Coup plotters have no place in Africa

Some are led by men of some integrity, such as those by Flight lieutenant Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, who want to stop what they and most see as intolerable conditions. Others are launched by brutal power seekers, like Major General Idi Amin of Uganda and General Joseph Mobutu (as he was then) of DRC. But regardless of the intentions, they almost always make things worse. The military regime lacks legitimacy and even the most benevolent have to become increasingly dictatorial as groups challenge it and are suppressed by military might. There is no other mechanism in a military regime to handle dissent but violence. Besides the dangers of the slippery slope into violence and civil war, a military regime suffers because it is military. In an army orders are orders and there is a clear chain of command. In civil life this is not so. Instructions by a government are usually seen as only the start of a debate, which is why smart and experienced politicians usually have the debate first, before issuing the instructions. Civil societies, especially in modern and ever more complex economies, do not have clear chains of command. Managing and growing a modern economy requires continual interaction between the Government, businesses, labour movements, consumers, markets, importers, exporters, investors and banks. No one all the answers, and in fact there might be no definite answers. But in the continuous swirling of society and business trends are observed, needs become apparent and actions are possible. But condemnation of coups does not release army officers, especially senior officers, from involvement in their country. But this involvement does not mean they can take over. It means they have to be true to the oaths they swear when they join the armed forces and, in many countries, the extra oaths they swear when promoted to the highest ranks. Usually a soldier swears allegiance to his country and to his country’s laws. His primary duty is to protect his country and its people. There is also the duty to obey the orders of the government, and this is generally stressed by making the president or king not only the head of states and government, but also the commander in chief of the armed forces. But there is a caveat. The orders have to be lawful, and it is this condition that can, in exceptional circumstances, allow the generals to act. But that action has to be within the law, it cannot be an excuse to overthrow the law. In a democracy, however imperfect, there are laid down principles that can be followed in very exceptional circumstances. To take an example from another time in another continent, the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. The army generals, with their ingrained sense of allegiance, took a personal oath to Hitler when he illegally seized total power on the death of President Hindenberg. What they should have done is refused and, if necessary, placed themselves under the orders of the Chief Justice and so effected Hitler’s arrest with the acting President then appointing some suitable chancellor while arranging a very quick poll. So there is a way a group of generals can act lawfully in the most exceptional of cases to stop the civil leader breaking his fundamental oath. But most coups are launched because the generals dislike a government, or because they think the government is totally incompetent or corrupt. But that is not a good reason for a coup. Voters are entitled to make mistakes and only they can rectify their mistakes. A bad government has to be thrown out by voters at elections, not by soldiers in tanks. Regional organisations in Africa are doing much to stop coups. They have all now laid down principles that must be followed in elections and have made it clear that coups can well see regional military intervention to stop the collapse of democracy. The twin approach, of making sure all governments are properly elected and preventing coups, is an obvious way forward. That approach needs to be strengthened. Africans are more than capable of choosing their own leaders, and of firing them if they do not perform. They do not need, or want, some self-appointed liberator to do it for them.

May 2006
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