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Random thoughts on democracy and resurgence of military coups in Africa, By Jideofor Adibe



Military coups became the norm in several African countries shortly after independence until the 1990s when the current ‘wave’ of democracy began. The contagion effect from the January 13, 1963 coup in Togo, the first in Africa, in which President Sylvanus Olympio was assassinated, soon spread like wildfire across the continent.

There have been over 200 attempted coups in Africa since the 1950s, with about half of these succeeding. Out of the 54 countries in Africa, 45 have had at least one coup attempt since 1950. Sudan has the most number of military coups – 17, out of which six succeeded. Burkina Faso is the most adept in planning and executing a military coup, with nine successful military takeovers and only one failed attempt.

After a period of relative democratic stability in the current ‘wave’ of liberal democracy in the continent, military coups are making a fast comeback, with the recent takeover in Gabon coming just one month after soldiers seized power in the Niger Republic. In 2021, there were six coup attempts in the continent, four of them successful. Of the 18 coups recorded globally between 2017 and 2022, all but one – Myanmar in 2021 – took place in Africa. This probably prompted the UN Secretary-General António Guterres to warn in 2021 that “military coups are back”. What does the resurgence of military coups in Africa tell us about the fate of liberal democracy in the continent?

There are several observations: One, the democratic space tends to be elastic. It can expand or contract without democracy necessarily being under a mortal threat. American political scientist Samuel Huntington who called the current round of liberal democracy in “the modern world”, a “third wave”, noted that each of the two earlier waves was followed by reversals. He pointed out that the first “long” wave of democratisation, which began in the 1820s, with the widening of the suffrage to a large proportion of the male population in the United States and continued for almost a century until 1926, leading to 29 countries in Europe and America becoming democracies, was followed by a ‘reverse wave’. This was when Mussolini came to power in Italy such that by 1942, the number of democratic states in the world had reduced to 12.

Again the second wave of democracy, which started with the triumph of the Allies in World War II and reached its zenith in 1962 (when 36 countries became democracies) was followed by a reverse wave from 1960 to 1975, which brought the number of democracies down to 30. In essence, it can be argued that liberal democracy oscillates between surges and reversals in accordance with the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. Even within national governments in the contemporary Western world, we see often an oscillation between right-wing authoritarians (Trump for example) and those on the left of the political spectrum (Joe Biden for instance). This raises a fundamental question of whether the current surge in military coups in Africa is the normal ‘reversal wave’ that follows a period of democratic surge.

Two, it must be pointed out that military coup – forceful seizure of political power by the military – is not the only threat to liberal democracies in Africa.  We also have constitutional coup-making whereby those elected to office change the constitutions of their country to elongate their tenure. Though 33 out of about 48 new constitutions in Africa enacted in the 1990s provided for term limits of two terms for the office of the president, nearly 30 countries contemplated the removal of term limits since 1998, with many succeeding. Electoral manipulations and rigging such that electoral outcomes are not believed to represent the wishes of the electorate also alienate voters from the electoral process and thus equally constitute a threat to democracy. In several French African countries, anti-French sentiments and the inability of governments to deal with some developmental challenges (such as defeating Jihadism) are yet another source of disillusionment that provides ammunition for the military to strike.

Three, a major difference between the practice of democracy in the advanced states of Europe and the USA and its practice in Africa is that while the basis of nationhood is already settled in the former, in the latter, even the basis of statehood remains contested in many countries. This poses severe challenges to especially two key components of democracy – freedom of speech and conduct of elections. Precisely because most of the states in the continent are just emerging from a prolonged period of dictatorship, the free speech guarantees of liberal democracy tend to facilitate the unleashing of bottled-up feelings from the authoritarian era. This aggravates the structures of conflict in the society, exacerbates inter-ethnic tensions and suspicions and complicates the nation-building process. In essence, while democratic reversals in the West do not, strictly speaking,  threaten democracy or the nation-state, in Africa, military coups could threaten the state system because it could be construed as an attempt by one or more ethnic groups (who share ethnic identities with the coup leaders) to gain undue advantage for their ethnic groups. The consequent resentment is bottled up but unleashed in several ways, including separatist agitations, whenever an opportunity presents itself.

