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Coup cancer: Should African citizens bear arms?

By Soyombo Opeyemi
11 November 2021   |   1:29 am
In order to stop megalomaniac officers like Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan from seizing political power at gun-point, upsetting the apple cat and returning the African continent to the dark ages, should citizens own guns?

Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir addresses parliament in the capital Khartoum on 1 April 2019 [ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images]

In order to stop megalomaniac officers like Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan from seizing political power at gun-point, upsetting the apple cat and returning the African continent to the dark ages, should citizens own guns?

The coup fires set off in Mali in August 2020 have now turned into conflagration that is about to consume the continent. This writer has cried himself hoarse, calling on countries like Nigeria (backed by ECOWAS) to kill the coup cancer and prevent its spread. Anyone familiar with the cataclysmic destruction brought upon the landscape of Africa by military regimes must now be having sleepless nights about another darkness set to befall the continent.

Sudan was just crawling out of its worst nightmare foisted on it by 30 years of misrule by Gen Omar al-Bashir, a man that is wanted in The Hague for his crimes against humanity. For most of the brutal era, Sudan was a pariah nation that could not attract foreign investments, much-needed debt relief and funding from multilateral institutions. Following the fall of al-Bashir and commitment of the Sovereign Council towards return to democracy, the country was delisted from state sponsors of terrorism and the US promised $700m in emergency assistance while the World Bank pledged to commit about $2bn in grants to support the economic efforts of the transitional government.

Based on the transition time-table, Gen. al-Burhan was to hand over his leadership of the Sovereign Council to a civilian in the next few weeks. But because of his lust for power and fear of the unknown (having been part of the savage autocracy of the al-Bashir regime), he staged a military coup, announcing the dissolution of the interim government and the Sovereign Council.

The power grab did not come as a surprise, for we live in a shrinking world where the power of Information and Communications Technology has obliterated national boundaries such that events in one country reverberate in others with the same tone and tenor. Gen. al-Burhan would have watched in real time a similar putsch staged by Col. Assimi Goita of Mali against the civilian-led transitional government to which he also belonged. This writer predicted the coup, and saw more coups ahead in Africa. al-Burhan simply took a leaf out of Goita’s book, just like Col. Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea followed in the footsteps of power-thirsty officers in Chad and Mali. And so it spreads and spreads; the coup cancer spreads across Africa.

Soldiers do not seize power on behalf of the masses. The military usually cashes in on the frustration of the public to stage a coup in order to satisfy the lust of its officers for power. Hence one army coup usually leads to another. Military rule destroys the lives of many of its finest officers, shatters discipline, command structure and esprit de corps. Since a military regime is patently illegal, it is always unstable, living in perpetual fear of coups from within its own ranks. In the art of corruption, military governments have no rivals. These power-thirsty officers are mere cowards, who find it easier to stage a coup against unarmed civilian leaders than fight their equals on war-fronts. In the time past, the coup business once got a point in Nigeria where some officers preferred political appointments to command positions in war-fronts! Military officers’ lust for power attained new heights in Sudan. We observed powerful elements of the armed forces surreptitiously instigating unrest, sponsoring protests in order to discredit the interim civilian government with the ultimate aim of securing an alibi to stage a putsch! Gradually, African armed forces are becoming a menace to the continent.

Why are the armed forces able to hold the entire continent hostage? It boils down to the power of gun! Your compatriots kitted you and provided you with weapons in order to defend them against external aggression. But you turn your guns against the same people! It is the height of treachery; a crying shame. There is no constitution in any state in Africa that empowers the military to usurp political power during any political crisis. The military is just one of state’s institutions. Why did the teachers’ union not sack an elected government on account of political crisis? Why did the medical personnel not overthrow a government because of political crisis? Why is it only the military that believes it must intervene during any crisis? It boils down to the power of gun and monopoly of the instruments of force. The conclusion is that the military has simply been abusing the power to bear arms! African countries, ultimately, may consider the possibility of democratising the machinery of force by allowing their citizens to own guns.

Consequently, the legislatures across Africa should kick-start the process of compulsory military training for their citizens. In Nigeria, for instance, Section 220 of the Constitution provides as follows: “(1) The Federation shall establish and maintain adequate facilities for carrying into effect any Act of the National Assembly providing for compulsory military training or military service for citizens of Nigeria.

(2) Until an Act of the National Assembly is made in that behalf the President may maintain adequate facilities in any secondary or post-secondary educational institution in Nigeria for giving military training in any such institution which desires to have the training.”

Before we get to the stage of mass ownership of guns (which is not really desirable because of possibility of gun violence), there are other choices. Firstly, we can endeavour to scupper treason from within. Soldiers, we all know, obey orders. They are not exactly protected from disobeying treasonable orders. Those who argue that the only antidote to military coups is good governance have been proved wrong by the al-Burhan October 25 putsch in Sudan. Since no society can be completely free of deviants, there is need for a law to protect the rank and file for disobeying treasonable orders and a law empowering them to arrest any superior officer who issues treasonable orders, to wit, to take over the seat of government. Legislatures in Africa should enact a ‘Treason(able) Orders Disobedience Protection Law’. For instance, this implies that junior officers or the rank and file should have arrested Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan for giving a treasonable order to sack the transitional government and detain legitimate state officials like Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Secondly, the armed forces hold their respective countries the duty to disobey unconstitutional orders from any head of state. That is the mark of patriotism, not to take over governance by force of arms. Thirdly, constitutions of African countries must cast term limits in stone and all state institutions are bound to disobey any order to elongate the tenure of any incumbent executive. Lastly, African heads of state must ensure good governance and adhere strictly to constitutional provisions.

African state institutions, including the military should borrow a leaf from the book of Honduras. In 2009, the then president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was at the verge of collapsing the nation but for the timely interventions of other state institutions, namely, the Judiciary, National Congress (parliament), Electoral Commission, Office of the Attorney General, National Human Rights Commission and the military. Indeed, Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men – thanks to ex-President Obama.

Article 239 of the Constitution of Honduras explicitly warns that “No citizen who has already served as head of the Executive Branch can be President or Vice-President.

Whoever violates this law or proposes its reform, as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.” (Emphasis supplied)

Like the stock-in-trade of African sit-tight leaders, Zelaya attempted to set in motion a process that could only culminate in tenure elongation of his administration, in violation of Article 239. But other institutions of governance were alive to their responsibilities. Zelaya ordered General Romeo Velasquez to distribute the referendum materials. The army chief promptly declined, citing the Supreme Court’s ruling. The General was sacked but the apex court reinstated him. The president then led a mob to take possession of the materials, ready to conduct the plebiscite since the Electoral Commission declined the president’s order! The Honduras parliament commenced the process of impeachment against the President. The Attorney General had meanwhile referred the anarchial situation to the Supreme Court who then ordered the arrest of President Zelaya for “acting against the government, treason, abuse of authority, and usurpation of power”. The military promptly complied.

A lesson in patriotism and constitutionalism for all African leaders and state institutions, especially the military.
Soyombo, media practitioner and public affairs, sent this contribution from Abeokuta.