A Professor of History and International Relations at the Lagos State University, Abolade Adeniji, speaks to MUHAMMED LAWAL on the issue of coups in Africa, among others
Coups, which were before now believed to be outdated, have now become a recurring issue since 2019. Does it mean that the entire Africa is going back to military regimes?
Well, let us put it into perspective because not long after independence in the 60s, we had a rash of coups all over the continent. Beginning from this part of the world, it was the Togolese one that was the first, then it spread to Nigeria and Ghana, and it became a fashionable thing all over. There was a stage when they had an AU meeting. Then, it was found out that over 30 heads of state were military rulers in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. In the early 90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, there was what was called the second wave of democracy. At that time, communism and socialism were no longer attractive, and many countries started under the influence of the West, particularly the United States.
Many countries started adjusting to multiparty politics where you allowed for elections where there would be opposition and ruling party. Over the years, from the 1990s to the millennium, military rule gradually became unfashionable even those who came during military rule were compelled to transit. I am talking about places like Gabon, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire and others. They were compelled to hold regular elections in respect of rigging, but at least there was a semblance of democracy and civil rule. Then, two things happened – The first was the Arab Spring which led to an uprising and revolution in the Arab world and the after effect of this was the Jihadists enveloping the Sahel which began to spread and many of the countries mentioned like Mali were affected.
Of course, Nigeria had its own share; Niger, Chad and so on. In the case of French-speaking West African countries, what has appeared to have contributed to instability is the disenchantment in the countries with France. Most of these countries are poor and their economies are still tied to France. They are hardly independent in the real sense of the word and there is still disillusionment and disenfranchisement. I suspect that these military people read the feelings of their people and decided to cash in on it.
We may call what we have now the second wave of military rule just the way we had the second wave of democracy. Now we have about four countries that are involved, and before we know what is going on, it will become a contagion, it will begin to spread and it appears to be spreading specifically in the French-speaking countries, and of course, this has an implication to all the countries in Africa.
There have been speculations that it’s the neo-colonial government that triggered the coupists to take action as they continue to subject their country to colonial control. How will you react to this?
I mentioned the disenchantment with France that these coupists are acting on. When these countries were going to get their independence from France, they were given all kinds of terrible conditions they had to fulfill, and the ones that refused were actually punished. Guinea refused the terms of independence and the French punished her severely and all French infrastructure were damaged, leaving the country wretchedly. I was there recently and was shocked at the poverty of the country and years later, these countries are not doing well. When they looked back, they said France must be responsible. So, if we are talking of classical neo-colonialism, there is no better exhibition of it than the relationship between France and its ex-colonies. What they (former colonies) had was what in literature is called ‘flag independence’ and nothing more.
Has ECOWAS approached the matter well by giving an ultimatum to Niger for the country’s return to democratic government?
The rulers of these ECOWAS countries read the signal well; they see the way it is going and they are right because it is spreading now. So, they acted out of fear and out of concern if not desperation. We understand where they are coming from but the point is that if there is a military coup in a country and the people of the country welcome it, how can an outsider be weeping louder than the bereaved? These are the people who know what is good for them and we can see that in the meantime, they are at peace with the coupists. It is because of the disenchantment, disappointment and that their lives have not improved in the last 60 years.
So, when they saw those who posed as liberators, they decided to embrace them. For ECOWAS, it is very unwise to be giving an ultimatum if you will not take action. After seven days passed, they resorted to dialogue that should have come first before the ultimatum. At any rate, the planned intervention is not popular among the populace of these many countries. The truth is that unknown to most of these leaders, in their own countries, some people are unfortunately wishing for the same thing to happen. So, it was not a wise decision and I am sure that in a way, even ECOWAS regretted it. Even if they didn’t put it out I suspect that they actually regretted the ultimatum because you cannot give an ultimatum when you know that you will not take action.
What measures do you think ECOWAS can take to resolve the issue of coups in West Africa?
It is simple, it is good governance. If there is no good governance, coups will continue to occur. The truth is that the people of these countries are tired and they are fed up. In many of these countries, they look back and they see that their fortunes have not increased, and they look at the Sahara and see their youths crossing the Sahara on foot wanting to go to Europe. Everyone wants to flee the country because the situation back home is desperate. There is a huge percentage of youth unemployment in all of these countries, basic infrastructure are not there and you can tie corruption to that. People are disillusioned, if you want coups to stop, provide good governance. Once that is done, there will be fewer coups and less military intervention. But remember that it is easier said than done.
Now that we have about 10 coups in Africa, what are the implications of these coups to Nigeria politically and economically?
