Coups are back in fashion, but are they good for Africa?

Coups are back in fashion, but are they good for Africa?
Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba. PHOTO | COURTESY


  • Zitto is a sound man and a keen student of history. That’s why his overly dogmatic stance against coups is quite baffling, given that many examples in contemporary history show that coups can be transformational.

When a coup occurs, it is customary for people to speak out against it. And that is what happened, with the African Union championing those voices. Coups have frequently created instability in Africa, thus the negative view towards them. But one wonders if African leaders’ denunciations of coups aren’t self-serving given their general misrule.

How about the leaders of the opposition parties? You do expect them to be open to coups, wrong?

I was taken aback when I saw Mr. Zitto Kabwe, the leader of the ACT party, speaking out against coups as well. In a series of tweets, Zitto described his discussion with an ex-military chief in Tanzania about coups and why he feels politics is the only way forward for Africa. He then went as far as to challenge his interlocutors to provide examples of coups that resulted in desirable change.

Zitto is a sound man and a keen student of history. That’s why his overly dogmatic stance against coups is quite baffling, given that many examples in contemporary history show that coups can be transformational.

A coup is a sudden, illegal, and often violent attempt by a small group of people to unseat an existing government. Coups are differentiated from revolutions in that the latter are long-drawn-out affairs with mass support. Bizarrely, while revolutions also seek to remove governments from power, they have far great support than coups.

But how can one evaluate popular support unless a successful coup has occurred? Aren’t transformative coups simply revolutions executed fast and enjoy mass support later? Indeed, given its characteristics, the Zanzibari revolution could be classified as a coup, not a revolution.

That suggests that there are more coups than historians admit. Ultimately, it is logically incongruent to support revolutions while dogmatically condemning coups.

Sticking to the traditional definition of coups, three African leaders led coups which are considered transformative: Jerry Rawlings, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Thomas Sankara. Sadly, only Rawlings and Obasanjo lasted long enough for their countries to see noticeable changes.

Going beyond Africa, it is possible to expand that list significantly by considering the history of coups in other parts of the world. But my favourite coup occurred in South Korea under the leadership of Park Chung-Hee in 1961.

Park was born into an impoverished household in 1917. In 1940, he joined the Japanese army in China. Park joined the Korean army after the country’s independence and ascended to the rank of Major General in 1958.

At the time, South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world. In the aftermath of the Korean War, South Korea became destitute since Japan had located most industries in the north.

Eighty percent of the population was illiterate. Corruption was rampant. Political leaders were exceedingly ineffective. And South Korea was heavily dependent on US patronage, receiving up to 90 percent of the budget at one point.

But Park had other ideas. He wanted rapid economic growth through export-led industrialisation. He identified private companies that would champion growth in specific industries and gave government support to such companies.

They include globally recognised firms like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG, known as the chaebols. At one point, they accounted for up to 60 percent of Korea’s GDP. By 1979, when Park’s era ended, Korea was already one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

It hasn’t looked back since.

A survey of ‘perfect dictatorships’ reveals that it is misguided to condemn coups for condemnation’s sake. Coups are often revolutions by other means. However, like revolutions, not all successful coups bring change.

To begin with, not all putschists are benevolent in their intentions. Names such as Joseph Mobutu, Idi Amin, and Sani Abacha come to mind. Such leaders cannot be expected to bring about fundamental changes.

Similarly, coup leaders are cut from the same material as their compatriots. African soldiers are hardly professional. Recruitment is not based on merit. Promotions are arbitrary. Thus, you get officers who rise through the ranks in dubious ways.

Bereft of strategic vision, they isolate themselves when they assume power, push aside capable civilians, and in no time the economy is in tatters. The struggle for legitimacy kicks in, ending in repression, thus setting the stage for the next coup.

In contrast, Park was trained in a highly disciplined army and rose through the ranks of South Korea’s highly professional army, which faced an existential threat from the North.

Park had the intellectual fortitude to distinguish between Japan as an imperialist state and Japan as a development model, a lesson lost to many African intellectuals. As a result, he understood how to position South Korea domestically and globally to get the best of both worlds.

The challenges Africa faces extend to its military leadership. Poorly trained officers do not become visionaries because they have usurped power. It is, therefore, necessary to distinguish between coups as a means of change and putschists as agents of change. Putschists can fail to bring transformation just as our political leaders fail continuously.

I stand by the motto that when you block all democratic means for change, coups are the people’s last resort. In Africa, coups freshen things up a little – they keep useless leaders on their toes. If we rule them out, we give Africa’s Mugabes, Bashirs, and Mubaraks the license to rule indefinitely.