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The Coup d’État Problem

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Dr. Ousman Gagigo, Former ADB Official

By Dr. Ousman Gajigo

Military coup d’états are happening again in West Africa with depressing frequency. Like many man-made phenomena, coups do not happen by pure chance or in a vacuum. They are the culmination of years of poor governance and economic mismanagement under incompetent leadership. Would it surprise anyone to know that Niger, the latest country to undergo one,has the lowest income per capita within ECOWAS? Or that it is ranked 189th out of 191 countries in the Human Development Index? One can go on and on about all sorts of socio-economic and governance metrics and you would find Niger among the bottom 10 globally. That country has been poorly governed for a long time, and therefore some upheaval of some sort was bound to happen sooner or later. Similar set of facts can be said about its neighbours, Mali and Burkina Faso.

People have drawn varying conclusions from the recent event in Niger, which has been coloured by ECOWAS’s clumsy handling of it. Many have even voiced support for the coup in Niger. This is a mistake. One can and should deplore the terrible development track records of Bazumi and the country’s previous civilian leaders, as well as that of his contemporaries in otherSahelian countries. But supporting a coup d’état is only emotionally satisfying and coups have never led to addressingthe fundamental problems that cause them.

Let’s consider the types of individuals that lead a typical coup d’état in West Africa. These are mostly ambitious junior officers who are dissatisfied with their current positions in the military. Pronouncements about the bad conditions of the country are political cover for public consumption. They obviously sound convincing and appealing because they are describing actual realities about the poor state of affairs.  Ambitious as they are, these junior military officers rarely have the required education, the management skills, the political acumen and the temperament to rule a nation well, even for a single day. With a lifetime of barely getting by, few of them have the discipline and self-control to return to a typical officer’s life in the barrack after tasting the comforts of a state house, which is why promises of brief transitional rule are never kept. You will note that the top military leaders rarely initiate coups because they are part of the current elites with access to all the comforts, and they therefore have no reason to disrupt the status quo.

However bad the situation is for a current poorly-governedcountry, it is highly unlikely that a coup d’état would result in an improvement in its social, economic and political affairs. If anything, the coup is likely to make matters worse for the average Nigerien. We do not even have to enter into anyspeculation here. Some rebel groups have already started to attack the armed forces in the country – obviously taking advantage of the current instability. Or consider the case of Burkina Faso. Within a span of 12 months, one coup d’état was followed by another. Can anyone look at the situation since then and claim that there has been any improvement in Burkina Faso?

The lack of qualifications of these typical coup leaders explains why coup d’états breed more coup d’états. Because of their inability to govern, the country’s fundamental problems remain the same or deteriorate after a coup. What’s more, having seen one of their kind depose a government, other ambitious young officers, of which there is an almost endless supply, cannot think of a reason why must not also get a piece of the pie. Before anyone is aware, the country slowly starts sliding into a failed state as one coup begets another.

Another misguided position espoused by many is the unreserved support of the anti-French and anti-Western rhetoric and postureof the Nigerian coup leaders, which has mirrored what took place in Mali and Burkina Faso. France, like any other normal country, is first and foremost motivated by its national interest. This is what normal country run by competent leaders do. This observation is not an endorsement but simply a mere statement of fact. One would be naive to believe that any country’s dealings with others is driven by altruism. Even where altruismamong nations is objectively observed, it is ultimately in the service of some hidden interest. If Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have had a close relationship with France for decades and that relationship has produced nothing but misery and lack of development for their average citizens, the responsibilities for those failures rest squarely on the shoulders of the African leaders. The citizens in those countries should direct their anger towards to their failed leaders who allowed their countries to be exploited. To blame France or any Western powers for our current plight, despite decades of independence, is to absolve ourselves and our leaders. It is also implying that our leaders or ourselves have no agency. 

There are many developing countries in other parts of the world, that have been former colonies of the same European powers. One of the major reasons those countries have had different development trajectories has been the relatively high quality of their leaders. With the right leadership, countries are able to escape their deep poverties and vulnerabilities. Only then can a country be in a better bargaining position when it is dealing withany other entity – be it former colonial powers or international development organizations such as the World Bank or the IMF. Without economic muscle, there is political power. No amount of high-sounding rhetoric or appeal to empty pan-African slogans can change that reality. Furthermore, trading France for Russia as a major bilateral power will only make matters worse. Does anyone in their right mind think that Russia would be less exploitative than France if its national interest demands it? This is not to absolve France. Indeed, a brief glance at France’s colonial legacy in Africa and Asia will uncover many bad deeds. But continued and excessive focus on those colonial legacies only absolves our failed leaders from their responsibilities.

It should be obvious that we as Gambians have a lot to learn from the experiences of our Sahelian neighbors. These lessons are not only for the government but also for the ordinary citizens. As I showed in an article a few weeks ago, our economic situation in The Gambia has a lot more in common with those countries, and therefore we share the same vulnerabilities. For instance, we used to have above-average income per capita in ECOWAS the first 2 decades after independence but we are now below-average. By no measure is our economy doing well. This is not an unexpected outcome after 22 years of Jammeh dictatorship and 7 years of Barrowgovernment incompetency. With the way things are unfolding in the country, it should not be surprising if there are rumblings about a coup d’état. Indeed, we have an on-going case where some soldiers are being tried for an attempted coup. Though I hasten to add that they should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Unfortunately, our government seems to be only taking the wrong lessons. Comically, they are going after a comedian for simply voicing a frustration shared by many citizens of poorly governed nations. In its apparent panicked response to a harmless utterance, our security services are acting as if we are still in an authoritarian state. This is not surprising because, even after 7 years in power, Barrow’s government cannot implement a real security sector reform. Indeed, the size, structure, training and belief system of our various security services largely remain as Yahya Jammeh left them. Which is why the government is desperate for the continued presence of the ECOMIG forces because it does not have the courage to face the consequences of its failures in delayed reforms. Detaining comedians, arresting alleged coup plotters and cowering behind ECOMIG are not the solutions to preventing future coup d’états. 

And for any of us Gambians who yearn for well-governed country that will create real development, it is ill advised to hope or pray for a coup d’état. Dramatic as its effect might be, it will only create greater hardships in the future. Ask almost anyone who danced on the street on 22 July 1994 whether they wouldn’t trade a few more years of the Jawara government to avoid Jammeh’s rule. The proper way to change a government is through peaceful means. As messy as the ballot box is, no one has yet to create a better alternative. We need to engage in deep introspection as citizens when we find ourselves re-electing incompetent governments. We simply need to work harder to convince our fellow citizens about the need for change and present them with better alternatives. What may appear as quick and easy solutions are anything but.

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