‘Credentials of most African leaders negate tenets of democracy’
Foremost Historian and Professor of African Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, Toyin Falola, in this interview with MUYIWA ADEYEMI, spoke on why military coup is happening in some of the Francophone countries in Africa and lessons for Nigeria.
How will you describe what is going on within ECOWAS member-States with the military taking over in Gabon while still trying to resolve that of Niger?
ECOWAS member-States are worried, not because of the masses, but because they want to protect political leaders who are afraid. Togo is worried. Senegal is going through the most repressive phase in its history, with almost 2,000 people in jail, a record that Yayha Jammeh of The Gambia did not even accomplish.
ECOWAS must know that other coups may come, although this is not my wish. There have been several comments about these coups, with people giving several reasons why Africa has experienced up to five military takeovers in about three years. If we study the happenings very well, we would realise that the coups are based on multi-layered factors; each factor that people have touted as the cause of the coups has its part in why the coups have been in play.
First, there is the claim that these coups – in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, and now Gabon – are a result of the failure of democracy. This is largely true. The biblical reference to a gold ring on a pig’s snout best describes democracy in Africa at the hands of African leaders. Indeed, democracy is widely regarded as the best form of governance model in the world. However, that theory requires functional, well-meaning people to put it into practice. Democracy – even in all its goodness – has been a tool of manipulation, underdevelopment, gross borrowing, and all sorts of malaise at the hands of African leaders.
Many of these countries claim they are practicing a democratic system of government, yet their deeds and actions speak otherwise. They live above the law and make decisions to run the country aground. In Africa’s history, the military has always presented itself as the transitional bridge between periods. Less than a decade after the wave of independence among African states, the first coup happened in Togo, which sparked waves of coups that ended just in the late 1990s, ushering in another shot at democracy. About three decades later, the military coups seem to be seeping back into the African reality, perhaps to muster another transitional period in the continent’s history.
The second factor that has led to these recent military coups is the Francophone Resistance. Historically, France practiced one of the worst systems of colonialism in Africa, and they have hardly been circumspect and subtle with their neocolonialist moves, especially within their former colonies. These moves have left their former colonies – although rich with natural resources and a small population – perpetually poor while enriching France and their powerful minions in those countries. Omar and Ali Bongo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, Paul Biya, and Mohamed Bazoum are all either past or present leaders of a Francophone country that have been living a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the country’s citizens.
Coup plotters understand the importance of public opinion and how it translates to legitimacy. They have been reading the room, studying the people, watching them stretch beyond their stress limit – and now that they have struck, their move has been welcomed with open hands by the people, lending some form of legitimacy to their newly formed government.
People know the atrocities the military is capable of; they know there is little to nothing to write home about the military; they are well aware of the historical antecedents of military rule in Africa.
Yet, for this moment, the people in Gabon and Niger have chosen to rejoice. Why, we may ask? It is because they have suffered enough under their leaders. They are tired of a democracy where the people have no say; a democracy runs like an autocracy. For that reason, and since there is little to no difference between their democratic government and the military rule, they would rather opt for the military rule, knowing that first, the erring and corrupt politicians will be arrested and punished, and secondly, because the incoming military leaders are not likely to collaborate with France. Thus, the people would rather opt for a repressive government with no constitution and no separation of powers than a government with a constitution and separation of powers that operates otherwise and is a puppet for the vested interests of France.
Don’t you think external influences are responsible for the military putsch here and there in West African states?
These are speculations, by and large. But we can analyse the situation from the perspective of those who think so. Since the governments emerging after these coups have been courted by and are titling toward Eastern World Powers – Russia and China – and there have been indications of agreements reached between Russian-state-friendly mercenary troops, Wagner Group, and Burkina Faso and Niger, these indications that the putsch is largely externally influenced is a possibility. However, we could also claim that Great Britain is responsible for the emergence of every new president in Nigeria. We can make a lot of claims. But we would need more than the present links to fully establish that these coups result from external influences. For now, these things can only remain as claims and speculations.
One thing is sure, however, no matter how well-mounted and protective walls are, they know how to crack open and make the home of crawling reptiles. In essence, there would not have been the possibility for external influences to cause these coups if the countries were not experiencing internal crises themselves. Gabon’s ousted President, Ali Bongo, was pushing on all fronts to win his third term in office – a move he dedicated all state resources to, including cutting citizens off the internet and striking out names of opponents from the ballot papers.
In Niger, Bazoum was running the country aground, exporting resources to France, and living a luxurious life at the expense of the child workers in his mineral-rich country. The internal crises in these countries had pushed the people to the wall and made them stuck with seeking temporal respite, even if such respite would come through the military. So, while it is possible to speculate that these military coups are a way for Russia and China to strategically progress with their expansion of influence among African states, the fact remains that the biggest cause of these coups is the internal crises in the countries, without which no external influences would have succeeded.
How can democracy thrive in West Africa?
Democracy is the best form of government; however, it is not the only form of government. I think the West African States – and, by extension, African States in general – are too obsessed with the form of government handed down to them by their colonial masters. This obsession with making something has also proved ineffective for over five decades. Perhaps democracy is the solution; perhaps it is not. Furthermore, democracy could be the solution for Ghana but not necessarily for Nigeria. There are nuances and contexts. So, I do not believe in a one-approach-fits-all process that will make democracy thrive in West Africa. We must remember that any form of government is a means to an end. The end itself, the goal, is good governance. So, even if Nigeria practices democracy for 100 years, that does not mean it will automatically experience good governance.
What if democracy were to thrive in West Africa? How would it happen? First, there has to be country-by-country introspection. There are baseline problems that are affecting all West African states. Granted. However, most of the problems many of these states are experiencing are country-specific. The people of Nigeria need to think about the Nigerian conundrum in all its forms, and so do the Nigeriens need to think of the Nigerien calamity. True democracy is for and about the people. So also, for democracy to thrive in West Africa, it has to be from and by the people.
The current crop of leaders won’t bring true democracy to West Africa. There are many among them with questionable mandates. Some have been in office for longer than is necessary. They all have vested personal interests more important to their decision-making than national goals.
So, an introspection to understand the state of things and a readiness on the people’s part is needed for democracy to thrive in West Africa.
What lesson(s) for Nigeria that is still awaiting court verdict on her election matters, considering that the alleged election fraud led to a military coup in Gabon?
Well, there are several lessons for Nigeria and the Nigerian leadership. And I don’t think those lessons are lost on the presidency, especially seeing the country’s reaction in collaboration with ECOWAS to the Niger coup. The coups in Niger and Gabon happened because the citizens had reached their tolerance limit, and the coup plotters knew and leveraged that.
President Tinubu is Nigeria’s least popularly elected president since the return to democracy in 1999. Furthermore, he seems to be the president with the highest number of controversies on details about him.
While the legal battle against him is ongoing, he must also deal with legitimacy claims and the military uprising on the continent. I wish him well.
While President Tinubu may have little to nothing to worry about as regards a coup since it’s highly unlikely that such will happen within the Nigerian military, there is the need for the president to re-strategise and start operating a citizen-centred government. The president has spent 100 days in office, yet there is hardly anything to show for it to the benefit of the average Nigerian. This should not be so, especially for a president not enjoying widespread support. There is the need to dazzle and dazzle quickly.
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