GWYNNE DYER WorldView
Military coups are back in fashion in Africa. There have been over 200 attempted coups in the continent since 1960, about half of them successful, but in the past two decades, they had dropped to only two a year. Last year saw six, however, and there have been two already this year. The latest is in Guinea-Bissau.
Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest and least regarded of Africa’s 54 countries — it even has to share the name with its bigger neighbour Guinea, more distant Equatorial Guinea, and very distant Papua New Guinea. But the former Portuguese colony on the West African coast has two distinctions: it has seen nine coups or attempted coups since 1980, and it is the continent’s leading “narco-state”.
The most recent successful coup in Guinea-Bissau was the 2012 “narco-coup”, led by army chief of staff General Antonio Indjai. It was, according to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, intended mainly to “achieve control of the rapidly growing lucrative cocaine trade”.
Civilian democracy is back now in Guinea-Bissau, although in the person of a former army general, President Umaro Cissoko Embaló, who was elected in late 2019. He and his cabinet spent five hours under fire in the presidential palace on Tuesday, as heavily armed men in civilian clothes (but probably soldiers, really) tried to kill them.
They survived, although a lot of other people died, but you have to expect this sort of thing when your country becomes a major transit point for Latin American cocaine heading to Europe and the Middle East. Embaló himself said that the attackers were linked to drugs in the country, but he didn’t explain why that would make him a target. So I will take a guess.
Like at least half the armies in Africa, Guinea-Bissau’s armed forces are collectively an interest group mainly focused on self-advancement, but there are almost always rival factions within the army that vie for control over various governmental and private revenue streams.
As a former general, Embaló would have to be associated with one of those factions. Even if he is not, or not any longer, active in the drug trade himself, his faction will be, and that makes him a target for the other factions. Just like in the countless narco-thrillers available online, you can never really walk away from it.
Guinea-Bissau stands out because there is so much drug money sloshing around, but the coup phenomenon is much broader than this. In fact, that old phrase “the Coup Belt” is coming back into use, because the great majority of the coups are happening in the wide central belt of Africa that stretches from the Atlantic coast across the Sahel to the Red Sea.
This is undoubtedly the poorest region of Africa, with per capita incomes often under a US dollar a day, and it’s also the least well educated. Climate change is starting to hit it hard, since hotter weather generally means less rain — and what does fall evaporates again more quickly.
The fact that almost all these countries are Muslim means that they are all vulnerable to attacks by jihadi extremists who engage in wholesale massacres of those less extreme than themselves. The armies fighting these fanatics, especially Mali (eight coups and attempted coups), Niger (7), Burkina Faso (9) and Chad (8) , have taken heavy casualties and feel under-appreciated and underpaid.
Moreover, there is no countervailing force stopping the soldiers from taking power: the economies are shaky, the governments are corrupt and life is so hard for most people that they will welcome a military take-over, at least at first. When it’s very bad, it’s hard to remember that it can always get worse.
But a sense of proportion is needed. In southern and eastern Africa, there have been hardly any military coups in the past 20 years apart from Burundi, Lesotho and once in Zimbabwe. (Zimbabwean joke: How do you know there has been a military coup? A: There is a general on television telling you that what just happened was not a military coup).
And the fashion for military coups also moves around as history unfolds. For most of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th, the great majority of the coups were in Latin America and the rest were in the Balkans. Most of the rest of the planet, of course, was under the heels of the various European empires.
The heyday of military coups in the Middle East was in 1945-75, since when Africa has dominated this particular field of activity. But if the recent surge in Africa’s “Coup Belt” is really connected to global warming, then we can also look forward to a resurgence in other parts of the world. Contrary to popular belief, most people do not behave well under pressure.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.