On Monday morning, a small group of incompetent soldiers in the central African nation of Gabon tried to stage a military coup, and failed miserably.
These are not happy hunting days for coup makers everywhere in the world. In Latin America, Asia, and in Africa, once flourishing coup zones, military putsches have sharply declined.
A report by the BBC’s Christopher Giles on its website, noted that “Since the 1950s, there’ve been a total of 204 coup d’etats - successful or otherwise - in Africa…
“In Africa, there have been 104 failed coups and 100 successful ones.
“Sudan has had the most coups, with 14. Burkina Faso has had the most successful ones at seven. Between 1960-1999, there were between 39 and 42 coups every decade. Since then there’s been a drop-off. In the 2000s there were 22 coups, and in the current decade the number stands at 16.”
Coups are dying out. Question is “why”? It’s the stuff of a book, but picking on a small bit of it, anyone who follows East African social media, will have got some insight into one of the explanations.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, as commander-in-chief, appeared at Jamhuri (Independence) Day on December 12, in military uniform, kicking off a debate on social media, with some arguing it was a wink to authoritarianism for a democratically elected leader to don military wear. Uhuru, though, had worn military uniform a couple of times over his presidency, but it didn’t create as much debate.
In Tanzania, President John Magufuli who, like Uhuru, was never a soldier or guerrilla, has also been pictured in military uniform.
As it were, at about the time Uhuru was showing up in his military uniform, in Rwanda President Paul Kagame, who was leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front/and an officer of the country’s military, appeared for the first time in over 10 years in military combat uniform at a military exercise, and talked tough about hostile forces threatening the peace and stability of his country.
On social media, a tweep posted photos of East African Community (EAC) leaders – Uhuru, Kagame, Magufuli, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, and South Sudan’s Salva Kiir - in military uniform, and noted that East Africa is a tough neighbourhood, and only Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza was missing. No big deal though, Nkurunziza used to be a guerrilla leader.
However, it is not the leaders who have changed. It’s the conditions that they operate in. Like in many parts of the world, the lines between military and civilian governments have blurred and this has impacted coups. To stick to East Africa, we have a “civilianisation” of former guerrilla leaders and generals (Museveni, Kagame, Kiir, Nkurunziza), and a “martialisation” of civilian leaders (Uhuru, Magufuli). Both are partly product of necessity of the times. Former guerilla leaders and generals have to civilianise because the advance of democracy and the growing complexity of our societies means it’s almost impossible to rule today without some form of electoral consent (however flawed) from the people.
But it is also true that East Africa is a tough neighbourhood. If you take the wider eastern Africa region (including the Horn and eastern edge of central Africa) it has over 50 per cent of the UN’s peacekeeping forces. The region has also been plagued by terrorism, with Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania witnessing some of the worst urban terror attacks on the continent since 1998.
The conventional wisdom is that civilian leaders have to project strength.
Secondly, as Africa urbanises fast and its youthful population explodes, what were once fairly civil forms of protests have become more militant. Domestically in some countries, this has come along with more brutal policing, and shock and awe tactics as a deterrent to future militancy.
Then, to make way for new highways and housing in urban areas that are close to collapsing in dysfunction, governments are breaking down illegally malls, and brutally clearing out slums. Because the constituencies and forces organised around these things are quite powerful themselves, governments sometimes treat these actions as form of warfare.
It’s unlikely that a crouched bookish president in monocles, can succeed in these circumstances.
Additionally for countries like Kenya, which haven’t had traditional military rule or a post-independence guerrilla war, its October 2011 Operation Linda Nchi “Protect the country” military campaign into southern Somalia, was the end of the age of innocence, if ever had one. It moved from a country known mostly for its role in UN peacekeeping, to war maker, and now as part of AMISOM, peace enforcer.
The bigger surprise then is not that Uhuru appears in military uniform, but would have been if he didn’t.
The author is publisher of africapedia.com and roguechiefs.com. Twitter@cobbo3