The military coups that recently toppled democratically elected governments in some African countries must be understood in the proper light of what they really were. They were an aberration, a taboo, a slap on the face of democracy that should never have happened. If we take a cursory glance at the older, more organized democracies around the world, we will begin to appreciate the unalienable truth that the search in Africa for true democracy should really not be through the bullet. It must be through the ballot.
Democracy in Africa must be allowed to make its mistakes and grow through those mistakes. That is what makes for strong democratic institutions. That is what makes for the beauty of democracy. If it takes four or five years of hardship for the people to learn to vote a more reliable political party into public office, so be it. Five years is not eternity. And just as Rome was not built in a day, so also can no country in Africa be built in one day.
The military has absolutely nothing to do with restoring democracy in any country. In the first place, the military is not equipped, either by training or by practical knowledge to deal with issues that concern democracy. The bullet and the ballot are miles apart – and irreconcilably so. The military is trained to obey their hierarchy, and order flows from top to bottom. This is diametrically opposed to democratic values and norms where issues are debated and put to the vote. This is why, in Nigeria for example, all military and economic power resides in Abuja and states are expected to carry plates in hand to beg for their share of the Abuja allocation. It simply reflects the dogged determination of the military to remain, not only relevant but dominating, in the democratic process of the country.
Come to think of it: why do the military in Africa believe they are the shepherds of democracy in their various countries? Why are they unwilling to allow democracy evolve from its mistakes into a stronger institution? The perception that some military forces in Africa see themselves as “the shepherds of democracy” which motivates them to interfere in the political process is, perhaps, going to result in a complexity that can be generalized for the entire continent, given the lame defence of their interruption by the former President of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. In Abeokuta recently, Chief Obasanjo said he would not support a coup d’etat in Nigeria or in any other African country because of his experience in the hands of a former Nigerian Head of State, the late Gen. Sani Abacha. He failed short of directly accepting the fact that the military should have nothing whatsoever to do with shepherding democracy.
Rather, while he expressed his opposition to the military takeover of government, the former President declared that any condition that could encourage military intervention on the continent should be avoided as much as possible. Obasanjo said this while addressing a group of youths from ‘Africa for Africa Youth Initiative’ (A4A) at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library.
He said the rising case of military coups in Africa showed that the people were tired of some things in their countries and that they were “in need of liberators”. Obasanjo called on governments of various African countries, including Nigeria, to ensure they did not push the youths to the point of preferring military take-over, given their various unpopular policies.
“The point is, do we have conditions that encourage the type of things that are happening? If we don’t have the conditions that encourage them, they may not happen. That does not mean it should be encouraged. What it means is that we should make sure that we do everything to prevent military takeovers from happening. When you see things that happen in many countries, and I will not exclude Nigeria, then you wonder. But, don’t forget particularly the youths, they support most of these military take-overs,” the former Nigerian leader said.
Obasanjo called on African leaders with sit-tight mentality to have a change of heart and that democracy which works for everyone should be encouraged. “Let me make it clear, I do not support a coup d’etat. Personally, I have been a victim of a coup d’etat. The good thing about democracy, if it works and delivers, is that you can sit down and dialogue and debate and discuss. But your democracy must take integrity along with it. Your democracy must take honesty along with it. Your democracy must take character along with it. Your democracy must take those attributes, God-given attributes such as inclusive society, no marginalization, no exclusion and no favoritism.” Obasanjo also called on African youths to rise to the occasion to take leadership positions because the tomorrow they are waiting for may never come. But again, he failed to suggest whether it was through military intervention in the democratic dispensation that the youths can be brought into positions of public authority.
Many African countries have a history of colonization, where foreign powers controlled their governance and resources. After they gained independence, some military leaders pathetically began to see themselves as protectors of the nation’s interests, including its fledgling democratic institutions. It was true that some African countries had experienced periods of political instability, ethnic tensions, economic crises and brazen corruption in public offices. These aberrations could have motivated military leaders to perceive themselves as the stabilizing force that can restore order and prevent chaos. They could have believed that democracy, if left unchecked, could exacerbate tension that would seriously challenge the country’s security, its economy, education, health and the general wellbeing of the populace and possibly spell doom for the country.
In some African countries like Nigeria, the military historically played significant, if misguided, roles in the society and in politics. For instance, you find military men manning check points along high ways that are reputed to be dangerous for commuters because of bandits, kidnappers and ritualists. You find them in market places and in schools protecting marketers and school children from kidnappers who would normally abduct them for ransom.
These roles, which they rightly or wrongly assume had overwhelmed the police force, can lead to a sense of entitlement or belief that they are the ones who know what is best for the country. Over time, military leaders might come to see themselves as guardians of the nation’s integrity, including its democratic processes. In cases where civilian governments have been unable to address key issues like poverty, inequality and corruption, the military might perceive themselves as more capable of addressing these challenges, leading them to justify intervention.
But that is not all that can motivate coup plotters to overthrow a democratically elected government of the people. In countries where there are valuable natural resources, for instance, it can also happen that the military might have a vested interest in maintaining control over those resources. This control can extend to political power as well, as they see themselves as the ones to safeguard the national wealth. Some military leaders might even view democracy as an unproved or flawed system, especially if they had in the past witnessed instances where democratic governance led to inefficiency, corruption or ethnic conflicts.
This observation might give credence to the assumption that ever since the military barged into the democratic dispensation in Nigeria and tasted authority from the civilian perspective, they have made it a point of duty to remain not only relevant but dominant in the running of the internal and external affairs of the country. They have become the major influence of how the country should or should not be managed, especially economically.
So, it is important to note that not all military interventions are motivated by the desire to protect democracy. Some interventions might be driven by personal gain, power struggles, vendetta or other ulterior motives. Efforts by democratically elected governments to transition towards stronger democratic foundations can sometimes be complicated by deeply ingrained beliefs, power dynamics and historical factors. Successful democratization of countries often requires a combination of internal and external forces, the establishment of functional democratic institutions, civil society engagement, and a commitment to the rule of law on the part of government.
Above all, African politicians should appreciate the fact that the quest for public offices is not a do or die affair as former Nigerian President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan once reminded his political associates. The military in Africa should take a cue from what is happening in the UK, in Europe and America. Even their democracy after 200 years is still work in progress. The military does not checkmate them. So, the military in Africa should allow true democracy to discover itself through its mistakes. If a party performs shoddily, it is kicked out by the next election. If the party rigged election this time, the loops would be tightened next time. In such a way democracy gains in strength until it attains a high standard where Africans don’t need their roads manned by police or road safety corps because everyone respects the law enforced through incontrovertible camera reports. Politicians should please wake up and remain focused on the right political strategies to take to liberate their people from military intervention, not just sharing money in Abuja and looking up to the next election rather than the next generation.