African viewpoint: Coups, a West African disease?

A soldier in Mali sporting a badge of Capt Sanogo West Africa tends not to wear a coup as a badge of pride these days

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene looks back at the changing history of West Africa's military putsches.

Coups d'etat have been on my mind these past few weeks.

It started, of course, with Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and his antics in Mali.

Then, just as I thought we were getting to the end of that one, I woke up to the news last Friday morning that there was a military takeover in progress in Guinea-Bissau.

It is not yet clear how the soldiers' adventure in Bissau will turn out, but what is clear is things have changed or, at least, are changing in my part of Africa.

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The whole neighbourhood gets a bad reputation”

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Barely an hour or so into the news, and out comes a very strong condemnation from Ecowas, the West African regional group.

But even that speedy response has not stopped the entire sub-region being dragged into the mess - with the reference in the news to the "West African" nation of Guinea-Bissau.

I tell you, this fills me with impotent rage.

It is the type of anger you feel when everybody on your street is doing their best to keep the area a bit upmarket and there is this one household with an overgrown garden and uncollected rubbish, to which the police keep getting called.

The whole neighbourhood gets a bad reputation.


We in West Africa used to be notorious for our coups.

Between 1963 - when the first elected president of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio, was overthrown - and the year 2000, there were 27 military takeovers in West Africa. And those are only the successful ones.

A demonstration in front of the national assembly in Bissau on 15 April 2012 No elected president in Guinea-Bissau has completed a term

Senegal, of course, stands out proudly as never having had military meddling in politics.

Even though in recent times Ivory Coast has gained a reputation for instability, it is worth mentioning that it was only on Christmas Eve 1999 - almost 40 years after independence - that Ivorian soldiers first came out of their barracks.

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It took a while but we in West Africa learnt the very hard way that, given the opportunity, uniformed men are certainly more cruel and just as corrupt as their civilian compatriots”

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Nevertheless, during this time you would have been forgiven for thinking that coups were an infectious disease endemic in West Africa.

Nigeria and Ghana led the way and others followed.

And the reasons each group of soldiers gave for their topplings sounded eerily similar: A government had to be overthrown because economic conditions were intolerable, and ministers were growing fat on greed and corruption.

And there was an echo in the names given to the bodies they formed to rule their countries: A "national liberation", "redemption", "salvation" or "revolutionary" council.

And as daylight follows night, they all turn out to be more corrupt than the people they overthrow; the economic conditions worsen and the human rights situation worsens.

Answering back

It took a while but we in West Africa learnt the very hard way that, given the opportunity, uniformed men are certainly more cruel and just as corrupt as their civilian compatriots.

The surprising thing was how easily the coups were accepted:

Members of Senegal's presidential guard stand by during the inauguration of Senegal's newly elected President Macky Sall in the capital Dakar, 2 April 2012 Soldiers in Senegal are the only ones in West African never to have seized power
  • A group of soldiers seizes the studios of the state (and only) broadcaster and make their announcement about having come to save us
  • The entire population falls into line and members of parliament and ministers of state give themselves up to be locked up in police stations and prisons for months and even years.

This, in a region that prides itself on being the most politically astute on the continent - and where the people always answer back.

When Ecowas was formed in 1975, the majority of its members states had military heads of state - and a new coup leader was therefore warmly welcomed at meetings, without anybody batting an eyelid.

I recollect only one occasion when a coup-maker was told he was not welcome.

That was when Nigeria's then-President Shehu Shagari would not tolerate the presence at an Ecowas meeting in Togo's capital, Lome, of Liberia's Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe - who had arrived with the blood of his putsch fresh on his hands.

Mosquitoes to blame?

I have tried - without success - to work out why the region provided such fertile ground for coups.

I wondered if the mosquito and malaria had anything to do with it.

Remember, this part of Africa was supposed to have been the white man's grave - and it certainly saved us from a certain type of colonial experience.

Or maybe it is because we are better at football - and hopeless at long-distance running.

Whatever the reason, I am convinced things have changed.

Ecowas now issues a statement condemning a coup even before the troop movements have settled.

As Captain Sanogo in Mali has learnt, this neighbourhood has developed zero tolerance for coups.

The chaps in Bissau will also learn, eventually.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Well, I really thing that lol more things need to happen for Africans to realize that things can’t move in that direction. Is the only continent that we still getting those type of news!! I really hope that Africans can have the chance to have proper and democratic governments so they focus in the future and start getting on the way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    It is hyprocritical of ECOWAS to start condemning coups, since most of them are former coup leaders who have remained in power under the guise of rigged elections. ECOWAS does nothing to ensure that elected govts are held to account for "failing" their people. How about sanctions against Jammeh, Blaise, & others. Coups keep govts up in their sleep and sometimes offer a fresh start to the people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    you made a great point, here is the fact; African leaders are themselves the architects of their demise. They have in collaborations created an environment of survival of the fittest, and guest what the military sounds to me like the fittest. The cling to power for as long as the are physically able, some times to their graves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Every African has a sense of fair justice Why Military ? just becuase they have the weapons and traning, we are thought to fear them and they know it. The Global hawks know how to use them too. Africans are still looking for an alternative to crossing a street, instead of looking left, right then left again before crossing we need an alternate route. Thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    What a shame, all others could say is to point out The Rawlings of Ghana. Please this issue is bigger than Ghana. The Military is not part of the party poli-tricks to love to play. Lets talk about the Military involement in the life's of Africans in this case west Africans.


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