Military Coups In Africa--The African "Neo-Colonialism" That Is Self-Inflicted
AUTHOR Major Jimmi Wangome, Kenya Army
SUBJECT AREA General
TITLE: MILITARY COUPS IN AFRICA--THE AFRICAN "NEO-COLONIALISM" THAT IS
With the advent of independence in the late 50's and early 60's euphoria
and new hopes swept through Africa as nation after nation attained self-govern-
ment. There were new dreams and expectations as the colonial masters packed
their bags and handed over the instruments of power to the indigenous peoples.
To most Africans this was the end of a long freedom struggle in which so many
had suffered. It was the end of slavery, human degradation and exploitation.
However, these dreams were soon shattered as government after government
fell victim to the coup d'etat across the continent. The new military rulers
accused the civilian government of everything from corruption and incompetence
to mismanagement of the national economy. However, experience in Africa has
shown that the military are no better than civilians when it comes to running
governments. Rather than solve African contemporary political and socio-econo-
mic problems, military coups d'etat in Africa have tended to drive the continent
into even further suffering and turmoil. This has been the case in Uganda,
Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Congo and several other African states. The future trend
is that coups in Africa will remain a common phenomenon as long as political
and economic instability prevails.
MILITARY COUPS IN AFRICA--THE AFRICAN
"NEO-COLONIALISM" THAT IS SELF-INFLICTED
Thesis Statement: Rather than solve African contemporary political and socio-
economic problems, military coups d'etat in Africa have tended to drive
the continent into even further suffering and turmoil.
I. Pre-independence era
A. The struggle for independence
B. Decolonization process
C. Interim governments
D. Transition of military set ups
II. Post-independence era
A. Fledgling governments
B. Formation of national military organisations
C. National identification by the military
D. Impatience and ambition sweeps through the continent
III. Coups galore
A. Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Congo, Uganda, etc.
B. Cause and effect
IV. Current and future trends in Africa
MILITARY COUPS IN AFRICA--THE AFRICAN
"NEO-COLONIALISM" THAT IS SELF-INFLICTED
The wind of change, as Mr. Harold McMillan, a British Prime Minister
later called it, started sweeping through the colonial Anglophone and
Francophone Africa in the early 1950's. Suddenly, there was this realiza-
tion that the continent had to be free--free from colonial domination and
exploitation. Blowing through Africa was a new fervour for revolt and
nationalism. The revolt which was mainly spiritual was meant to drive
the colonial masters from the African soil; the nationalism to mobilize
the masses to the forefront in a fight for self-determination, liberty and
human dignity. The astonishing success of the anti-colonialist crusade in
India, led by Mahatna Ghandi was to become a major driving force and a
great source of inspiration for African nationalists. India became inde-
pendent in 1947.
As the spirit of nationalism gained momentum throughout the continent
the colonial rulers started accepting realities. Change was inevitable. The
various national political parties and their leaders started getting recog-
nition from the colonial administration. Political activities, which
previously meant jail, detention or banishment, were now being authorised
and licensed under the watchful eye of the police. Nationalists and party
leaders could organise and address political rallies so long as they did
not engage in anti-government subversion or sabotage. The political organ-
isers during this period were later to emerge as either Heads of State or
major political figures in their own countries. There was the fiery Kwame
Nkrumah of Ghana, the charismatic Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, the scholarly
Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika, the nationalistic Siaka Stevens of Sierra
Leone, the emotional Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia (Northern Rhodesia),
Azikiwe and Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria, and the list goes on. All these
and others were men who were instrumental in shaping the destinies of
their respective countries.
In the Anglophone African countries, the British started easing off
control and slowly but gradually relinquishing power by the establishment
of interim governments. National elections were held with all the regis-
tered political parties being represented. The interim government was
then formed with ministers from the majority party, with the party leader
becoming the Chief Minister. The entire government was overseen by a
British Governor and this was the British idea of 'self-government'. On
attaining full independence a prime minister was then appointed and the
British officially handed over the instruments of government. This was
the time that the colonial flag would go down for the last time and a new
national flag hoisted--hoisted for the first time. It was an occasion
that was received with much excitement, pride and joy. The day of indepen-
dence was a day celebrated with much pomp and pageantry and nationwide
festivities. This excitement, however, was not to last long as so many
African countries were to later find out.
