By Modou Modou

The concept of democracy being the government of the people is a contested idea in Africa, where the military continues to intervene in the governance process to wrestle power from democratically elected governments. These power coups are deemed universally illegal and unconstitutional; however,military rulers are held in high esteem by the populace, to the point where they often emerge more popular than their civilian counterparts.


Unsurprisingly, the military’s intervention in the political process is largely informed by the public demand for regime change. This reflects a difficult and complex trajectory that signals the death of democrat governments. Arguably, in situations where a government pursues misguided public policies that slow development and diminish peace and security, when all legitimate efforts fail to depose an autocratic leader, replacing a government through the barrel of the gun might be justified. It can be argued that it is wrong to allow an unpopular leader or government that has failed to live up to the wishes of the majority to continue to preside over the country. However,this is a relatively short-term political solution to a long-term political problem.

African political leaders have a propensity to overstay their welcome, as they see the presidency as a “Swiss army knifeforattaining wealth, fame, and greatness. Once they have assumed the mantle of leadership, they often do not want to step down,and do everything in their power to secure lasting dominance. This includes tampering with constitutions to provide legal mandates for continuing their rule, and in certain cases, they resort to using extrajudicial measures to oppress their opponents. As such, when such autocratic presidents cannot be removed by constitutional means, such as through elections, the next line of action is to use military force, justifying the oft-quoted maxim that if a president cannot be removed by the ballot box, a bullet will do it.

While military coups are considered an effective strategy for flushing out leaders who outlive their usefulness, tyrannical military regimes generally inflict more pain than relief. Rather than solving African contemporary political and socioeconomic problems, military coups are driving the continent into a more serious predicament, as these soldier-governors lack the administrative expertise to run governments. In Military Coups in AfricaThe African “Neo-Colonialism” that is Self-Inflicted,Jimmi Wangome argues that “Military intervention has not always been conducted to ‘rescue’ the nation from political ills. Coups have been linked directly or indirectly with personal ambitions and the craving for power by some specific key players” (Wangome, 1985).

The hunger for power and wealth is often a reason soldiers stage coup. The situation in Gambia in 1994 serves as a case in point. A group of soldiers led by young army lieutenant Yahya Jammeh overthrew the democratically elected government of Sir Dawda, but the army fell far short of its promises, and failed to do even half of what the regime of former President Jawara had been doing.

In The Gambia: The Untold Dictator Yahya Jammehs Story, Pa Nderry Mbai, a Gambian journalist based in the United States, provided firsthand information on some of the alleged murders, tortures, and disappearances that had occurred in the previous military turned civilian administration, stating that the extrajudicial actions were sanctioned by the state, with orders coming directly from the president. This was confirmed by a plethora of former Jammeh hitmen who appeared before the Gambia Truth Reparation and Reconciliation Commission. Witness after witness, particularly the soldiers serving in the presidential elite team—the Jungullars—confessed to arresting, detaining, and killing people deemed to pose a threat to President Jammeh’s political survival.

Military coups could be drastically reduced if African leaders considered effecting meaningful democratic reforms, such as instituting twoterm limits to the presidency. Currently most countries in Africa have no term-limit clause in their constitution, specifically to write such leaders a blank check to stay in power longer than they should. 

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