Nigeria’s former president Olesugun Obasanjo has attributed the recent proliferation of military coups in Africa to the 2017 Zimbabwean military coup that deposed long-standing leader Robert Mugabe as the country’s president, with incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa taking over.
Obasanjo averred that Africa is grappling with extricating itself from the ‘culture’ of military takeovers, and he finds evidence for his argument in Zimbabwe’s ‘wrong precedent’ of the 2017 coup.
Speaking at the Pan-African Parliament in Midrand, Johannesburg, Obasanjo asserted that removing unpopular regimes outside the legitimacy of elections is not helpful for Africa.
“I once moved a motion in 1999 then that any country that has a government not through constitutional means should be suspended,” the ex-Nigerian president remarked.
“There should be no half measures about these; It started in Zimbabwe where they said ‘it’s not a coup and it’s a half coup, it’s near a coup’; A coup is a coup!
“Citizens of Africa have been able to shun leaders who amend the constitution, intending to personally gain from such amendments.”
Taking political power through the might of the military has been a familiar phenomenon in post-colonial Africa. However, with the adoption of multi-party politics in the 1990s, the occurrence of military coups in Africa significantly dropped, although this did not mean their total disappearance (especially in conflict-torn regions).
In November 2017, the military coup in Zimbabwe, which was sanitized in tactful diplomatic language—termed a military assisted transition (Operation Restore Legacy) in which Mugabe willingly handed power to Mnangagwa—came as a shock to the world; though this was not absolutely a remote possibility given the extensive role of the military in Zimbabwe’s political, economic, and social affairs and relations.
At the forefront of the coup was the then commander Constatino Chiwenga, Mnangagwa’s long-time aide and ally; he is now the vice-president of Zimbabwe and he doubles as the Minister of Health and Child Care.
The official version of the “coup-that-was-not-a-coup” was that Mugabe voluntarily gave up power and was a willing facilitator for the smooth transfer of the highest political office in the land to Mnangagwa.
At the time, the coup elicited a plethora of reactions locally, regionally, and internationally. Relying on the unpopularity of Robert Mugabe under whose calamitous reign Zimbabwe’s economy plummeted to abysmal levels with poverty, hunger, and loss of lives reigning supreme, Zimbabweans were generally reluctant to denounce the coup—a mixture of delicate optimism and deep-seated uncertainty informed the consciousness of Zimbabweans.
The so-called international community, noting how regional bodies had not harshly castigated the coup (and for the preservation of its elite interests) extended an arm of reconciliation and engagement to Mnangagwa’s new government, although with a tinge of skepticism.
In maintaining the conciliatory, warm, and ‘open for business’ tone/mantra of Zimbabwe’s political establishment as headed by Mnangagwa and his deputy Chiwenga, the Pan-African Parliament president Fortune Z. Charumbira—a traditional leader from Zimbabwe—affirmed Obasanjo’s opinion on the deleterious effects of coups, saying that Zimbabwe needs to stick to the rule of law by respecting and adhering to the laws in place; this being a vital component of good governance.
Interestingly, Olesugun Obasanjo is Nigerian military general whose ascendancy to power was actuated through military power. He served as Nigeria’s military ruler from 1976 to 1979; power passed to Obasanjo when General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated during an unsuccessful coup attempt. Obasanjo was General’s Murtala’s deputy at the time.
To his credit, he relinquished power to civilian rule in the 1979 elections, garnering widespread international respect as a credible statesman and diplomat.
In 1995, Obasanjo was arrested for allegedly attempting to oust Abacha via a military coup. He was only released in 1998 following Abacha’s death—and in 1999, Obasanjo was declared the winner of the elections that year, becoming the country’s first civilian leader in 15 years.
Recently, there has been a surge of coups in Africa. Burkina Faso has experienced two military takeovers in this year alone, while Guinea-Bissau went through an unsuccessful coup.
Earlier this year in February, the army in the Democratic Republic of Congo attempted, with failure, to depose president Felix Tshisekedi. Over the past 18 months, there have been seven military attempts to take power outside the ballot—both successful and unsuccessful—in Africa.