Dr. Chidi Amuta is Executive Editor of USAfrica magazine (Houston) and USAfricaonline.com
Recent footage from the Guinean capital of Conakry, especially since September 2021, is not good. Following last week’s coup that toppled the government of Alpha Conde, spontaneous jubilations and wild elation prompted excited mobs to troop out in street song and dance. They were celebrating the overthrow of a government that they ought to be defending; a democratic government. Soldiers paid to guard the nation and protect those who govern it arrested and put away the president, sacked the parliament and suspended the constitution. Among the jubilant throngs, the dominant mood was a curious combination of ‘freedom’ from something self- imposed and the embrace of something more familiar. Guineans have lived most of their lives under a succession of military dictators. The Alpha Conde government was the first elected government they have ever known. After a decade under democracy, the jubilant crowds were curiously welcoming the opposite of democracy. Hardly anyone was seen protesting against the return of dictatorship.
The coup d’etat in Guinea is the fifth in less than five years in countries in the Sahel and West African region. Sudan, Mali (twice), Chad and now Guinea have recently witnessed the return of a familiar African political ailment: military coups. On 11th April, 2019, the Sudanese military took down the authoritarian but elected government of Omar al- Bashir whose human rights abuses were legion. But civil society groups stubbornly protested the return of the military and insisted on a power sharing arrangement. A deal was brokered between the military and the pro democracy organizations for a power sharing arrangement leading to an eventual transition to civil rule. Al-Bashir was ferried off to the Hague to answer to charges of serial rights abuses and crimes against humanity for which the International Criminal Court had previously indicted him.
In Mali, it was a combination of persistent insecurity in the north following a prolonged Tuareg jihadist insurgency and protracted partisan political firefights that powered two military coups in quick succession. Feverish diplomatic pressure from West African leaders and France helped broker a hybrid transition arrangement with the involvement of some civilian politicians in a predominantly military government. In Chad, a rather suspicious battlefield assassination of Idris Deby ended his protracted and corrupt family autocracy in that poor and parched country.
The immediate Guinean instance bears familiar African imprints. Guinea has from independence been ruled by a succession of military autocrats since after the death of its founding leader Sekou Toure in 1984. The military overthrew his immediate successor in March of the same year and largely remained in power till the election of the recently toppled government of Alpha Conde ten years ago. Conde, a former opposition leader, was the first elected leader in the history of the impoverished but mineral rich country. Guinea has huge deposits of iron ore and bauxite exploited in mines mostly owned by French and Chinese interests.
The deposed President Alpha Conde serially violated the codes of democratic governance. He used parliament to alter the constitutional term limit from two terms to a give himself a renewable third term. The election for his third term was characterized by malpractices. Violent civil unrest and protests followed. Conde beat down the protests with characteristic ferocity and repression, leading to detentions and deaths. Just before he was overthrown last week, worsening economic conditions fed widespread public disenchantment and a palpable popularity deficit. In defiance of the public mood, the president approved pay increases for himself and parliamentarians while foolishly cutting the salaries of public servants and the security forces including soldiers. Worsening economic conditions had led to higher prices of utilities and essential supplies with increasing poverty and hardship among the urban populace. A predictable clampdown on opposition politicians and the media formed the immediate backdrop to this coup.
The soldiers, led by Col. Mamadi Doumbouya, have indicated that they wrested power from a selfish political elite in order to return control of the country to ‘the people’. The coup leader, an elite officer trained in the United States and France and whose wife is currently serving with French security has made speeches echoing the temper of late Ghanaian leader and veteran coup maker, John Jerry Rawlings. This is a subtle indication of some superficial revolutionary preference in an age that abhors left leaning revolutions and favours liberal democratic governments no matter how imperfect .
The United Nations, ECOWAS, the African Union and major world democracies have unanimously condemned the coup in Guinea. ECOWAS has suspended Guinea and blockaded its borders. Widespread international condemnations of coups are of course predictable as democracy has become the universal currency of political reality and discourse. There is a threadbare consensus that the worst democracy is better than the best military dictatorship. That axiom has not however excluded coups from the global register as we have witnessed in Myanmar and now Guinea.
