Kenyans and Ugandans (not necessarily in that order) like playing with political fire. Since 2005, frustrated by the government of the day, Kenyans are quick to say “this country needs a strongman” or a “dictator”.
Several Kenyans, especially on social media, write longingly for men in uniform whenever a coup occurs elsewhere on the continent. This is partly fuelled by the fact that the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) has easily the most prestigious image of any state institution. I can think of only three other African countries where the military is held in such high public regard.
In Uganda, where former guerilla leader General Yoweri Museveni has ruled for a long 37 years with a cocktail of iron fist and velvet gloves, the frustration is even deeper. The prayers for a military hand to remove or strike him down, given that the civilian constitutional opposition has failed to do so, can be very loud (and ironical, given the country’s bad experience with the soldiery).
The common refrain when a coup occurs, as it did two weeks ago in Niger, is for Ugandans to complain that their “prayers are always answered elsewhere, not at home”. Tanzania seems not yet to have got the coup-cheering bug.
Since 2020, there have been six successful military coups in Africa—in Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan, and now, Niger—and almost twice as many failed ones. That means that from Guinea, on Africa’s Atlantic Ocean coast, to Sudan on the Indian Ocean, there is what commentators are calling a “coup belt” that cuts right across the mid-north of the continent.
There is a settled view that coups are in comeback mode in Africa and are caused by pretty much the same failures: Corruption, failure of incumbent governments to deal with extremist violence, and poverty exacerbated by climate change ravages.
However, precisely because these are some of the key causes of the coups, the new juntas should not be celebrated.
First, in Burkina Faso and Mali, the new soldier rulers have not done any better than the elected civilian governments they overthrew in dealing with extremist violence. In fact, in some cases, they have done worse. And where their coups were also a sharp break with former colonial ruler France, they have not moved towards greater internal independence. They have merely ditched France, kicked out its military where it was carrying out security operations, and replaced them with the Russian mercenary Wagner Group.
None of these countries’ juntas have proved better at managing their economies or tackling poverty than the civilians.
Secondly, unlike the first and second generation of military coups in Africa, the latest series in the Sahel and North Africa are symptoms of something deeper and more troubling. In the “coup belt”, we could be seeing the beginning of the end of these countries as we know them.
These militaries—or paramilitary groups—that are staging coups aren’t like their 1960s-1980s predecessors. They are institutions that are in both intellectual and physical decline as functioning armies. As a result, they are not able to fix the problems in the countries where they are overthrowing civilian governments.
Their alliances with either local or international mercenary and paramilitary groups endanger the unity of their states further. One reason is that, unlike the hated neo-imperialist forces that are interested in keeping national markets intact because they are more lucrative for economic exploitation that way, mercenary groups prefer fracture and smaller political units that are less expensive to manage and less able to push against them.
Also, 1960s-’80s coups were often organised along popular class lines, aligned to peasant or working class groups or the underprivileged masses. Whichever it was, these were nationally organised—there are peasants and poor people all over countries, and workers are everywhere.
Looking back to the militaries in Nigeria and Ghana in the late ’90s, they carried out reforms that rebuilt and reformed economies and crafted new constitutions and laws for a return to elective democracy. It is impossible to see how the military in Mali, for example, can replicate that.
On the other hand, it is easier to see how an extremist jihadist group could seize power in all or part of at least two Sahel countries in the next five to 10 years. Then, it is likely that a mercenary group will be strong enough to oust a junta and install its own militia loyalists in power.
It would be the first time in at least 120 years in Africa—since the time of the Muslim Arab traders and conquerors, Christian missionaries and companies like the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) —that largely foreign extremist religious groups and/or non-state alien military actors had seized power. Then, more wobbly states will fall like a pack of cards.
In the meantime, folks in Uganda and Kenya could learn from Tanzania and be weary of soldiers taking power in their capitals.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3