There is a well-known, often whispered fact in Ugandan politics that when an official in government or a prominent businessperson is arrested or publicly humiliated in the national dailies for any crime (say corruption, land grabbing, or building in a wetland or other), the question the public asks is not whether there is evidence to the crime—for evidence abounds and that is a foregone conclusion—but who among the powers that be have they offended for their crime to be brought to life. The tested and proved assumption is that, with minor exceptions, every one of these individuals (the people in government and their associates), is a criminal awaiting prosecution. But their crimes come to life only when the powers that be deem it necessary to make them an issue. Thus, even for angelic individuals, the powers that be can easily come up with one crime to tie onto them, and with evidence easily generated—concocted or real—they’ll be maligned and prosecuted. In all plain speech, everyone is innocent and everyone is guilty as long as the powers that be decide it to be so.
Thinking about African governments in the so-called postcolonial time, this Ugandan experience is not lost on Africans when talking about governance, especially as regards the ways in which the international community reacts when changes in governments occur—often as electoral are juxtaposed against coups. The basic premise is this: in whichever form these governments exist or come about—authoritarian, democratic, coup-driven, monarchic—they are good or bad, not dependent on their character, but dependent on the interests of Western superpowers. These interests then determine the ways in which transitions are narrativized and discoursed in international media, which in turn, carry a great deal of sway on discourses in local presses, and elite circles (at home and abroad). Stated plainly, there are bad and good democracies just as there are good and bad coups. It all depends on the interests at stake. The African subject—not necessarily the political elite—is thus trapped in an endless, heated, and almost violent loop of meaningless negotiations over terms such as democracy, human rights, constitutionalism, and freedoms that are simply masks of (actually superior) economic and political interests of the Western world.
Europe in Africa: a coup history
Coups have always been good for the Western democratic world. Narrating the story of capitalist expansion across the postcolonial world, in his book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions, Jason Hickel captures the ways in which coups became normal in postcolonial Africa dislodging democratically elected governments—as long as the coup-leaders were favourable to western interests. Hickel narrates that between the 1950 and 1970s, “across the global south, newly independent African states were ignoring US advice and pursuing their own development agendas, building their economies with protectionist and redistributionist policies” (21). Hickel continues that through this period, in the postcolonial states, “incomes were growing, poverty rates were falling, and the divide between rich and poor countries was falling for the first time in history,” (ibid). But as would be expected, these protectionist policies starved the Western world of free raw materials and profits. They weren’t pleased at all and had to do something about it.
“The policies of the global south governments undermined the profits of Western corporations, their access to cheap labour and resources, and their geopolitical interests. In response, they intervened covertly and overthrew dozens of democratically elected leaders replacing them with dictators friendly to Western economic interests who were then propped up with aid.(22)”
The excerpt above captures the immediate postcolonial time going through the 1980s sometimes overlapping with proxy wars of the Cold War period. I provided a periodisation here. But while these coups might look like ancient history, coup-making and execution have been a core part of French control of West Africa to this day—and has made us suspicious that some of these new coups are part of the same scheme. The thing called, Françafrique or “French sphere of influence” resulted in 122 military interventions in West Africa and all French-speaking Africa by the French Military between 1960 and 1998. These included among other things, coups and assassinations of activists and high-profile individuals seeking complete liberation from continued French control. Without entering into the fine details of French military interventions in Africa, French coup plotting has enjoyed the support of the Western democratic world from the United States to Western Europe. In sum, it does not matter whether a government is democratically elected or has come in through a coup. All that matters is that it guarantees the continued flow of cheap raw materials from the African continent to the Euro-America.
The good coups of modern history
An election in 2012 in Egypt ended in the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammad Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood coming to victory put the United States in a difficult position especially since Egypt borders Israel, and the American weren’t sure about how the Muslims Brotherhood foreign policy would be towards Israel. Although President Morsi was a product of a democratic process—the much-celebrated adult universal suffrage—this was a bad democratic result in the eyes of the Western world. Not too long, there would be protests in Egypt against the newly elected government. How was that so?
To understand these protests, one has to return to Iran in 1953, when protests against the popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh spread across Tehran. As we learned years later, there was nothing organic about the anti-Mossadegh protest, but the United States and UK plotting from inside the American embassy in Tehran. After one year, President Morsi would be disposed of in a similar Mohammad-Mossadegh manner. On 3 July 2013, through a coup, covertly supported by Israeli and American intelligence, democratically elected President Mohammad Morsi was overthrown. One would think that the American government, headed by democrats—supposedly willing to die on the altar of democracy—Barack Hussein Obama, refused to call the military removal of President Morsi a coup.
Even when Senator John McCain visited Egypt and actually called the overthrow of President Morsi ‘a coup d’état,’ the Obama government refused to follow the urgings of this eminent American. In response, quoted by CNN, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued: “If the United States formally calls the move a coup, it would have to cut off $1.3 billion in aid… would limit our ability to have the kind of relationship we think we need with the Egyptian armed forces.”
This response openly ignored any claims to the ideals of democracy, but rather focused on the American economic and security interests as is tradition. On the tenth anniversary of the coup, a story published in Foreign Policy magazine on 3 July 2023, confirmed that “Obama gave the Egyptian military what amounted to a green light to overthrow the country’s first-ever democratically elected government.” It did not even matter that the new military government, in the midst of their takeover, openly gunned down 51 people in cold blood in the capital, Cairo for simply chanting support for Muslim Brotherhood. In a normal “democratic” world, this would have caused a major fallout over abuse of human rights. Instead, the US simply urged the new government to quickly return to a “democratic order,” like nothing outstandingly anti-human rights had happened.