In the international condemnations of the coup in Guinea, one country stands out, namely, China. It has become an axiom of modern day Chinese foreign policy not to meddle in the internal affairs of African countries where it has been busy investing and executing huge low interest rate infrastructure projects. Guinea presents a somewhat different scenario. China has vast interests in the bauxite and iron deposits and mines of the country. The background of the new coup leader as a US trained and Western friendly officer has raised China’s antenna in its unfolding global face off with the United States. Next to Guinea, China’s major source of iron ore and bauxite is Australia, a country that China considers essentially adversarial in the long run. Therefore, China’s condemnation of the coup in Guinea and its call for the release of the former president may in fact be quite strategic. But the coup has wider and more consequential implications for the future of democracy in Africa going forward than the agenda in the back pockets of mineral hungry global powers.
In all the instances of the recent coups in Africa, elected governments have been replaced by military dictatorships in a growing trend that is reminiscent of Africa from the mid 1960s to the mid 1990s. Coups to topple fragile civilian governments are fairly easy undertakings for military establishments spoilt by long years of power and privilege. Worse still, in environments where bad governance under elected rulers has aggravated social and economic hardship, illegitimate change has seemed logical and inevitable.
In a good number of African countries, democracy has become more a manner of speaking in a language spoken by a minority elite. Alienated from the populace and consumed in the pursuit of its narrow group interest, elites elected into office under the label of democracy have gotten so entrenched that honest democratic means seem powerless in replacing them. In consequence, the populace embrace undemocratic political change as the only alternative to achieve much needed change.
Therefore, bland universalist responses to reversals in African democracy fail to understand the unique problems of democracy in a continent still blighted by poverty, ignorance and bad governance. First, African countries are at different stages of development even if they share fairly common historical circumstances. In real terms, democracy remains a manner of speaking in a continent where an essentially elite political leadership mostly connects with the people only during election seasons. It is only in a minority number of African countries where leaders have engaged the people to give meaning to democracy as a lived experience.
In such places, we have seen recent instances of the honest pursuit of the common good and welfare of the people as the essence of democratic governance. In today’s Africa, we can think mostly of Botswana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, and perhaps a bit of South Africa as the most effective democracies in Africa. It is no wonder that most of these countries are also among the best performing and fastest growing economies on the continent. Ethiopia averaged 10.3% in 2019 as Africa’s fastest growing economy. It was followed by Rwanda and Tanzania in the league of Africa’s fastest growing economies from 2001 to 2017. The tempting conclusion therefore is that the countries that deliver better democratic experience for their populace also have more effective governance and economic growth prospects.
We cannot however expect democracy in Africa to travel exactly the same trajectory as what happened in Europe. The factors that led to the development of democratic culture in the West are peculiar and historically specific. The industrial revolution, popular literacy, the emergence of a middle class, the sacking of monarchies, the emergence of parliaments, the emergence of the press and public opinion as well as the concept of the separation of powers. Above all, there was the universalization of education through the democratization of literacy which equipped men and women to know their rights and understand their limitations.
It ought to concern African democrats that in practically all the recent instances of coups that have toppled Africa’s fragile democracies, the knee jerk condemnations by world leaders and organizations have been countered by street dances celebrating the overthrow of these elected ‘democratic’ governments. In almost all these instances, the ready excuses of coup makers have been the familiar ones of worsening economic conditions leading to political tension and increasing insecurity. This touches on the betrayal of the very foundation of democracy itself which is the common good defined loosely as the welfare of the people. In most of ‘democratic’ modern Africa, the adoption of democracy has unfortunately translated into ‘bi-polar states’. These are states in which the government and ‘the people’ exist as separate, tangential and even opposing realities. The government thrives on the formal appearance and benefits of democratic order while the people suffer the consequences and burden of formal democracy.
Part of Africa’s crisis of leadership has been identified as a predominance of strong men and a deficit of strong institutions. The military as an institution of the modern African state has suffered serial crises. In its repeated incursions in the politics of different countries, most African military establishments have not managed to regain the doctrine of their ultimate subordination to elected civilian authority. Nor have the new African democratic leaders managed to reverse the doctrinal misdirection of Africa’s military. The protection of national sovereignty for which the military is constitutionally established does not include the usurpation of political authority from elected leaders. There needs to be an urgent debate as to whether poor African countries that have no forseeable external threats even need standing armies.
