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 Why coup may happen in America – Part 1

By Sylvester Odion Akhaine
02 March 2022   |   3:44 am
Sometime in 2003 at Highfield Court, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, United Kingdom, the spate of coup d’état in Africa popped up in our informal conversation at our communal kitchen between my apartment mate, Frank Krifka and me.

PHOTO: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Anna Moneymaker / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Sometime in 2003 at Highfield Court, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, United Kingdom, the spate of coup d’état in Africa popped up in our informal conversation at our communal kitchen between my apartment mate, Frank Krifka and me. Somewhere in our conversation, I told him that a coup could happen in America. An expensive joke you might say. He was firm on the point that it would never happen. But January 6, 2020, happened, and my mate could recall that conversation. The idea that a coup could happen in America is orphaned. It is not something that features in debates among political scientists, not even with our obsession to extol the claim to value of liberal democracy. On the margins, and perhaps a hindsight reflection of sorts, some of my interlocutors have suggested that the assassination of sitting presidents in the United States, namely, Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, was a form of coup d’état. It is not my intention to pursue that line of argument here. In passing, I can state that a coup is not the business of a lone ranger without accomplices and fundamental change to the norms and policy direction of the state, in other words, a regime change.

Another interlocutor prodded me in a different direction: Is it possible for a coup to happen in a society with huge reservists and a liberal gun policy without a backlash? The Burkinabe experience easily defeats this line of argument given the fact that Thomas Sankara had armed the populace to defend the revolution; it did not stop the bloody business of October 15, 1987, by Blaise Compaore. Viewed differently, their participation with the goal of a regime change could qualify such a dynamic as a coup. In what follows, I offer a somewhat Manichean viewpoint on the coup question in the U.S.

A coup is a commonplace event in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and investigations and analyses of them have spawned several books and made many professors in the academia in the U.S. In Africa, there has been a resurgence of coups in the last three years with corresponding denunciations and sanctions on the affected countries. However, the November 14, 2017 coup against President Robert Mugabe illustrates the finesse of coup-making. The Commander-in-Chief was being relieved of his power, yet he was being given respect due to a C-in-C. Ostensibly, criminals around Mr. President were being rooted out. Elsewhere in Latin America, it would be justified by the National Security Doctrine (NSD), a baby of the U.S., which according to the Colombian Scholar, Miguel Angel Herrera Zgaib, substitutes the law with force as means of control of the population and national defence as a recipe for public order.

The resolution of political conflicts or transition strictures through a coup d’état may happen in America. The invasion of Capitol Hill by the Trump mob indicates a future path. The January 6 event has been variously described as an “attempted coup”. As Rebecca Solnit, a Guardian U.S. columnist has rightly noted, “On Wednesday (January 6), a coup attempt was led by the president of the United States. A right-wing mob attempted the coup in the form of a violent riot that stormed the Capitol building. They disrupted the proceedings that would have completed the recognition of the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Those proceedings had been disrupted earlier by elected officials bringing forth bad-faith claims that the election was not legitimate and should instead produce a continuation of Trump’s presidency. This too was a coup attempt, an effort to violate the constitution and override the will of the voters in this election.” The nature of the attempted coup is further corroborated by Mr. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, who in a January 6 anniversary speech in the Senate observed that: “But one year ago today, on January 6, 2021, mob violence descended upon this Chamber and upon this Capitol. Thousands of rioters, possessed by equal measures of rage, conspiracy, and spurred into action by the sitting President of the United States, attacked the U.S. Capitol in an armed, violent, and deadly effort to halt the peaceful transfer of power.”

In the wake of the invasion of the Capitol Hill, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff comprising Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley; Vice-Chairman Air Force Gen. John Hyten; Army Chief of Staff James McConville; Marine Commandant Gen. David Berger; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown; Space Force Chief of Operations Gen. John Raymond; and National Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson. In the statement, they demonstrably sided the path of Constitutionalism. Indeed, they stated inter alia that: “As service members, we must embody the values and ideals of the nation…We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.” Robert Burns noted that “the memo was unusual in that the military leadership, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, felt compelled to remind service members that it is wrong to disrupt the constitutional process.”

The beaten track of coup is a familiar one in the developing world, and in America, it could have taken on the form of the wording of the memo by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If you reverse the logic of the memo, we will have a coup in the making. This may sound counter-intuitive. No, it is commonsensical. The rationale will be to maintain the constitutional order and restore normalcy. The same commitment and consensus will sustain an intervention. This time the consensus will be ramifying to include the guys in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). You hear rhetoric such that was ascribed to General Mark Milley by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker in I Alone Can Fix This that: “They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed. You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with guns.” This capacity of the men on the horseback is the motive force of coup-making.

Beyond the above scenario casting, there are sundry reasons why a coup can happen in America. They centre on inequality, racial tension, increasing loss of faith in the democratic state, and the rally of the foundational principle of the American state.

Andre Beiteille, the editor of Social Inequality, has rightly noted in an abstract to Part One of the 1969 Volume that: “Inequality is not merely a matter of individual abilities and aptitudes; it is above all a social fact. The opportunities an individual has and even his ability are in part governed by his position in society.” It perhaps will be more apt to say of a capitalist society like America that inequality is shaped by production relations, the ultimate decider of class. Precisely in a capitalist social formation, it is dichotomised between the owner of the means of production and the working class. The development of capitalism in America is through the sweat and blood of the enslaved Africans and other subaltern classes who still bear the scar of that historic dehumanisation and subjugation.

To be continued tomorrow.

Akhaine, former General Secretary of the Campaign for Democracy in Nigeria in the 1990s, is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University, Nigeria.