Many Nigerians have been expressing understandable outrage at suggestions that there might be military coup in the country. It is obvious that despite the current challenges, most Nigerians who were old enough to know what happened during the long period of military rule in Nigeria, will not wish another forward to our inglorious past.
But the tensions and intrigues generated by President Muhammadu Buhari’s illness and absence are raising rumours of a possible military intervention. The speculation was legitimated when the Chief of Army Staff (CAS), Lt.-Gen. Tukur Buratai, claimed that that there were attempts by politicians to influence his officers and soldiers to carry out acts against their professional calling.
But what are the chances of a coup succeeding in the current climate? The answer is less than five per cent, in my opinion. Sure, one cannot rule out the possibility that some adventurist soldiers may try their luck, but trying to topple the government will be one thing, succeeding will be another, and being able to consolidate power in the unlikely event of a success, will be another kettle of fish, for various reasons:
One, for those who hope that a military coup can resolve the simmering tension in the land, a coup will exacerbate, not defuse the tension. The current tension is built around suspicions that a ‘cabal’ around the presidency will not want power to pass on to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in the event of Buhari not being able to continue. It is thought that the ‘cabal’ is hiding its interests under the guise of protecting the “North’s turn to produce the president” – a sentiment that will play out well with many people in the North. In Nigeria’s peculiar mode of allocating privileges, it is believed there is a gentleman’s agreement between the power brokers from the Northern and Southern parts of the country that each bloc will rule for eight years and then allow power to return to the other bloc for its own eight years. In the eighteen years since the onset of the current civilian dispensation, the South has ruled for 14 years (because Yaradua died before completing the North’s turn). The fear among some in the North is that returning power again to the South without the North completing ‘its turn’ will mean the South enjoying a disproportionate share from the assumed gentleman’s agreement.
But many from the South and supporters of constitutionalism will argue that constitutional provisions on succession supersede any gentleman’s agreement – if such exists. And hardliners from the South are likely to remind their Northern counterparts of the long period of Northern domination under the military, which “still needs to be balanced”. In this scenario, a coup led by someone from the North will be resisted in the South while a coup led by someone from the South will be resisted in the North. Even if such a hypothetical coup was led by someone from a minority ethnic group from the South or Middle Belt, there will be suspicions that such a person is merely the surrogate of certain shadowy power operators. In this sense, a coup will worsen the problem it will purportedly come to solve. The best way of resolving any crisis remains at the negotiating table, not through the barrels of the gun.
Two, new coup plotters in Sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly finding it difficult to gain acceptance in the continent. For instance a 2012 study by the African Development Bank found that while there were 99 coup attempts in the sub-continent between 1970 and 1989, the number fell to 67 between 1990 and 2010. In fact since 2010 there have been far fewer coup attempts in the sub-continent, with most of these being in the Francophone countries. In recent years, even where the coup-makers managed to succeed in toppling the government such as in Burkina Faso (2012) and Mali (2012), the coup-makers were never allowed to inherit power and were rather humiliated by a combination of domestic and international forces. In times past, those who succeeded in toppling the government would at most be urged by continental organisations and the international community to “restore constitutional order as soon as possible” – a slap on the wrist that allowed such adventurists to organize sham elections and civilianize their regimes.
Three, related to the above is the changed international environment. During the Cold War era, military coups were part of the proxy wars between the super powers. The end of the Cold War however ushered in an era of globalization and subsequent attempts to internationalize liberal democracy. With this, military coups lost their appeal as an activity used by major foreign powers to shape the internal affairs of smaller countries. It can in fact be argued that in Africa no coup can succeed without the support of the country’s former colonial power. It is in this regard that the remark by the British High Commissioner to Nigeria Paul Arkwright that the United Kingdom would not support any unconstitutional change of power is highly symbolic.
Additionally regional organizations like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States have in recent years taken very hard-line approaches to military coups. For instance during the 2012 coup in Burkina Faso, the African Union condemned the coup in the strongest possible terms; it immediately suspended the country from participating in any of its activities and threatened to impose drastic sanctions within 96 hours if the overthrown civilian government was not re-instated. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took an even tougher stance as it called on the coup plotters to disarm immediately and return power back to the transitional government that it supplanted. ECOWAS took the same tough stance against coup leaders Dadis Camara in Guinea in December 2008 and Moussa Sanogo of Mali in March 2012.
Four, another strong disincentive to coup making is the advent of citizen journalism and the rise of a new generation of Africans, the ‘social media warriors’, who can battle would-be-dictators from any corner of the cyberspace. The netizens can in a matter of minutes create blogs that will make life a nightmare to such adventurists. Social media warriors live in the winds and are unreachable by the dictators’ instruments of state terror and coercion.
Five, the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations under which several African countries hid to oppress their citizens, has evolved. In fact, since the 1990s, there has been a normative shift away from the traditional understanding of state sovereignty to an acceptance of sovereignty as responsibility. This is the underlying premise of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, a commitment which was endorsed by all the member states of the United Nations in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Part of the arguments of R2P is that in a globalized world, where what affects one country often has repercussion on several others, the doctrine of ‘non-interference’ should have the doctrines of ‘non-indifference’ and R2P as its checks. This means that the international community is unlikely to look the other way when avenues for peaceful social change are blocked in any country. Military coup will be seen as another way of blocking an opportunity to find a negotiated solution to the current political tension, and will under R2P, legitimate foreign intervention.
Based on the above, I am not convinced that a military coup has any chance of succeeding, if attempted. Rather what I feel is a more potent threat in Africa today is not military coups but constitutional coups, essentially attempts by those elected into offices to manipulate their countries’ constitutions to stay beyond their term limits. For instance since the early 1990s, at least 24 presidents in sub-Saharan Africa initiated moves to achieve ‘tenure elongation’. The encouraging fact however is that while several African leaders have plotted constitutional coups to ‘elongate’ their tenures, in countries like Benin, Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe and Tanzania leaders respected themselves and the country’s constitution and stepped down honourably after exhausting their two-term limits. In some countries, leaders who lost elections, conceded defeat and accepted their fates.