There is a similar challenge with the conduct of elections. In virtually all  parts of Africa, politicians take literally the injunction by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first Prime Minister and President, to “seek first the political kingdom and every other thing will be added unto you”. There are two major explanations for this: the first is that political power is seen as a veritable instrument of wealth accumulation. The second is a pervasive fear that any group that captures state power will use it to privilege its in-group and disadvantage the others. Elections, therefore, tend to be very anarchic, almost a warfare. Losing the presidential election could mean your ethnic group will be excluded from the dining table by the triumphant winning group or coalition.

This alienates the others from both the democratic process and the state system they feel marginalises them. Four, democracy in the continent suffers from an expectation crisis. Take for instance what Nigerians call ‘democracy dividend’. There is a presupposition that democracy will lead to economic development and an improvement in the standard of living of the people. The truth, however, is that there is no conclusive evidence in the literature that liberal democracy could offer such. On the contrary, many of the countries in Asia whose economies grew exponentially, including China, Malaysia and Singapore, did so under benevolent dictatorships.

People are also frustrated about the quality of leaders they get under democracy. Again democracy only promises to allow people to choose from those who presented themselves to be elected. Given that it is mostly  those who have the financial wherewithal and the necessary rough edges  to compete that present themselves for election, people often do not feel that the leaders they get  are the best available. This, coupled with the manipulation of the electoral system, and generalised feeling that the costs of running the democracy is not worth it, lead to a further aggravation of the disillusionment with democracy.

Five, what will be the option for Africa? In the immediate post-independence period, many African leaders – Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Nyerere in Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and a host of others instituted a one- party state. Their basic argument was that political parties signified the institution of divisions, and therefore un-African. They also argued that Africa was in a state of emergency and, therefore, could not afford the luxury of institutionalising divisions. Others like Museveni, who came to power in 1986, claimed he was running a ‘no party democracy’. Then came the period of military rule in which the military was extolled as a modernising institution that hated the corruption, indiscipline and politicisation of primordial identities by the politicians.

Unfortunately, unlike in some Asian countries where benevolent dictatorship led to economic development and improvement in the general welfare, African autocracy of various hues proved incapable of being engines of economic development or nation-building. Frustrations with governance were in some cases transferred to frustrations with the state, with some groups clamouring to de-link from the state system while others seem to be in perpetual search for a political messiah to turn things around.  It seems a more realistic option open to Africans is to engage in robust conversations about how to adapt liberal democracy to its unique environment because it seems obvious that while Africans cherish the freedoms that democracy offers, they are generally disappointed by the governance systems in the continent.

Strictly Personal

Don’t cry for Mandela’s party; ANC’s poll loss is self-inflicted, By Jenerali Ulimwengu



There is losing, and then there is losing. The loss that the African National Congress suffered in the recently concluded elections in South Africa is a loss of a special type. It is almost as if the erstwhile liberation movement willed this loss on itself.

This is Africa’s oldest political organisation, which, with its longevity and the special task imposed on it by history, became more than a party or a movement but rather became more like a nation — the nation of Black South Africans.

I mean, if you were a Black man or woman in South Africa and you wanted to identify as somebody who wants to be respected as a human being, you were automatically ANC.

True, this is somewhat exaggerated, but it is not very far from the truth. For most of its life since its founding in 1912, it always identified with and represented the people of South Africa, taking an all-inclusive approach to the struggle for all the racial, ethnic, and confessional groups in the country, even when the exactions meted on the country by the most nefarious ideology on the planet could have suggested, and did indeed, suggest a more exclusivist outlook in favour of the majority racial cohort.

It sought to unite and to mobilise energies nationally and internationally, and create a more equal society for all, that would be in sync with the most advanced and progressive thought of the world at different stages of its career. It became home for all South Africans regardless of colour, creed or social station.

Even after Apartheid was officially promulgated as the philosophy and practice of the national government after 1948, the ANC hardly veered from that steadfast philosophical vision. To galvanise adhesion and grow ownership, the ANC adopted strategic blueprints for the future, including the Freedom Charter of 1955, setting out the basic things the movement would do when it came into power.

