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Africa’s Groundhog Day coups

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Africa’s Groundhog Day coups

If coups had been able to provide the solution to Africa’s many problems, the continent would have become a shining model of development, equity and justice by now, says New African editor Anver Versi.

The term ‘Groundhog Day’ has been part of common expression for quite a while – it indicates a situation in which a series of unwelcome or tedious events appear to be recurring in exactly the same way.

It neatly sums up the general reaction in Africa and elsewhere to the news that there had been yet another coup in Guinea and that an attempted coup in Sudan had been thwarted.

Since the 1950s, there have been over 200 coups or attempted coups in Africa; since 2010 to the present, there have been 38 coups or attempted coups. In each case, the armed forces have taken over the ruling of their respective countries to ‘save it’ from corrupt, or oppressive, or dictatorial leaders – take your pick.

Each coup has been accompanied by scenes of wild jubilation by the public, who believe the long-promised salvation has occurred. Then disillusion sets in, the military become oppressive and the dreaded civilian politicians return to power before they are once again ousted by a coup. Groundhog Day.

If coups had been able to provide the solution to Africa’s many problems, the continent would have become a shining model of development, equity and justice by now. Sudan, with a record 15 coup attempts (five successful), would have been vying with Singapore for most developed status.

Instead, it’s the same old same old. So what can we make of Africa’s penchant for coups – the most of any region? There is a lot of discussion on this in the media with many commentators wondering if Africa’s experiment with democracy has failed and we are returning to the bad old day when coups were a dime a dozen.

The answer, to me, is obvious. If civilian governments do not deliver and if military rule does not deliver, then the problem must lie somewhere at the leadership level. Swapping one for the other is changing the dressing, not addressing the wound.

The problem, to me at least, lies in the old saying: ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. A simple definition of power is the possession of control over the actions and lives of others.

It is an awesome capacity, especially when it is political power buttressed by all the state forces. It is almost inevitable that whoever acquires such power will use it, at some point, for personal aggrandisement or to retain it or to crush any opposition. It will corrupt – unless there are checks to its capacity.

Mature nations, many of which have evolved over the centuries and experienced the often destructive nature of unchecked political power, have learnt how to tame it, corral it, control it and make it serve the interests of the majority. They have never placed their trust in hopefully finding exceptional leaders of impeccable moral strength or outstanding ethics. Such leaders are so few that history can count them on one hand.

Watertight system

Instead, they have placed their faith in the system and tried to make it as watertight as possible – assuming always that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

To do this, they have devised a set of major pillars: the rule of law (all state and non-state public activity must be legislated by an elected parliament); an independent judiciary that is guided only by the laws made and approved by an elected legislature; and the third, most crucial, a free and critical press, to act as a watchdog and subject all state action and players to constant and unrelenting scrutiny. These three pillars guarantee (despite Trump’s attempts to upset the status quo) that those who hold the reins of awesome power are accountable to those in whose name they rule.

This does not mean that those in high leadership positions are not inclined to corruption – it seems most people will take advantage of a situation for gain if they can – but it means that the institutions will limit that corruption. If parliament does not get you, the courts can; if the courts cannot get you, the media can. There is little room for manoeuvre.

For a democracy to function properly, these institutions are vital. Where they are weak, power corrupts and the whole cycle of coups and counter-coups will continue ad infinitum. Groundhog Day. 

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Written by Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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