Recently, it was confirmed that the United States, working through the Pakistan military pushed for the ouster of Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, because he had exhibited friendship with Russia at the beginning of Russian-Ukraine conflict. Imran Khan remains perhaps the most popular—and yes, democratically elected—prime minister in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto. The US-instigated coup against Khan was to balance their political power-play, in which they sought to isolate Russia. It wasn’t about democracy or any human rights claims. In cutting-edge extensive reporting by The Intercept, a document nicknamed “Cypher,” which demonstrated how America directly threatened Pakistan—specifically, Prime Minister Khan—over its radically neutral position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It documents a subtle but clearly effective mode of coup-making: a vote of no confidence, just has happened with Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953 Iran. Please note that to remove a sitting president through a “vote of no confidence” in a parliament, actually signals the presence of a strong “democratic culture” and constitutionalism in any polity. Consider then that the United States is actually exploiting Pakistani’s democratic maturity to undermine Pakistan’s stability.
The Intercept, citing from Cypher, reported a meeting between America’s Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Threats to the ambassador were delivered to Prime Minister Khan and members of the Pakistan military, who understood these threats really well, started working around the clock. Donald Lu threatened: “People here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.” Then the Assistant Secretary went on and suggested that “if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister.” Secretary Lu threatened further, “I think it will be tough going ahead,” going on to say Pakistan risked isolation from Europe if Prime Minister Khan remained in office.
This meeting between Lu and Pakistan Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan took place on 7 March 2022. The following day, March 8, Khan’s opponents moved with a procedural issue towards a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister. Because he occupied the office of prime minister, Khan received the threat and offered to make them public. While he claimed US involvement in the no-confidence vote, the Pakistan courts—in on the coup—could not allow him to make the documents known to the Pakistan people (again, a bold statement about Pakistan’s matured democracy). Three months down the road, on 2 October 2022, Prime Minister Khan was removed from office through a no-confident vote.
While it is leading opposition figure Shehbaz Sharif who became prime Minister after Khan, the Pakistan Military remains the most powerful entity in the entire pushing and shoving. The Intercept reported that “Shaken by the public display of support for Khan — expressed in a series of mass protests and riots” in the period that followed his ouster, “the military sought to strengthen itself. It “enshrined authoritarian powers for itself that drastically reduce civil liberties, criminalize criticism of the military, expand the institution’s already expansive role in the country’s economy, and give military leaders a permanent veto over political and civil affairs.” You would think these developments would cause the democratic world to issue pronouncements as regards civil liberties and human rights. But alas, neither of this has happened. In a word, the coup against Prime Minister Khan, and the resultant abuses of human rights and freedoms were good for the Western “democratic” world, because, not only did they support it, but all these abuses served to protect their interests, which are above any democratic idealism.
An enduring intellectual-political dilemma
The simple premise that governments are good or bad dependent on the interests of Western superpowers remains difficult to see as it is deftly disguised in plenty of enchanting prose: whenever coups happen—as they have excited the continent in recent times, especially in West Africa—they are derided as bad, should not be celebrated as they are a poisoned chalice; ought to be prevented, and calls are made for an immediate return to a democratic order. I cannot shake off the feeling that these coups have been derided this much because they don’t really represent the interests of the Western world. There are no grey areas but a simple formular: coups are bad, democracies are good—and whatever it takes, we ought to work hard to “perfect” our democracies.
These ahistorical, simplistic, colonial positions are sustained because of four main reasons: (a) Countries and continents have come to be seen as independently contained units and so are the world’s continents. That while local African actors have business and other dealings with the rest of the world, they have incredible levels of agency and need to choose democracy over its problematic opposite: coup leadership. That events in their countries are often entirely products of local ingredients. Consider also that (b) the new technologies and practices of colonialist extraction and control—most of which the coloniser has so deftly depoliticised and extravagantly technocratized appear benign and malevolent. Items such as aid, free trade, banking regimes, WB and IMF recommendations, conservation initiatives, etcetera, all are part of the goodness of the Western world, and need to continue to thrive under a democratic order. The African elite has been conscripted to this depoliticised, disguised colonialism. How do you persuade a corporate individual who earns well from an international conservation body or an NGO worker, or a grant recipient academic that they are involved in a colonial franchise? The other reason (c) is that we are all products of the colonial school, and our education determines the reach of our imagination and dreams, and our vocabulary and eloquence. This has been complemented by (d) the colonizers mastery of popular cultural tools, especially through cinema and the Internet, which crucially control public opinion, and determine what becomes understood as fact or fake news. Even with so many more recent crimes and deceptions of the Western world (not the least Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, and earlier ones as Chomsky and Herman demonstrate with what they called “the propaganda model”, a great deal of African political and academic elite still considers the western world, especially the so-called democratic western Europe and the United States as benevolent, generous and truth-talking entities.
It has therefore become difficult to see the reality that democratic regimes, principally, guarantee endless Western exploitation of the continent, the same way an anarchic, or coup-generated regime has been narrativized. Neither government guarantees absolute goodness for the African subject. However, democracies, inexplicably, retain intellectual and media goodwill. In sum, it has become difficult to appreciate the colonial-laden dilemma Africa is presented with when responding to coups on the one hand, and welcoming extractivist democracies on the other—as we endlessly fail to appreciate the fluidity, and ‘possibility of reset,’ and the radical questions that coups enable us to ask—in these moments of restlessness—in the search for the soul of Africa’s independence, and reclaiming the exploitation and use of our resources for our own benefit.
This article was first published by the The Pan African Review.