In the face of intransigence on the part of the Boers, the ANC saw the need to alter strategy and accept that armed struggle was inevitable, and launched the MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation) to spearhead armed insurrection.)

Though MK was more effective as a propaganda tool than a fighting force, it did the job of getting the white minority in the country to realise that their lives of comfort were numbered as things stood, and that it made more sense to seek some form of accommodation with the Blacks.

Once that was effected, even those Whites who had been diehard supremacists suddenly realised, with regret, how stupid they had been all along: Not only were these Blacks, long considered subhuman, not only fully human but also corruptible—just like the Whites.

And so the White establishment set out to work on their old enemies, corrupting them to the core with the luxurious goodies that up to then the nouveau riches had not imagined, with things like the erroneously termed “Black Empowerment”, a programme designed to yank from the bosom of the people a handful of individuals with sufficient appetites to make them forget about the Freedom Charter.

Probably more than anything, it was this that spelled the start of the demise of the ANC. In the past, we had seen former freedom fighters in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau scramble into the blinding lights of Lourenco Marques, Luanda and Bissau, to be destroyed by the perils of Original Sin.

But South Africa was different in that the erstwhile oppressors simply took even the former “terrorists” by making them filthy rich, detached from the depressing realities of the masses of their people, by making them, in effect, traitors. So much so that when the workers at Marikana went on strike against a company owned by the current president of the country, the latter had absolutely no qualms about sending in the police to kill scores of protesters!

Now, the phenomenon of two sitting presidents being replaced by their party is spectacular in itself, but it belied a body politic that was groaning under its dead weight of sleaze and factionalism.

It may seem to some observers that the only thing that kept the various hungry factions together was the white-run oppressive system, and that after this was replaced with money-making cabals of ex-comrades, we found an ANC that was ideologically bankrupt and politically rudderless.

Now the ANC has to deal with the electoral result that has denied it an absolute majority for the first time, its crimes and misconduct have caught up with it. It has been sent to a political purgatory to atone for its sins, but while there, it must choose whom to work with among its sworn enemies:

Will it choose the DA, a lily-White party whose feeble attempt to ‘bronze’ itself with the recent choice of Mmusi Maimane as its head failed miserably? Will it rather be Jacob Zuma’s MK party, which is shamelessly an ethnic outfit bent on rehabilitating a misfit who has been disgraced multiple times as a rascal and a thief? Or could it be the EFF’s Julius Malema, whose day job has become, for some time now, to lambast the person of the current president and chief of the ANC?

We shall see.

Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail:

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Strictly Personal

Appraising 25 years of return to democracy, By Jide Ojo



Last Wednesday, May 29, 2024, marked exactly the silver jubilee of Nigeria’s return to civil rule. However, the celebration has been shifted to June 12 in commemoration of the 1993 presidential election won by the late Chief MKO Abiola which the military junta of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida annulled. It was the immediate past President, Muhammadu Buhari, who did that. In a tweet posted on his X handle on June 6, 2018, Buhari said inter alia “Dear Nigerians, I am delighted to announce that, after due consultations, the Federal Government has decided that henceforth, June 12 will be celebrated as Democracy Day. We have also decided to award posthumously the highest honour in the land, GCFR, to Chief MKO Abiola. In the view of Nigerians, as shared by this administration, June 12, 1993, was and is far more symbolic of democracy in the Nigerian context than May 29, or even October 1.”

Chief Abiola’s running mate, Babagana Kingibe, was also awarded a GCON. Furthermore, the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), a tireless fighter for human rights and democracy, and for the actualisation of the June 12, 1993 election was posthumously awarded a GCON. Buhari said further that, the June 12, 1993, election was the freest, fairest and most peaceful election since Nigeria’s independence.

1999 to date has been described by political historians as the Fourth Republic. Recall that the First Republic was between October 1, 1960 and January 15, 1966. The Second Republic was between October 1, 1979, and December 31, 1983, when the military struck. The Third Republic was between 1990 and June 23, 1993, when IBB annulled the June 12 presidential election. Thus, the Third Republic was inchoate and inconclusive as it was aborted without a president being sworn into office. Out of Nigeria’s 64 years as a sovereign nation, 29 years were administered by military junta.

