African soldiers have struck again. In Sudan, Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan has led a coup and dissolved the transitional civilian administration of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Burhan had been the head of the Sovereign Council, the power-sharing structure between military and civilian leaders, that was concocted after dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted in political street protests in April 2019, ending his 30 years in power.
I knew Hamdok when he was Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), in Addis Ababa. A mild-mannered man with centrist views, he didn’t seem to have an arsenal of skulduggery, or the stomach to go for the jugular, necessary qualities for presidential success in our part of the world. Yet, he surprised. He insisted on a cautious approach against Gen. Burhan’s more energetic rapprochement with Israel and refused to back the coup. Instead, he reportedly urged people to continue with peaceful protests to "defend the revolution". Now he is under arrest - in Burhan's home!
From an East African perspective, the Sudan coup is too close to home. When Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did his thing against Mohammed Morsi in 2013; when the soldiers played musical chairs in Mali; or when the richly sun-glassed and gloved Col. Mamady Doumbouya ejected president Alpha Conde in September, it all seemed far away.
Liberalisation of airwaves
If South Sudan hadn’t in recent years become the world’s newest nation, there would have been a coup at the doorsteps of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya. The independence of South Sudan in July 2011, has saved us from a strong whiff of old-style soldier government.
Eriya Kategaya, who was Uganda's First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs, and died in Nairobi Hospital in March 2013, was a very thoughtful man. He argued that the liberalisation of the airwaves in Africa that began in the mid-1990s had a greater benefit beyond freedom of media and enriching public life with diverse views and entertainment. Liberalised airwaves, he held, were good for national security because, among other things, it was difficult for soldiers to seize the single state broadcaster, announce a coup, and the government falls. With many independent FM radios and TV channels, the coup makers’ job had become much more difficult.
On current form, Kategaya’s theory seems to be falling short. There have been several 21st Century coups in Africa, despite the many independent FM stations, the internet, and social media.
He was partly correct though because this opening up seemed to have provided a brief counterbalancing force against coups. Most importantly, though, was his idea that coups happen in political spaces that are not occupied by strong productive forces. The old single state broadcaster that mutineering soldiers would seize and announce a coup, and the areas of the country they covered, were relatively small. However, today, in countries like Guinea, Mali, Sudan, the spaces dominated by both the state and other democratic social forces is still relatively small.
Best antidote to coups
Coups are therefore like a reality show, the Real Husbands of Khartoum, or the Real Husbands of Conakry, with most of the rest of the people watching with no personal stake. If the show gets boring, or the signal is poor, they switch the channel to watch the Real Husbands of Bamako.
The best antidote to coups, then, would be to give people a stake in the game. Assume, for example, that every Sudanese was enrolled in their equivalent of the National Health Service. That every poor household received a welfare cheque from the Treasury every month. Or, imagine, if the majority of Khartoum's residents had housing and belonged to a resident association, and were active card-carrying members of political parties and pressure groups. A coup in such a place would be quite difficult, though not impossible.
So we are back to a familiar problem. A lot of Africa is ungoverned. Or if governed, not creatively, but by brute force. To close the door to coup makers, the trick is to occupy the spaces they exploit with goodies; with groceries; with bread and wine; with cough syrups and Panadol for everyone; and with school uniforms for every school-going child, to name a few.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3