Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Grappling with military regimes in Africa (part 1)

by Amusu Kwaggrey

Have military regimes become a permanent feature of African politics, indeed politics in developing countries? What are the motivations for military usurpation of power and can an effective solution be found to counteract coups? The writer explores these questions in a two-part article.
Military rule is an infringement of democracy and coup d'etat, a method of seizing political power by force of arms, has become endemic to African politics. Right from 1963 to date hardly any year passes without Africa experiencing at least one or two coups.

This year (1985) alone, three African heads of state, namely Numeiry and Milton Obote (and recently a palace coup ousting Buhari) had been ousted from office through military putsch. Though the overthrow of these governments came not as a surprise or not without reasons, yet on hearing that another coup had taken place in Uganda, I wondered when Africa shall be rid of such methods of changing governments.

Today, Africa has been turned into an arena where guns and use of force have become the means of governing the people. This practice does not only betray freedom to choose who governs us but violates all fundamental principles of democracy.

The unbridled proliferation of coups in post independence Africa is not only a sad affair but a threat to the future political well-being of the continent... coups have made Africa one of the most politically unstable continents in the world.

When the coup struck in Khartoum on the 6th April, 1985, Lt. Col. John Garang of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) quickly sent a strong ultimatum to the new military regime under General Swar-el-Dahab to hand over power to the people within seven days. This sounded a bit strange to the International commun- ity, but logically he was right on the grounds that it is not the duty of the army to rule because it has no political mandate, and once in power the army does not represent the masses but itself.

However, as Nkrumah put it, "if the national interest compels the armed forces to intervene, then immediately after the intervention, the army must hand over to a new Civil government elected under a constitution accepted by them. But if the army does not do this then the position of the army becomes dubious and anomalous and involved betrayal of the people and the national interest". This theory explains why military rule with all its ramifications is a political aberration the perpetuation and institutionalisation of which must not be encouraged in any form in Africa.

This must be done because no sound and durable political institution can be evolved under a military dictatorship. Instead, it breeds contempt and antagonism that makes government by stable and effective democracy even more difficult and slippery.

It is no longer a secret however, that the early military coups that swept across Africa were engineered or sponsored by America and her Western European allies through the CIA with the object to destroy our great and progressive leaders like Ben Bella, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Madibo Keita, etc, whom they regarded as thorns in their flesh and impediment to their imperialist machinations in Africa and replace them with stooges and puppet regimes which they did.

The success of this diabolical bid led to the setting of a bad precedent for the young Africa just emerging from colonial rule by sowing into her a seed of political instability. Since then, the usurpation of power by military junta has become a common and vicious circle on the African political scene. It is a vicious circle in a sense that under a military dictatorship, the democratic climate essential for the discussion and solution of problems does not exist and when the frustration of the masses come onto the brink of explosion, changes can only be made through further coups.

The unbridled proliferation of coups in post-independence Africa is not only a sad affair but also a threat to the future political well-being of the continent. Since independence, Africa has had about sixty-three successful military coups, not mentioning the countless abortive ones, a phenomenon which has made Africa one of the most politically unstable continents in the world.

At present, no less than twenty-five African countries are being ruled by the armed forces with the false belief that Africans are savages and can only be governed or civilised by use of force through military discipline as Sir Samuel Baker erroneously theorized many years ago. Hence, democracy in these countries has been stifled and supplanted with callous military rule under which the press and freedoms of the people are being suppressed by oppressive decrees.

Frequency of military intervention into a nation's political life, places the nation and its civilisation in jeopardy and its future into uncertainty. It destroys more than it builds. Take Bolivia for instance; in 170 years of her independence she had known about 190 coups and her socio-economic con- dition remain one of the worst in the world with the highest inflationary rate of 4,000 per cent.

In fact, the chronic political fragility and negligible economic progress which still rocks the Latin American continent after nearly 200 years of in- dependence show clearly the damage which military coups d'etat can cause to a continent. This must be a lesson for us in Africa.

Military regimes of all brands, be they of senior officers, junior officers or radical and revolutionary ranks, are all irrelevant to the socio-economic base and therefore can never provide any genuine panacea to the problems facing Africa including the neo- colonial question. This is because military regimes by their nature - lack the democratic base, capability and necessary ingredients to bring about any meaningful change or improvement into a country for the maximum benefit of the masses. In other words, the military is seldom an agent of real development.

When in power, the soldiers quickly fall victim to the same political and financial pressures, as corrupt politicians. High military expenditure is incurred at the expense of the people's welfare.

Doomed to failure by a crippling defence budget, prohibitive cost of abortive economic innovations and in- experience of its rulers, a nation ruled by a military dictator find it impossible task to go through a radical change and achieve a sound social and economic welfare for all. Under these circum- stances, the military are presented with a far easier option by simply looking after their own interest, and of probably applying some superficial cosmetic changes in the society in which they operate.

Ironically, military governments who claim to be striving for national dignity and international and multi- nation economic domination are often guilty of trade agreements which turn out to be worse than those of any of the previous civilian governments. In many cases, the very crimes of which the civilians were accused of are quadrupled under the military.

They claim to be fighting corruption and pursuing a progressive social justice and economic development but quickly become corrupt. The soldiers have failed to realise that the war against corruption cannot be won under a military dictatorship through promulgation of military decrees which the population had no hand in. I sub- mit that it is easier to fight corruption and similar social ills in a democratic system. Freedom of expression and a pluralistic system alone put corruption at risk which situation seems to support the maxim that the only effective weapon against corruption and misgovernment is an unfettered public adequately informed and guided by political parties and the media.

talking drums 1985-09-30 Ghana Now Inconsistencies and Realities - Miriam Makeba