On March 31, 2011, Posted by , In News, By , With No Comments

A year ago, the coup in Niger once again raised the spectre of unconstitutional changes of governments in Africa. The continent, first through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and now the African Union (AU), frowns upon these illegal actions.

In the case of Niger, the matter was more complicated. It was President Mamadou Tandja, who had been booted out, that started the constitutional crisis, which gave the soldiers the pretext to strike. In August 2009, Tandja had pushed through a referendum that allowed him to remain in power after his constitutionally permitted two terms ended in December 2010.

The African Union and the so-called international community made a few threatening noises but the soldiers were allowed to stay in power because they promised to hold “democratic elections”. The Supreme Council for the Restoration of Democracy pledged that it would use a transitional period to end the political crisis in Niger. Last month Tandja was moved to a prison close to Niamey just before planned presidential and legislative elections on January 31.

In Guinea, the scenario was different. When President Lansana Conte died in December 2008, and the army took over contrary to the constitution, there was no let up on the international pressure being applied on the junta to call presidential and parliamentary elections and hand over power to civilians. This eventually happened last November.

So, what we had were two coups but in different senses. The one in Niger was deemed as a “good coup” and the one in Guinea was seen as a “bad coup”. What does this then portend for civil-military relations in Africa? This is one of the topics discussed in Guarding the Guardians: Civil-Military Relations and Democratic Governance in Africa, by Mathurin C. Houngnikpo

The book reviews the intrusion of the armed forces in African politics by examining contemporary armies and their impact on society. It revisits the various explanations of military takeovers in Africa and disentangles the notion of the military as a progressive force. The study stresses the necessity of new civil-military relations in Africa, calling for democratic oversight of the security forces.

The author clearly does not buy the idea of what he calls the “democratic coup”. He says this “amounts to staging a coup, making a tactical withdrawal to hold elections, and then ‘winning’ these elections to become a legitimate elected leader – to the accolades of both regional and international organisations.”

This, indeed, has happened in the past. Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, Yahya Jammeh in The Gambia and the recently ousted Ben Ali in Tunisia are some of those who changed from military rulers to civilian presidents. Things, though, are changing, as we have witnessed in Niger and Guinea. Yes, there will still be “good” and “bad coups in Africa but the growing wave of democratisation in the continent will surely have a bearing on whether or not soldiers contrive to transmogrify themselves into civilian leaders.

There is no gainsaying that the relationship between the armed forces and civilians in Africa over the last two decades has not been a cordial one. The soldiers, during this period, rode roughshod over the civilian population as they usurped power from politicians in the misguided belief that the armed forces were better placed to run a country. In short, the soldiers were a law unto themselves.

Now civilians are trying to rein in the power of the armed forces in the wake of democratisation of the various countries in the continent. Of course, the erstwhile Organisation of African Unity had first broached the idea of some sort of code of conduct for Africa’s armed forces in order to bring them under the control of civilians or at least to dissuade them from meddling in politics.

As Houngnikpo points out, the OAU summit of 1999 in Algiers adopted “a deterrent measure forbidding coup leaders from participating in future OAU/African Union meetings and proceedings”. But alas, “while laudable, this measure failed to prevent subsequent coups in Central African Republic (March 2003), Sao Tome and Principe (July 2003), Guinea Bissau (September 2003), Mauritania (August 2005 and 2007), Guinea (December 2008) and Niger (2010)”.

Given these aberrations on the part of the African military, Houngnikpo says that there is still a lot to be done in the area civil-military relations in Africa. “Clearly, until there is an effective way of preventing military intrusion in political matters in Africa, democratic governance remain a treacherous adventure,” the author argues.

But Houngnikpo himself is sceptical about whether African armies could ever accept civilian control, which is the thrust of his book. “I have always been leery about military commitment to democratisation in Africa and recent reversals through military coups only reinforce my view that the subordination of the military to political control is decades away,” he argues. “Yet, without civilian control of the military, democracy is unlikely to mature and consolidate. The challenge in addressing civil-military relations and democratic governance in Africa, thus, remains a critical priority.”

Indeed, the relationship between the armed forces and civilians in Africa is problematic. The legacy of brutal conflicts in parts of the continent has rendered ineffective the interaction between civilians and soldiers. The horrible behaviour of government forces against civilians in the troubled eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo is a perfect example of this dichotomy.

In order to have proper civilian control of the armed forces, civilian leaders themselves have to have some sort of legitimacy. Civil society groups, too, need to fully appreciate the notion of democratic governance of the armed forces.

Houngnikpo’s book is a good place to start. It covers the whole gamut of civil-military relations and coups Africa. Through sound analysis, he debunks the oft-repeated message by coup-makers that they were better placed to run their various countries because they were coming from an institution that was seemingly organised and disciplined.

In the final analysis, Houngnikpo makes a strong case for new civil-military relations in the continent. He goes further to say that civilian oversight over the armed forces should also be extended to the security forces in Africa. 

It is not going to be an easy task. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been mired for years in a debate over the creation of a code of conduct for the armed forces and security agencies of one of the most volatile regions in Africa. 

In all this, though, African leaders must stop the practice of manipulating things in order to hand on to power against the will of the people and against the provisions of their countries’ constitutions, as we are witnessing in Cote d’Ivoire. Even though 40 countries in Africa have limits on presidential terms in their constitutions, many of the continent’s politicians do not appear to understand the import of this. They think that because the period a president could stay in office is restricted to, say, two terms of five years, they are automatically guaranteed 10 years in office. Wrong. This is all down to the electorate. And if voters decide that they want a president to serve only one five-year term, and vote him out, then he should pack his bags and leave.

Thus, if African politicians do not behave accordingly, the continent will continue to witness “good” and “bad” coups. Indeed, the continent is a long way away from being coup-free – civilian control of the army or not.

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