We may not be able to talk about economic implications, but for political implications; our politicians must not sleep with their two eyes closed because people can begin to draw inspiration from this action, God forbid. We have gone through military rule before and we came with our fingers burnt. I do not recommend it in any way. But when people are disenchanted, they forget the pains of the past, they will begin to romanticise military rule and believe that it is better than what we have now and the truth is that it is not better. It is difficult to preach to people who are hungry, unemployed, and desperate that military rule is a no-go area. For Nigeria and other West African countries, if I were in a position of leadership, I would be worried about what could happen. Of course, many people will tell you that we have passed that stage in Nigeria. Well, I do not know, I pray we do not degenerate into that level again, but I would be worried if I were in a position of leadership.
The past administration commenced the construction of a rail line from Nigeria to Niger Republic, and because of this, many Nigerians believed that the juntas in Niger must respect Nigeria’s decision by ceding power to the civilian government but the Nigerien juntas didn’t agree. How do you react to this?
In political science, we say all politics is local. We have to distinguish between one government and the other. Well, this is good, I am grateful and another says, ‘To hell, we do not even need your assistance’. It is neither here nor there; a new government can come and reverse the politics, and may not show gratitude as it appears these leaders are not doing. We thought when we sent a delegation there, they would have engaged them and the new leaders refused to meet with them. This is not good for neighbourhood relationships. However, this is a drama that is playing out; we should not have a sense of entitlement that ‘after all, we did it for them’. It should not work that way. Every country decides its strategic interest and these new leaders may have decided that it is not in their strategic interest to continue to ally closely with Nigeria.
The last coup d’état attempt in Gabon was on January 7, 2019, which turned out to be a failed attempt. What do you think could have been the driving force behind this recent coup?
What we realise is that the leader of this current coup based on the report that we know is a relation of the president. He was put there to protect, but when you make someone the head of the presidential guard; it means you trust the person with your life. When that kind of person decides to double-cross you, then you are in trouble and that is what has happened. He is the main man who should be responsible for the stability of the country; he is the man who has turned against them. The other coups may have failed because such personalities were not involved. We are speculating now because the real facts are not out. In the coming days, we will understand the real reasons and motives behind this coup, but for now, we can only base our assessments on newspaper reports.
Looking at the origination of the coup in Gabon and how much impact the election process has played in it, what steps should Gabon and other African countries at large take towards conducting free, fair and credible elections?
This is what we preach every day. Carrying out a peaceful and legitimate election that is devoid of malpractices is not rocket science. Get a credible person to head the electoral commission and give the person a free hand. In Ghana, there may be disputes by and large during the election, but people agreed that it was conducted well. That is what is just needed. Every country will have to devise its own means but the bottom line is to put the necessary structures in place. If the incumbent is not determined to remain in power at all costs, then he will allow for a free and fair election and also accept the outcome of the election whether he wins or loses. Once that is not so and he is determined to remain in power and you continue to rig elections, this kind of thing (coup) will continue to happen. Every country has its electoral peculiarities; so, they should marshal out measures to conduct free and fair elections. These leaders know what to do to conduct free and fair elections; it is just that they are not committed to it.
The AU was showing a lukewarm attitude, especially during the previous coups, not until there was a proclamation of war threat before they intervened. Don’t you think the AU has to gear up in critical matters like this?
The AU as much as they try cannot overrule the decision of a sub-region. The AU is usually very wary. When ECOWAS made that decision, the AU could not have opposed it. But you would see that the AU was not enthusiastic about the military option, AU was subtly preaching dialogue and a peaceful end to the crisis. The AU has done what it ought to do. The only thing left is that the AU must be concerned because let me point out that the crisis engrossing Africa; the one of Sudan (civil war), Mali, Niger and Gabon now. These are signs of instability and Africa has a lot of problems of its own. The economic problems are gargantuan. I understand the AU is being careful to ensure things are being resolved amicably. It is a complex situation; it is because it appears that in the West African sub-region, they have added it up to their neck with France and it is difficult to return to the status quo so that things can remain the way they used to be. The AU must be careful because there are some potential countries where this thing could happen and if care is not taken, it could lead to civil war. The AU is playing their game well and even ECOWAS can see that the proclamation of war is not popular. Now, there is a subtle change of tone from the leadership of ECOWAS.
With the recent development in Gabon, will you say that the people of Gabon are tired of the family reign for five decades?
This is supposed to be a democracy but it has become a monarchy. Imagine a father handing over to his son and we should not be surprised that the son is already grooming his own child too just like North Korea. I do not think Africa needs that.
What advice do you have for the ECOWAS leadership in its approach to ending the coup in West Africa?
It is a very dicey situation and they have to be very careful. Since the sanctions are there, let them be patient and see what happens. They should stop giving reckless ultimatums. Already, if we know the damages the power cut is doing, we will know that it is a matter of time before the people will turn against the military regime in Niger. They should still continue to adopt the carrot and stick. Try and dialogue if they want to listen and wait and see. But I bet that eventually, the coupists will have a rethink.