The colonial military set up was a different issue. On a nationalis-
tic level and from a patriotic standpoint the military was viewed by the
indigenous peoples as a bird of a totally different feather. The colonial
legacy left military organisations that were not fully accepted in the
African society. During the sensitive days of struggle for freedom and
independence the general populace and the local politicians had developed
an almost allergic fear and mistrust for soldiers. As very well observed
by W.F. Gutteridge:
Nationalist politicians saw them as agents of imperial
rule suppressing political demonstrations and protec-
ting European property. Though they had won glory by
serving overseas in the two world wars, their imperial
activities caused them to be regarded in some quarters
as armies of occupation or at best as mercenaries in
the service of a foreign power. This impression was
assisted by a recruitment policy that preferred sub-
jectively defined 'martial races' or those who were
'worthwhile soldiers'. The ensuing tribal imbalance
necessarily made more difficult than it would other-
wise have been the army's achievement of national sta-
tus as an institution.1
To politicians therefore, the military had no positive role in the
process of the freedom struggle and soldiers did not therefore need to be
rewarded or accorded any special considerations. It is not surprising as
a result, that most African leaders preferred to retain expatriate officers
to go on commanding predominantly African troops. The Africanisation pro-
cess was given priority in the areas of civil administration. Africans
took over senior civil servant posts that were previously held by Europeans.
This initial failure to Africanize the command hierachy in the Armed Forces
was later to become a major area for concern and a source of military grie-
vances that were to turn catastrophic in most newly independent African
nations. In the entire tropical Africa it was only the Sudan that, as at
the time of independence, had a fair number of indigenous commissioned offi-
cers. In the Sudan, the British had been training local officers since 1918
1W.F. Gutteridge, Military Regimes in Africa (London: Methven & Co Ltd
1975), p. 6.
At the time of independence in March 1957, Ghana had probably the highest
standard of education in the entire black Africa. In spite of this im-
pressive position, however, only a mere 10% of the commissioned officers
were local. The Belgian Congo had a total force well in excess of 24,000
men at the time of independence. Yet there was not a single Congolese
officer in the entire force. This state of imbalance or rather inequality
was to contribute towards inciting a mutiny after independence. The army
mutinies in Tanganyika and Uganda in 1964 were provoked by similar situa-
tions, besides the issue of salaries.
The post-independence era found many fledgling African governments
groping in the dark for stability and direction. Soon, many governments
found out that the new state of nationhood meant much more than just the
creation of a national flag, the composition of a national anthem and the
election of a president. The military, which the nationalist politicians
had grown to despise and mistrust during the pre-independence era, had to
be moulded and blended into this new national image. There were those pol-
iticians at the time, of course, who viewed the military as a force or
tool to be utilised in subduing political opponents and in projecting
personal power across the country. This tendency by politicians to use
the military for personal political gain was viewed negatively in pro-
fessional military circles. It was seen as gross interference of the very
fibre that holds the military together--professionalism. Kwame Nkrumah of
Ghana probably contributed to his own downfall by his undue meddling in
the professional integrity of his army both at home and abroad. A case in
point, was when President Nkrumah made the decision to send Ghanaians to
the Congo in 1960 as part of the UN contingent. On several occasions
Nkrumah issued his own instructions to the Ghana contingent, and in the
process contradicting what had already been issued by the United Nations
Command. This practice frustrated the Ghanaian soldiers who saw it as
an unnecessary intrusion of their professional responsibilities.
The newly independent African nations took over what were essen-
tially colonial armies. In the majority of the cases the army was rela-
tively small and ill-equipped. One major priority was to eliminate the
colonial mentality that existed in the military by giving the armed forces
a more national outlook. This obviously called for instituting clearly
visible changes. The uniforms had to be redesigned to reflect a more
national character. The names of the regiments, the names of the barracks
and even the tunes of martial music had all to be modified to identify
with the new nation. As pointed out earlier, there existed a noticable
tribal imbalance in the national make-up of the military as a result of the
colonialists' belief in 'martial tribes' or natural warriors. In order to
rectify this situation recruitment had to be conducted on a national scale
with every tribe represented, on a pro rata basis, according to the known
population figures at the time. Only in this way could tribal tension and
rivalry be minimised. It was humanly impracticable, certainly, to totally
eradicate tribalism due the ethnic customs and traditions so permanently
intra-woven in African society. This inherent African character of tribal-
ism that is so much imbedded in local culture is a potentially explosive
social phenomenon that was later to cause civil war in Nigeria.
