Another dictator has bitten the dust. As I write, Sudanese strongman Omar Hassan al-Bashir is languishing in the notorious Kobar prison, on the outskirts of Khartoum, where thousands of political dissenters were jailed during his 30-year rule, which came to a rude end last month. In true ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword’ fashion, his ouster, just like his ascendancy to the Presidency, involved military force.
While it was his Defence Minister who finally pushed him out, the writing had been on the wall from the time ordinary citizens took to the streets in December over soaring bread prices. The authorities’ heavy-handed response only served to fuel the protestors’ anger, and their rallying call soon morphed into “Al-Bashir Must Go”.
Not many people will shed a tear for him. He is a bad guy. The International Criminal Court wants him to stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, mostly perpetrated in the Darfur region, the base of groups opposed to his government.
Keen followers of the goings-on in Africa will recall that the coup in Sudan followed the one that ousted Robert Mugabe in 2017 but was couched in terms that duped the international community into embracing its perpetrators as the new rulers of Zimbabwe. In my fertile imagination, I visualise these fellows arguing in the hallowed halls of the African Union headquarters, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that what transpired was a “military-assisted transition” and the assembled heads of State and government nodding their approval.
A ‘culture’ of coups has blighted Africa since 1952, when Egyptian army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk. Since then, more than 470 coups – some successful and others botched – have occurred on the continent. A common narrative during the Cold War was that the military takeovers of the reins of government were covertly aided – or even masterminded – by Western powers, who were locked in a proxy war with the Soviet Union. If this were true, there would be no coups in Africa today, since the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 (television footage of that event remains etched on my memory). I certainly do not see any Western fingerprints on the recent events in Sudan.
What has happened is that there has only been a let-up; coups remain very much a part of the African reality. According to consulting firm Geopolitical Futures, an average of 3.2 coups a year were attempted during the Cold War period, with 54% of the attempts succeeding. Since the end of the Cold War, the incidence has declined to an average of 2.6 a year; the success rate, too, is now lower, at 40%. Some of the coups that continue to be staged remain below the radar of many. I bet that very few people in Mzansi would know that, in January, there was an attempt by the Gabonese army to seize power; it was swiftly put down, though.
So, if we discount the involvement of the ‘nefarious’ West, what continues to fuel coups in Africa? A research report published by the African Development Bank in 2012 goes a long way towards answering this question. While it does acknowledge the “ideological and foreign dimensions” of some of the Cold War coups, the report flags institutional inefficiencies, political factionalism, corruption, deep-rooted economic fragility and poor governance as some of the causal factors.
Its insights concerning the nexus between the quality of governance and the risk of a military coup are quite useful. It notes that all the countries that experienced coups from 2000 to 2010 scored lowly on the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance in terms of the Safety and Rule of Law and/or Participation and Human Rights dimensions. The first dimension assesses a country’s ability to fight corruption and provide citizens with an effective judicial system, the right to safety and accountability of public officials. The second dimension concerns the right to vote in free and fair elections, freedom of expression and the right to hold governments accountable.
Many African governments are found wanting on both dimensions and, I am afraid, the coup in Sudan may not be the last to be staged in Africa.