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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Liz always makes me feel good every time i read your articles

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Wole Soyinka famous said tht power is sweet. West African soldiers' thirst for power is insatiable. They tasted power after the colonist left and they cannot affort to let go. A typical example is a certian Jerry John Rawlings of Ghana. After twenty years in power, he now wants his wife to join in the loot. One of the best solutions is to do away with the army. Do we really need them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    You may count the number coups in West-Africa, but dont forget to count false democracies on this continent, One is led by a arms or one "multi" party system.
    Africa has everthing. From China to USA from Canada to South Korea know this too. This is no news.
    They bring in arms and take Ivoy and Diamonds.
    We must send more Angels to that beautiful continent to bring the love what it needs. Yes !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Ms Elizabeth Ohene has again written an apt article. The profusion of coup in Africa have tainted the entire continent, except for South Africa, under the big brush of military coup. When one thinks politically of Africa, one immediately associates the continent with a succession of military coup. Credible work done by democratic African countries get hidden by the repeated coup. How Sad! .

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    What a strange analysis by Ms Ohene. Football, malaria and long distance running are causes of instability in Africa. Really?
    Well I never!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    What can we do as citizens when our leaders are corrupt and still continue to indulge in corrupt practices? Most of our institutions have let us down by failing to hold the government accountable. What then ca we to draw govt attention to these anomalies? If not coups!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Most of the countries in that part of the world are francophone. Yes, Guinee Bissau is Lusophone but when you have all francophone countries around you living la vida loca with military coups you end up getting the bug. The problem is France's deep presence in political and economic decisions in those countries.France's corruption is bad for W/Africa. Get France out and all will be better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Ohene, coups in W/Africa has nothing to do with mosquitos, runnin (lack of) . I lived in Accra for 2 years and I am from Kenya. We in East/South Africa...Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa etc drink copious amounts of beer ! It relaxes and enhances socialization in the society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Ohebe, W/African copus have nothing to do with running ,Mosquitos.. etc vs East/South Africa. I live in Accra for 2 years and I know what ails W/Africa. Solution is West Africans need to drink more beer. Kenyans, Ugandans , South Africans , Malawians etc consume copious amounts of beer ! Somalis dont,.....look what is happening there. Think about it !

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Elizabeth, you know that the only one thing at the bottom of it is corruption. Like the soldiers, the people in this region cannot fully grasp the impact of corruption on society. However, once these rounds are complete for the countries that have not had it, we may be through. Thank God!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I would agree with African Farmer.

    It is too simplistic to call coups an African phenomenon. They are merely a West African phenomenon.

    Personally, I think the more fractious political culture of West Africa is a consequence of deep cultural features of its people, who have developed more as city-state/market town cultures, rather than cohesive and large political units.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Maybe this current discussion is somewhat deprived of the lusophone input from af broader Guinea-bissauan audience, as I'm convinced the Ghanaian author is painting a picture of the GB populace which is far too simplified. Another key point is that the ex-president and sore loser Kumba Yala belongs to the Balanta ethnic group as does the majority of the armed forces of Guinea-bissau.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    ECOWAS new found dislike for coup detats is a welcome development. West African nations must stamp out unconstitutional change of govt. Democratic institutions, the culture of free fair & transparent elections, true justice, equality before the law must be the norm. All political office holders must have their finances probed/made public annually to stop stealing. Well done Senegal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Two things are always inevitable whenever there is "unrest" in any African country (1) A New Country of formed and (2) the Mineral resources of the country end up in he hands of some foreign country of foreign company. Conflicts are caused becasue African continue to reinforce Europeans definitions of its physical space. These European defined boundaries are still in conflict with Africa...

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @20 Amit Mozoomdar.

    You're making my point. Sierra Leone is in W. Africa.

    In Southern Africa we have plenty of diamonds and other minerals. But we don't have coups.

    Are Southern Africans fundamentally different from W. Africans? How come soldiers from Southern Africa are more willing to submit to civilian authority? Are they better trained, perhaps? Are southern politicians less greedy?


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