As the military was struggling to attain a national character in order
to gain national acceptance, the politicians were becoming more self-seeking,
power-hungry and ambitious. Some were out seeking instant wealth for
themselves, their friends and relatives. Nepotism became rampant, common-
place and a norm. Others were out experimenting on new and foreign ideo-
logies in the name of African socialism. These were ideologies that had
no bearing or relevance to the improvement of the lives of the ordinary
man. Some of these governments started openly courting the Eastern bloc
for advice and guidance. It did not take the ordinary citizens long to
realize that these so-called progressive governments were not delivering
the goods fast enough. Corruption had become an accepted way of life.
Mismanagement of the economy coupled with sheer incompetence had led to
runaway inflation and unaffordable prices. Unemployment and crime rates
were on the increase. Yet the greedy get-rich-quick politicians continued
getting richer. These were the kind of situations to be found in Ghana,
Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and other countries when their governments fell to
In the majority of the coups that have occurred, the military has
deemed it a national and patriotic obligation to rescue the country from
total collapse and thereby restore lost national prestige. Although these
coups d'etat have been executed in the guise of national interest and patri-
otic duty, more often than not, military regimes have turned out to be more
corrupt, oppressive and downright inefficient than the civilian governments
The period between 1960 and 1970 and slightly beyond has generally been
called the decade of coups' in Africa. Once coups started in Africa they
became like a wild African bushfire. They swept through the entire conti-
nent at an alarmingly high speed. They leapt through national borders as
if those boundaries did not exist anymore. During this decade of coups the
scoreboard read something like this:
1. Congo-Kinshasa, 1960. General Mobutu seizes power
2. Togo, January 1963. Coup deposes President Olympio,
who gets killed in the process.
3. Congo-Brazzaville, August 1963. Government of Abbe'
4. Dahomey, December 1963. Colonel Sogho overthrows
5. Gabon, February 1964. Coup d'etat occurs but is
reverted by French forces.
6. Algeria, June 1965. Colonel Boumedienne overthrows
President Ben Bella.
7. Dahomey; December 1965. A second coup is staged.
8. Burundi, October 1965. The monarchy is overthrown
by Army officers.
9. Central Africa Republic, January 1966. President
David Dacko is ousted by Colonel Jean Bokassa.
10. Upper Volta, January 1966. Colonel Lamizana deposes
11. Nigeria, January 1966. General Ironsi is installed
after a coup led by young officers.
12. Ghana, February 1966. President Kwame Nkruma is over-
thrown by the military led by General Ankrah.
13. Nigeria, July 1966. General Gowon overthrows General
14. Burundi, November 1966. Captain Micombero takes over
in another coup.
15. Sierra Leone, March 1967. President Margai deposed
by Lieutenant Colonel Juxon-Smith.
16. Algeria, December 1967. A second coup attempt is made.
17. Sierra Leone, April 1968. A coup from the ranks over-
throws Lieutenant Colonel Juxon-Smith. Civilian govern-
ment re-installed under President Siaka Stevens.
18. Mali, November 1968. Young officers led by
Lieutenant Moussa Traore depose the government
of President Keita.
19. Sudan, May 1969. Free Officers' Movement seizes
20. Libya, September 1969, The monarchy is deposed.
21. Somalia, October 1969. A revolutionary Council
led by the military overthrows the government.2
The list of this coups galore across the African continent goes on.
After 1970, numerous other governments were overturned. The progressive
government of Dr. Milton Obote in Uganda was deposed by General Idi Amin
in January 1971. Uganda, under General Amin, went through one of the most
tragic experiences in recent African history. The feudal monarchy of
Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia was deposed by the military in September
1974. By 1975, approximately half of the continent's states were led by
military or civil-military governments. Other states also had records of
predatory attacks by their military forces.3 In the recent 80's changes
of government through the coup d'etat have occurred in Ghana, Upper Volta
and Nigeria. No doubt, the coup d'etat and the military regime have be-
come the most prevalent political phenomena in Africa.
In an effort to justify the overthrow of the government one African
officer is reputed to have claimed that a military take over and rule by
officers never constitutes a revolution in tropical Africa but rather a
limited modification of existing arrangements. This reasoning tends to
2Ruth First, The Barrel of a Gun (London: Penguin Press, 1970) p.xiii.