How has Nigerian democracy fared under civil rule in the last 25 years? Poorly. Leadership remains a bane of Nigeria’s progress. Although there are 11,082 elective political offices in Nigeria, the occupiers have been more concerned about personal aggrandisement than selfless service. That is why our elections are heavily monetised and prone to violence. Politicians, more often than not, adopt the Machiavellian principle of ‘the end justifies the means.’ They do all they can to compromise the electoral process and manipulate it to their advantage. For instance, campaign finance laws are breached as they spend far above the legal spending limits. Though there are copious laws against electoral violence with stringent penalties, the masterminds and the arrowheads more often than not do not get caught while their minions who get caught are bailed out of detention without prosecution.

If the Independent National Electoral Commission should publish the list of those successfully convicted for electoral crimes in the last 25 years, most Nigerians will be surprised at the infinitesimal number. This has sustained the culture of impunity in our electoral process. Little wonder INEC has been in the forefront of asking for the setting up of the Electoral Offences Commission and Tribunal. Will Nigeria’s devious political class allow that law to be passed? That will be political hara-kiri!

So, since many of Nigeria’s political leaders ‘bought’ or procured their electoral victory, their loyalty does not lie with the electorate but to themselves and their rapacious political class. Because of the heavy spending on elections, the primary objective of Nigeria’s political class is to recoup their investment with super profit. Thus, there is a nexus between unbridled political spending and corruption. The truth is that if all the political officeholders were to live and survive on their basic salaries, there would be so much left for infrastructural development and good governance. However, while they are quick to show us their pay slip, the humongous amount they receive as allowances, estacodes and kickbacks are never mentioned.

Does it not occur to you that nobody will spend billions of naira to contest for a political office only to collect a sum of money that will not defray his or her political expenses? The truth is that not all politicians are bad but the good ones are very few. According to the former American President, Abraham Lincoln, “The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject anything, is not whether it has any evil in it; but whether it has more evil than good. There are few things wholly evil or wholly good.”

I watched a vox pop conducted by a lady in the United Kingdom asking Nigerians in that country if they would like to get £100,000 and move back to Nigeria. All the respondents said no to the offer. She probed further why they didn’t want to come back home, and unanimously they said it was because of our leadership problem. They all fingered leadership as Nigeria’s number one challenge. The irrefutable fact is that Nigeria is a crippled giant to borrow the words of renowned Professor of Political Science, Eghosa Osaghae. Yes, while I admit that we are not where we used to be, we are at the same time not where we ought to be. For many years, Nigeria laid claim to being the biggest economy in Africa but today we are number four after South Africa, Egypt and Algeria according to the International Monetary Fund.

Twenty-five years into this Fourth Republic, we have had seven general elections in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019 and 2023. We have also had five presidents namely, Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan, Muhammadu Buhari and the incumbent, Bola Tinubu. Two political parties have ruled at the centre; the Peoples Democratic Party which governed from 1999 to 2015, while the All Progressives Congress has taken over the leadership mantle at the centre from 2015 to date. Unfortunately, whether you’re talking of the APC or the PDP, or the three tiers of government namely, federal, state and local; what is common to all of them is poor governance. All the development indices that are pointing south are a cumulative non-performance of all the former holders of political offices and the incumbents. As we say, governance is a continuum.

I have said, time and again, that no individual has the magic wand to turn things around for the better in this country. The President, being the overall boss should work collaboratively with state governors and local government chairpersons. However, the president must lead by good example so he can serve as a moral compass to helmsmen and women at the sub-national level. I’m not comfortable with the spending spree of our political office holders who luxuriate in ostentatious lifestyles with their families while the majority of my compatriots languish in poverty.

Nigeria’s political leaders should imbibe the culture of prudence in the management of public finance. The borrowing binge should also stop. Many in the executive arm holding political offices are indulging in reckless borrowing under the guise of funding developmental projects. At the end of the day, there is nothing much to show for the huge public debts. It is important to block revenue leakages and stop oil thefts. It is an act of selflessness, not selfishness, of our political officeholders that will lead the country out of its current economic doldrums.

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