The pursuit of the external trappings and formats of democracy-parliaments, bureaucracies, the pomp and pageantry of power and the funding of the paraphernalia of officialdom- have often overwhelmed the common good in their costly implications. The ordinary people whose welfare ought to be the measure of the relevance and effectiveness of government have often ended up as mere spectators, watching the ritual of government from the sidelines. This alienation is deepened by dire economic conditions which weaken the will of the people and render them helpless in determining the fate and tenure of the very governments that they elected into office. Desperation results and the people either resign to fate and superstition or are primed to welcome undemocratic change as a path to salvation.
Therefore, the most effective route to the consolidation of democracy in Africa is effective and relevant governance. The governments emplaced by democracy must address the urgent problems of human capital development in areas such as healthcare, education, security and even basic nutrition. A higher degree of accountability has also become imperative. Most importantly, African democracies must become incrementally participatory if they must become meaningful to a vastly illiterate populace. Elected governments must engage more with the people in the process of governance in a manner that translates democracy into the daily experience of the people. Only then can rights become natural entitlements and electorates become forces of control against the excesses of selfish elites.
Recent developments in African democracy should resonate with Nigeria. Nigerians have spent 26 years out of 61 years of independence under intermittent democratic rule. The rest of 31 years were years of military dictatorship. Of the years of ‘democratic’ rule, 14 years have so far been spent under former military dictators (Obasanjo and Buhari) who claim to be democracy converts. Overall, therefore, the dominant political culture that governs the sensibility of Nigerians is essentially authoritarian. Our governments have not shaken off the instincts of dictatorship just as our populace still carry the remnants of subjugation and subservience. Our institutions especially the armed and security forces still carry the psychological remnants of decades of oppression and violent authoritarianism. Policemen and soldiers still beat up and traumatize civilians in public. Most of our courts still feel an obligation to rule in favour of governments at the expense of the rights of people.
In general, then, formal democracy has come to Nigerians at such a high delivered cost that the welfare of the people has been constantly short changed. The hope that democracy would deliver a dividend of a better life has been frequently dashed. The result is a culture of distrust of government among the majority of citizens. Politicians have failed to instill trust just as democracy has failed to deliver on material dividends. People have merely learnt to wait in ambush for politicians at the next election.
Consequently, when election seasons come, the people have developed ways of reminding politicians of what democracy actually means to them.
The creative local parlance for it is something called ‘stomach infrastructure’. In the metaphor of ‘stomach infrastructure’, therefore, when politicians come calling for votes, ordinary people merely display their shriveled stomachs and emaciated frames, an indication that only those politicians who can address their immediate needs for food and cash merit their votes. In response, politicians have taken to distributing cash, bags of rice, cooking oil and loaves of bread at election time. Only those politicians who have surplus of these stand a chance of getting elected. Those, incidentally, are the real ‘infrastructure’ that the people believe in, not the far fetched promises of politicians for roads, bridges, schools and factories that never get built. In this existential and transactional definition of democracy, politicians who get toppled by soldiers can only expect street dances to welcome a new set of messiahs that have come to free the people from the burden of democracy.
For Nigeria, the return of a coup culture in West Africa is meaningless. We have tested and tasted both military dictatorship and democratic betrayal in almost equal measure and found both scandalously wanting. When undemocratic political change tempts Nigerians, we recall the long nights of military dictatorship and bloody warfare. When our military becomes too visible in public affairs, we remind ourselves of the ugly roads we have
travelled before. We may not be in love with our bumbling and thieving politicians but we are more comfortable with them. They may be unreliable and incompetent. But at least we can curse and abuse them at will without being flogged, locked up or jailed for nothing. Somehow, we do manage to get rid of the worst of them at elections.
As Nigerians, our response to the resurgence of coups in West African politics should ultimately be a moral choice. Our choice is between different shades of democracy, not between democracy and dictatorship. Our historic burden is that of refining and redefining democracy to make it work better for us. The street dance in Conakry is bad for Africa.