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Monday, August 18, 2008

when is a coup d’etat not a coup?

by: Austin Ejiet (Daily Monitor)

During the 1960s and 1970s, hardly a month went by without a spectacular and almost always grisly unconstitutional change of government somewhere in Africa.

The cold war had reached its zenith, with the ideological power blocks jostling for supremacy and global domination. Perceived to be exceptionally vulnerable to communist seduction, Africa in particular, was under constant surveillance.

Without the benefit of prior colonial influence, the Soviet bloc was quick to pounce on some African despots mouthing half-cooked Marxist slogans, persuading the good man to allow them open military bases in exchange for military hardware.

The West on the other hand was loathe to see its spheres of influence, nurtured for over a century as colonies, protectorates or “overseas dominions,’ sliding to the other side. The slightest hint of intransigence was dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly.

The demise of the Cold War and the failure of Communism to take root in a serious manner anywhere in Africa eased the stranglehold and spelt the end of military coups.

Unconstitutional changes of governments continued, of course, but via civil wars, rebellions and self-styled liberation struggles. That phase, too, is beginning to fade away. These bush wars, some of them lasting as long as 30 years, are costly in terms of lives - military as well as civilian – and in terms of wasteful expenditure and the wanton destruction of valuable infrastructure.

So Africa has had to move on. The new type of coup is characterised by massive rigging of the elections by whoever happens to be in control as the incumbent.

In the rare case that the competitors successfully mobilise against electoral theft, the modern African potentate either arm-twists the electoral commission to release fraudulent results , or, failing that, simply refuses to concede defeat, declares himself victor and gets himself sworn in for a fresh term.

But Africans have had enough of these charades. The electoral thief will, of course, send out his crack troops to smash a few skulls with police batons.

In the event of that not working , the president will order his troops to shoot to kill. When even that fails to quell popular outrage, the president will invite his, “defeated” opponent to discus how to share power. It is a coup d’etat, elaborate perhaps, but a coup nevertheless, more bloody and more frightening than its ancestor of the 60s and 70s.

That is the route that Kenya and Zimbabwe have chosen to pursue, though in the case of the latter, it is not yet a done deal. Which is perhaps why the military chiefs in the Republic of Mauritania have reverted back to the old – fashioned and swifter way.

President Sidi Cheikh Ould Abdallah was elected to the presidency of Mauritania 15 months ago, ending decades of military rule. Ten days ago, he was shown the exist when he committed the unpardonable folly of dismissing some of the army chiefs.

Hasn’t this man heard of ex- president Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa of Uganda? Doesn’t he know the elementary axiom that you don’t touch the military when you have no military bastion of your own?

The Generals have also accused him of failing to rein in the skyrocketing food prices. Moreover, the fallen president is said to have exhibited unacceptable levels of corruption by allowing his wife to loot the state.

He is also said to have given his daughter a position of power not commensurate with first daughters. Perhaps he also promoted his son to the rank of Lt. Colonel, but I can’t testify to the veracity of this assertion.

So, why have the African Union (AU), the European Union and the US government refused to recognise the new rulers? Why is everybody threatening to withdraw financial support?

Why were Mwai Kibaki and Robert Mugabe allowed to attend the AU summits in Ethiopia and Cairo after the two had clearly carried out coups d’etat in their respective countries? When is a coup not a coup?

Austin Ejiet can be reached at

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