A failed coup in Gabon high­lights the stay­ing power of Africa’s age­ing lead­ers

Business Day (Nigeria) - - EDITORIAL -

IT WAS ALL over within hours. At 4.30am on Jan­uary 7th a small group of ju­nior army of­fi­cers seized the na­tional ra­dio sta­tion in Gabon, an oil­rich coun­try in cen­tral Africa, and de­clared a coup. They said they were mo­ti­vated by the “piti­ful sight” of Ali Bongo Ondimba, Gabon’s 59-yearold pres­i­dent, de­liv­er­ing a tele­vised ad­dress from Mo­rocco, where he has been con­va­lesc­ing since Novem­ber af­ter suf­fer­ing a stroke. The at­tempt to un­seat him was short-lived: by mid­day, most of the coup-plot­ters had been rounded up and the gov­ern­ment was back in con­trol.

The drama in Gabon is a throw­back to more tur­bu­lent times. Coups have be­come rarer across Africa—a sign that ba­sic demo­cratic norms are more wide­spread than they were. But checks and bal­ances on pres­i­den­tial power are of­ten still weak, so many African lead­ers have been able to cling to of­fice far longer than is pos­si­ble in more com­pet­i­tive poli­ties. Five have died in of­fice since 2010—all of nat­u­ral causes. Seven of the cur­rent crop have been in power for over two decades. Mr Bongo, whose pre­vi­ous jobs in­clude min­is­ter of de­fence and funk singer, has been in power for only ten years, but his fam­ily has run Gabon since 1967; he in­her­ited the top job when his fa­ther died.

Mr Bongo is not the only African pres­i­dent who rules from his sickbed. Muham­madu Buhari, Nige­ria’s sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian pres­i­dent, spent much of 2017 abroad re­cov­er­ing from an undis­closed ill­ness. Last month he was forced to deny that he had died and been re­placed by a body dou­ble. He is stand­ing for re-elec­tion in Fe­bru­ary. Al­ge­ri­ans of­ten spec­u­late about the health of Ab­de­laziz Boute­flika, their 81-year-old au­to­crat. He is rarely seen in pub­lic, but may run for a fifth term this year.

In the past such frail lead­ers would have made easy pick­ings for a young up­start plot­ting a coup. But the most re­cent suc­cess­ful coup in Africa, in which the Zim­bab­wean army de­posed 93-year-old Robert Mu­gabe in 2017, marks the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule. From 1980 to 2000 there were 38 suc­cess­ful coups in Africa. Since then there have only been 15. This is partly be­cause pres­i­dents have grown more adept at coup-proof­ing their regimes. Many place rel­a­tives in key roles, keep the army weak and play fac­tions off against each other.

The spread of democ­racy in Africa has also helped stave off putsches. The African Union (AU) has adopted a pol­icy of “zero tol­er­ance” to­wards coups, though it some­times turns a blind eye if given a semi-plau­si­ble ex­cuse to do so. In Zim­babwe, for ex­am­ple, the gen­er­als de­tain­ing Mr Mu­gabe in­sisted that they were pro­tect­ing rather than over­throw­ing him. The AU did not point out that this was an ob­vi­ous fib. Mr Mu­gabe was not pop­u­lar.

In other cases, though, the AU’S pol­icy has un­doubt­edly de­terred some coups, and helped to foil oth­ers. In Burk­ina Faso, for in­stance, it played a big role in forc­ing sol­diers to hand power back to civil­ians af­ter they de­posed the pres­i­dent in 2015.

The de­cline in coups is a good thing. But po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion for the top spot is still con­strained. Most African coun­tries have pres­i­den­tial term lim­its. But since 2000 ten coun­tries’ lead­ers have sim­ply changed their con­sti­tu­tions to stay in power. Omar al-bashir, Su­dan’s ruler since 1989, re­cently said he would fol­low suit, even as his gov­ern­ment tear­gassed pro­test­ers.

As a re­sult, the av­er­age age of Africa’s pres­i­dents has risen steadily, from 52 in 1980 to 66 to­day. This is not just be­cause au­to­crats are liv­ing longer. In noisy democ­ra­cies, too, po­lit­i­cal par­ties are of­ten dom­i­nated by older fig­ures who are re­luc­tant to leave the lime­light. Mr Buhari’s main chal­lenger in elec­tions next month is also over 70, and has run for pres­i­dent four times be­fore. Tu­nisia demo­crat­i­cally re­placed a 69-year-old pres­i­dent with an 88-year-old in 2014. The con­ti­nent’s grey­ing lead­ers are in no hurry to leave, a sen­ti­ment ex­pressed funkily by Mr Bongo in his 1977 song “I wanna stay with you”.

Con­tin­ues on page 15

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