There is fire in Ouagadougou. And who’s to say where it’s catching next? For the second time in eight months, the military in Burkina Faso struck in a palace coup that removed military leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba.
The coup leader, Captain Ibrahim Traore, cited the same excuses Damiba gave for seizing power in January as reasons for his removal; namely, that the government has proved incompetent in containing the spread of Islamic insurgency, leading to increasing loss of lives among military and civilian populations.
Things couldn’t get worse for the land-locked country (population: 22 million) where 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty level — one of Africa’s worst records.
Although things appear to have calmed down a bit as of the weekend, Damiba, who overthrew the elected government of Roch Christian Kabore in January, was still threatening potential outbreak of a “fratricidal war” that could make Liberia or Sierra Leone a child’s play.
How he would achieve that from his Togo hideout may be farfetched. But if we keep in mind the current fragile state of Burkina Faso which has been the scene of two coups in eight months, out of five coups in the subregion in two years, then there just might be cause to worry. Africa is playing with fire and doing so when the world has too many problems of its own to care about the continent.
Times have changed. But it’s also fair to say that the sort of nonsense that happened in Ouagadougou last week or eight months ago might have been unlikely when the Class of President Olusegun Obasanjo was in power only about 20 years ago.
The mice can now play because Africa’s cats have lost their felinity. In 2003 when President Fradique de Menezes was visiting Abuja and a military band in Sao Tome and Principe announced the overthrow of his government, Obasanjo stepped up. He did not wait for orders to act.
He simply returned to Sao Tome with the embattled de Menezes in a Nigerian aircraft, asked the thugs to stand down and reinstated the elected president. Nigeria’s current President Muhammadu Buhari, also rallied regional leaders to shoo away Yayha Jammeh in 2017 when he tried to play games after he had been defeated in the Gambian election.
But after Banjul, Buhari, like other regional leaders, almost overcome by insurgency at his doorstep, has gone soft. The shuttle diplomacy by ECOWAS since Mali fell to soldiers two years ago, before Niger and other countries also followed, has largely produced talk and more talk. Consequences, the only language bullies understand, has been conspicuously missing.
The greater danger is not only in what is missing, but also in what is filling the gap. Where there was public outrage at military coups a decade or more ago, there is growing acceptance of the aberration as norm.
The public, tired of betrayal of trust by politicians, corruption, lack of accountability and the politics of exclusion, doesn’t seem to care anymore who is in charge – soldiers or civilians. In fact, there is a dangerously growing nostalgia for military rule.
Although the successful elections in Kenya have been a bright spot, Africa, as they say, is largely on its own. Global institutions or countries that might have intervened to mitigate the rising cases of unconstitutional changes in government, are facing a crisis of comorbidity.
The regional body, African Union, is forlorn and weak. Member states struggling with the predations of COVID-19 and fluctuating commodity prices are buffeted by internal political tensions. The US is facing its own domestic problems, while the Russia-Ukraine war has left Europe in disarray by compounding already fragile supply chain problems and spooking fears of a third World War.
Of the two European powerhouses with strong African ties one (France), is fast losing face and falling out of favour; while the other (Britain) is losing its way even at home.
It’s true that the world has enjoyed considerably more peace since the end of the Cold War and battle-related deaths have declined significantly for decades. It’s also true that in the last 30 years more countries around the world, including Africa, have embraced democratic forms of government and military coups have become unfashionable.
Yet, the subregion is facing a different kind of threat. The war in Syria and the destabilisation of Libya and the Sahel have had negative consequences on efforts by a number of countries in the subregion that are struggling to consolidate their democratic gains. Armed jihadists trying to find a new home have infiltrated the subregion.
They are exploiting long-standing poverty, corrupt leadership and local animosities to unleash a reign of terror from Mali to Chad and from Niger to the Northern parts of Nigeria. With one-fifth of governments in West Africa currently under military rule, minus two in Central Africa, for example, the subregion is, once again, a painful reminder of its ragged past.
And as we saw in Mali, Guinea and now in Burkina Faso – all French West African countries – frustration is spilling beyond borders and tarnishing France, perceived to be maliciously complicit.
Yet, despair is not a strategy. Neither is condonement or frustration. Africa cannot afford to roll back decades of significant progress in democratisation in a moment of self-justifying insanity. That needs to stop.
And two things are needed urgently. 1) Civil society groupws on the continent must play a more active role in condemning the spate of military takeovers; and 2) however dire things might be across the continent, the African Union must take the lead not just in speaking up against the gradual normalisation of military rule, but also in demonstrating that there would be serious consequences for unconstitutional changes in government.
The peer-review mechanism which allowed leaders to compare notes and served as an early warning system of sorts has broken down. It needs to be repaired immediately.
For example, indications from Sierra Leone ahead of next year’s general elections are not encouraging. That is how trouble starts. If the shenanigans of President Julius Maada Bio including his heavy-handed treatment of the opposition is not contained, that volatile country could be headed for serious post-election crisis, the end of which no one can determine. Medicine after death cannot become the norm.
Also, if Nigeria wants to be regarded as anything remotely resembling Africa’s powerhouse, it must quit its current pussyfooting. How can Buhari be comfortable to step down next year and retire to his cattle ranch in Daura with neighbouring countries infested by thugs?
How can the military general who was once, to put it bluntly, physically restrained by President Shehu Shagari from using troops in Nigeria’s 3rd Armoured Division to overrun Chadian incursion in Borno State in the 1980s not be worried that nothing has changed in spite of ECOWAS shuttle diplomacy to rein in regional military usurpers in the last two years? Buhari’s regression from Nigeria’s tough army general to the general of his cattle ranch, in Daura, is not good for him or the country. And it’s bad for the continent, too.
The slide cannot continue. It’s fine to blame outsiders, particularly shamelessly complicit France, for what is going on in much of French West Africa. But leaders on the continent must, and should be first to prevent the crime or tackle it when it appears. They must take responsibility or risk exposing their own houses to the spreading flame.