3Samuel Decalo, Coups and Army Rule in Africa (London: Yale University
Press, 1976) p. 6.
border on naivety. What then has led to such an apparently endless spate
of coups? Looking at the entire continent, there appears to emerge some
causes that share general commonality in the majority of the states. A
protracted economic crisis has in most cases led to the failure of the
political leadership. When faced with runaway inflation some of the more
common measures have been price control, strict currency control, increased
taxes and devaluation. Unfortunately these have not always been popular
measures and have instead tended to generate countrywide dissatisfaction
and national outrage. Military intervention has often occurred in these
Political squabbling, whereby the civilian leaders have been unable to
resolve their differences in the interest of the nation, has led to military
coups. Internal political problems within the ruling elite has had the out-
ward effect of leading the masses into disappointment, disillusion and loss
of faith in the government.
The inefficiency of the civilian government, coupled with corruption
and maladministration has been a common factor. After independence, the
people expected their own government to be more familiar with their pro-
blems and be able to find solutions to them. This has not always been so.
A problem that is not likely to be resolved easily in Africa is 'tribal-
ism' or the ethnic factor. Ethnic groupings have created more national
disunity than any other single factor. Governments have tended to be more
tribal than national in structure, with inter-tribal oppression becoming
common practice. This in effect has created more societal tension and tur-
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.4 This was in fact the case in Dahomey in 1965. In other instances,
officers have led coups to regain lost prestige or to pre-empt an impending
purge. Coupled with this, interpersonal clashes have occurred between the
civilian and military elites and thereby provoking takeovers. Cases in
point have been Uganda in 1971, Togo in 1963, Congo in 1968, Dahomey in 1967,
and several others.
In retrospect, the results of military rule in this vast continent have
been very disappointing indeed. Besides being unable to solve the problems
they set out to solve in the first place, military regimes in some cases
have created situations that did not exist with civilian governments. Mili-
tary rule has not necessarily been free of incompetence, corruption and
maladministration that their civilian predecessors were alleged to have en-
couraged. Soldiers have been known to be more of wealth-seekers, property.
grabbers and bribe-takers. They have openly engaged themselves in self-
enrichment activities through the barrel of the gun and through intimidation.
They have become better embezzlers than their forerunners. They have made
better smugglers and tax evaders. In Uganda, General Idi Amin expelled the
entire Asian community without any compensation. All the Asian-owned busi-
nesses, premises, dwelling houses and plantations were literally dished out
to fellow soldiers, friends and any other Ugandan who caught the General's
fancy. Within about two years most of those businesses had closed down or
4Samuel Decalo, Coups and Army Rule in Africa (Clinton: The Colonial
Press Inc., 1976) p. 231.
gone bankrupt owing to mismanagement and neglect. It soon came to light
that the Asian participation in the Ugandan commerce and industry formed
a very dynamic part of the country's economy. Essential consumer goods
became scarce and in turn this prompted smuggling across the borders from
the neighboring countries. By the time Dr. Milton Obote made a comeback,
Uganda was at the brink of bankruptcy and total economic decay. Further-
more, the soldiers in Uganda were no longer accountable for their actions.
The rule of law was a total breakdown and thousands of people were massacred
or simply "disappeared" without trace. Events in other countries echoed of
economic mismanagement and political instability. There were threats of
further coups, counter-coups and assassinations. Although the general public
had initially welcomed, hailed and celebrated coups, they were now disillu-
Today, the coup d'etat phenomenon still looms over Africa. The coup has
not improved the African economic conditions. The coup has not been a source
for political stability. Rather than solve African contemporary political
and socio-economic problems, military coups d'etat in Africa have tended to
drive the continent into even further suffering and turmoil. And then there
is that aura of insecurity and uncertainty. When and where is the next one
going to be? More so now than ever before, African political systems remain
unpredictable. But one thing is certain. As long as there is economic and
political instability military coups will continue to occur; and as long as
military regimes exist, counter-coups will continue to occur. The future of
Africa is that bleak.
1. Decalo, Samuel, Coups and Army Rule in Africa. London: Yale University
2. First, Ruth, The Barrel of a Gun. London: Penguin Press, 1979.
3. Gutteridge, W.F., Military Regions in Africa. London: Methuen & Co., 1975.
4. Luttwak, edward, Coup d'Etat. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
5. Van Dourn, Jacque, Military Profession and Military Regimes. The Hague:
6. Woddis, Jack, Armies and Politics. New York: International Publishers, 1978.
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list