You have been warned!!!
Exactly 12 months ago, I wrote a commentary on the coup d’etat in Niger saying why it was justified and why some coups could be described as good coups. My argument was premised on a simple democratic principle – that governments, or leaders, are elected by the people to serve the nation. Their tenure of office is at the people’s ‘pleasure’. In order words, they must not tweak the law of the land in order to entrench themselves in power to the detriment of the general good.
When governments ignore the wishes of the people for whom they are elected to serve, and whose wishes they have to respect and abide by; when they choose to use their powers of incumbency to extend their stay in power, enriching themselves in the process, then they become prime candidates for a coup, I said.
My argument elicited a number of comments. One of them, from a good friend of mine, went thus: ‘I see where you appear to be coming from on this one. But if we pursue your thesis to its logical conclusion, the message poses a danger to African societies, which are far greater than coups d’etat are predisposed to engender.’
The current political upheavals in North Africa, which corrupt dictators in sub-Saharan Africa must take heed of, give credence to both arguments. Protests inspired by the movements in Tunisia and Egypt, and, in both cases, with the support of the military, is providing a template for the youth in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the central African nation of Gabon, thousands have taken to the streets of the capital, Libreville, in protest against the rule of Ali Bongo Ondimba. The son of late strongman Omar Bongo (who until his death in 2009 was the longest-serving leader in the region), Ondimba is accused of siphoning over $100m from the tiny, oil-rich country between 1985 and 1997. The lack of mainstream media coverage does not hide the violent repression that the people of Gabon have faced. While the popular grievances and nature of the regimes certainly differ north and south of the Sahara, the recent African revolutions have had significant symbolic influence throughout the continent. Emphasising the point, one protester in Gabon held a banner reading: ‘In Tunisia, Ben Ali left. In Gabon, Ali Ben out.’
Predictably, official reactions to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions south of the Sahara have been muted. But it is early days yet. Africa, like the rest of the world, might still be coming to grips with the significance of this extraordinary display of people-power. Certainly, Africa’s other autocratic rulers cannot ignore it for much longer.
While the economic and political conditions for uprisings of the sort we have seen are important, civil society is playing a vibrant role. It is highlighting the fallacy of the often stated idea that African societies are characterised by the lack of a distinct public sphere. Popular belief states that the majority is still governed by patriarchal politics and the prevalence of tribal ties, while pro-democracy and human rights agendas are criticised as western imports.
The theory may have historical import but we have already seen in Egypt a spectacular dismissal of the much-flouted myth of Arab exceptionalism. The fact that the people of Egypt, not long ago denigrated as one of the most apathetic and submissive of nations, emerged in their millions in defiance of a brutal and ruthless regime, throws a massive spanner in the notion that Arabs, as opposed to the rest of the world, are uniquely adverse to democracy.
The hybrid of voices that came and stuck together under a universal banner was one of the most inspirational factors of Egypt’s revolution. The Kifaya movement (Arabic for ‘enough’) is one such example. Also, the use of internet-based social media tools to mobilise diverse sections of society in Tunisia and Egypt has been well documented. Under a regime that held a tight monopoly over mainstream media, the internet provided a much-needed mobilisation platform. Yet, while the widespread availability of the internet is still wanting in much of Africa, mobile phone technology is already playing an equally important role in other parts of the continent.
Unlike those in Egypt and Tunisia, armies in the rest of Africa constitute the biggest hurdle against a popular uprising. In most of the armies in sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of high-ranking officers are aligned, through ethnic or political affinities, to the ruling classes. Therefore, for a successful uprising to take place, the military will have to be persuaded to abandon their allegiance to the dictators.
The question is not whether an uprising could occur in the region, but when. There is a proverb in the Akan language of Ghana that says, ‘It is only the fool who believes the worst can only befall his neighbour and not him.’ African dictators, take heed.