While Guineans emptied into the streets celebrating the soldiers that ousted their President, Alpha Conde, on Sunday, September 5, I recalled the excitement that seized some of us, then in secondary school, on April 12, 1980, when Samuel Doe, a Master-Sergeant, took the reins in Liberia through a military coup.
Our excitement had nothing to do with the real situation in Liberia, which we had no firsthand knowledge of. It was rather in support of a trend that was then the fad in many African countries.
The reasons offered for the putsch and the actions by the new men in power also made us wish to be Liberians at that moment. The usurper regime had accused the civilian administration of William Tolbert, which it overthrew, of monumental corruption and holding down the future of the country.
And in what seemed the best of intentions, Doe and his men promptly embarked on what seemed moral and economic rebirth in Liberia. Part of the measures, was the arrest of officials of the ousted administration and retrieval of alleged looted state funds from them.
While Doe rode on the crest of this cleansing mission, he was lionised. With time, however, he was seized by the trappings of office and sycophantic members of the ruling class. In the process, he got carried away and, over time, became more corrupt than the members of the Tolbert government that he booted out.
To ensure that nobody pried into his activities, he resorted to repression, applying state apparatus to silence real and perceived opponents.
Liberians began to take notice of the unfolding state of anarchy when, after changing the constitution to announce himself president in a highly flawed election, Doe, in 1985, went after his colleagues with whom he executed the 1980 coup on allegations of attempting to take over the government by force. That and other self-righteous actions by the Commander-General, paved the way for the tortuous route Liberia is yet to recover from.
I cannot precisely explain why that recollection surged back over the coup in Guinea but there are certain similarities that seem to be playing out. As in the days of Doe, the leader of the coup in Guinea, Mamadi Doumbouya, a 41-year-old colonel, has explained that the soldiers struck to rid the country of corruption, disregard for human rights and economic mismanagement.
To make the action more nationalistic, he stressed; “If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom,” adding that the duty of a soldier is to save the country.
For him, the days of Conde are over, despite protestations and threats of sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union (AU), United Nations (UN) and the United States (US).
Well, on the basis of accusations against the ousted President, it may be tempting to argue that he deserves his fate. In a way, he typifies Chinua Achebe’s allegory of Nza, the overfed bird that challenged its god to a wrestling bout. Conde is an illustration of hypocrisy that successive African leaders represent. What they say seeking for power, is contrasted by their actions in office.
Here was a man, a master’s degree holder, who spent decades in opposition to a succession of regimes in Guinea. At some point, he ran unsuccessfully against President Lansana Conté in the 1993 and 1998 presidential elections, was sent to jail, pardoned and fled to exile to save his life. On return, he led the Rally of the Guinean People (RPG), an opposition party, to win the presidency in 2010. He was reelected in 2015. By 2020, he had manipulated the constitution to go for a third term.
In all this period, the country did not fare better but got steeped in poverty and human rights abuses. He did not learn from his personal experiences under Conté. He was rather accused of election rigging and flagrant disregard for rule of law. That was the beginning of his fall.
Dictators usually end up being consumed by the skewed system they create. They are as guilty in subverting democracy as those that eventually move against them. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are right in their book, How Democracies Die, that, “Democracies may die at the hands, not of generals but of elected leaders – Presidents or Prime Ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”
They add that some of the leaders dismantle democracy quickly, though, more often, democracies erode slowly in barely visible steps.
The moment a leader begins to arrogate to himself the status of a god and starts denying the people the benefit of political goods, abridging their freedom, engaging in election manipulation and subversion of the rule of law, he is leaving his flanks open. Such acts negate public trust, which Wale Adebanwi, Rhodes professor, thoughtfully describes as a very risky business. In his submission, just as there are plenty of benefits for those who are invested with public trust, there are also plenty of sanctions for violation of such trust.
“Public governance is the highest form of public trust. This is why those who have had the benefit of public trust are called upon to continue to live up to expectations of the trustees – the people. It is a duty that they owe the real trustees of the collective will,” he wrote in the preface to J. Kayode Fayemi’s book, Reclaiming The Trust.
Conde failed in the simple test of maintaining the public trust as many rulers in other African states. By their actions, they further the underdevelopment of their states and bait undemocratic elements to civil politics. In that case, we may not have seen the end to military interventions on the continent, going by the experiences in Guinea, Mali and Chad.
But the question is the extent the soldiers can go in changing the face of Guinea or wherever they strike. Put in other words, have they been better than the administrations they toppled? Of course, it may not be easy to draw a definite conclusion, for Guinea.
But if Lansana Conté who came through a coup in 1984 and died in 2008 after spending 34 years in office, and the soldiers who held brief for two years before Conde’s election in 2010 were unable to put Guinea on the right path, there may not be much to expect from the present crop of adventurists. It’s business as usual! And democracy continues to suffer in Africa.