
Once coups started in Africa, they became like a wild African bushfire. They swept through the entire continent at an alarmingly high speed. They leapt through national borders as if those boundaries did not exist anymore. During this period of coups, the following scoreboard illustrates how coups d’etat became fashionable in Africa.
In Algeria, Houri Boumediene, and Ahmed Ben Bella overthrew Benyoucef Benkhedda in July 1963 where Ben Bella became president. Later in June 1965, Boumediene would turn against Ben Bella and overthrew him. Inspired by the success of the Algerian coup, soldiers in Benin staged a coup where Christophe Soglo overthrew Hubert Maga in October 1963. The same Soglo would again stage another coup in 1965 in which he overthrew Sourou-Migan Apithy, after which more coups would follow until as late as 2013 when a failed attempt was staged against current president Thomas Boni Yayi.
On January 3, 1966, Lt Col Sangoule Lamizana overthrew President Maurice Yameogo in Burkina Faso. Lamizana himself would later be overthrown by Col Saye Zerbo in November 1980, ushering in another round of coups in Burkina Faso that saw the military seize power through Thomas Sankara, Blaisé Compaore and, lately, Isac Zida and Gilbert Diendere.
One week after the January 1966 coup in Burkina Faso, Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwo staged the so-called ‘coup of the Majors’ in Nigeria, where he toppled the civilian government of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and President Namdi Azikiwe. This would set in motion a series of coups and counter coups in Nigeria until 1999 when the country returned to civilian rule.
More coups and coup attempts would take place in almost every other African country including Burundi, Cameroun, Central African Republic, Comoros, Chad, Congo- Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Egypt, Equatorial, Guinea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda and Zanzibar.
In Uganda, for example, General Idi Amin deposed the progressive government of Dr Milton Obote in January 1971. Uganda under Amin went through one of the most tragic experiences in recent African history. The feudal monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia was also deposed by the military in September 1974.
By 1975, approximately half of the continent's states were led by military or civil-military governments. In an effort to justify the overthrow of the government, one African military officer is reputed to have claimed that a military takeover and rule by soldiers never constitutes a revolution in tropical Africa but rather a ‘limited modification of existing arrangements.’
This period of coups d’etat, where military regimes became the most prevalent political phenomena in Africa, is usually referred to as the ‘dark age’ of post-colonial Africa. But things would change for the better, especially in the early 1990s, when the proverbial ‘wind of change’ started sweeping through Africa. This is the period of significant democratic gains when African citizens started challenging autocratic regimes, demanding good and accountable governance through constitutionalism and multiparty democracy. The period would in turn be referred to as the ‘glorious years’ of post-despotic Africa.
The multiparty wave would soon sweep across Africa as country after country enacted new constitutions and started holding elections based on universal suffrage. However, it now looks like that the ‘glorious years’ are over and Africa is sliding back to the ‘dark age.’ Progressive constitutions that marked the glorious age are being assaulted right, left and centre. Like a bushfire, regimes in Rwanda, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi, and Uganda have been changed their constitutions to remove presidential term limits in order to allow incumbents to stay in power indefinitely. Congo-Kinshasa under Joseph Kabila is toying with the idea of scrapping the term limit clause in its constitution and sectarian tensions are already high in that country.
With constitutions under assault, elections in many African countries are turning out to be mere rituals where incumbents do not win but are simply ‘declared’ winners by partisan and compromised electoral bodies.
It is in this respect that men, women and institutions of good conscience should come out strongly to ensure that Africa does not slide back into the ‘dark age.’ If not tamed, the growing culture of assaulting constitutions the way it has happened in Burundi, Rwanda and Congo-Brazzaville is likely to spread like a wild bushfire across Africa and become fashionable the way coups d’etat did become fashionable during Africa’s post colonial ‘dark age.’
The writer is deputy secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.