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Tuesday, 15 October, 2002, 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK
Africa's virulent military virus
Rebel soldiers in Bouake
The rebellion has split Ivory Coast in two

When leaders like Thabo Mbeki call for an African renaissance or pledge to demonstrate good governance, the last thing they then want to see is another military uprising on the continent.

The 19 September uprising in Ivory Coast was the third in under three years, an indication of how far Ivory Coast had descended into the politics of division.

It also shows that Africa still has not shaken off the virus of military intervention in politics.

Casualties of Congo-Brazzaville fighting
Coups and mutinies have cost Africa dear

For over 30 years, from 1960 to the start of the 1990s, coups were practically the only means by which changes of government were achieved in Africa.

Then, as communism crumbled in the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall was torn down, Africa started to undergo its own political metamorphosis.

People clamoured to have their voices heard.

They demanded that state funds and foreign aid be spent on development and not hidden away in Swiss banks.

People flex their muscles

The movements for multiparty politics and democracy gained strength, helped by an end to Cold War support for unelectable dictators from the superpowers.

Governments still fell, but increasingly they fell after being defeated in elections or as a result of political rather than military intervention.

Freed from the strategic need to support dictators because they were "our dictators", aid donors started, with admittedly limited success, to demand accountability as the price for financial assistance.

Ordinary Africans from Mauritania to Mozambique and from Senegal to South Africa flexed political muscles long unused.

Civilians protestors in Ivory Coast
Ivorians rose up against military rule in October 2000

Initially, there were successes.

Multiparty politics gradually became the rule rather than the exception across much of Africa.

People began to feel that they could hold politicians to account.

Unfortunately, few of the politicians felt the same.

The corruption, ethnically or regionally-based politics and the "winner takes all" mentality, which had been the catalysts for military coups for 30 years, were as keenly adopted by the new politicians as they had been by the first generation of African leaders.

And many of the "new" proponents of democracy were just recycled dictators or failed politicians from the previous decades.

Ivory Coast has proved little different.

Ethnic divisions

In 1990, the one-party system became a multiparty system but through domination of the media and the control of the government machinery, President Felix Houphouet-Boigny extended his 30 years of rule through the ballot box.

He died in office in 1993 and was succeeded by one of his ministers, Henri Konan Bedie.

But the president's iron grip over politics died with him.

What also died was the president's conscious efforts to balance the appointment of senior ministers to avoid a build up of ethnic, regional and religious tensions among a diverse population.

Felix Houphouet-Boigny had succeeded in keeping a lid on these divisive factors - his successors, lacking the respect or fear accorded him by Ivorians, used them to establish their power.

Military steps in

The government became dominated by politicians from the south and centre of the country.

The mainly-Muslim north became politically marginalised.

The leading northern politician, Alassane Ouattara, was excluded from politics by having his citizenship and right to vote or stand in elections removed on the dubious grounds that he was of foreign extraction.

He had been prime minister under Houphouet-Boigny.

The political discord worsened and in December 1999, the army stepped in and General Robert Guei became military ruler.

Under domestic and international pressure he held elections, in which he was a candidate for the presidency. But a wave of popular protest prevented him from claiming victory and installing himself as president.

General  Sani Abacha
Nigeria's General Abacha was typical of Africa's corrupt rulers

He was ousted from power but retained a following in the armed forces.

The new civilian president, Laurent Gbagbo, had to cope with an attempted military uprising in January 2001, a suspected coup plot a month later and then the uprising in September this year.

The paternalistic rule of Felix Houphouet-Boigny enabled Ivory Coast to avoid the dreary cycle of coup and counter-coup which plagued so many states in Africa - notably neighbours Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger.

But Africa's military virus hit it later in life.

That virus is now coursing through Ivory Coast's body politic and there is no miracle cure.

Coup cycle

The military virus is not a phenomenon that strikes out of the blue.

It develops and thrives in states which have all the right preconditions - political elites who base their claim to power on ethnic, regional or religious rather than national constituencies, the lack of strong, independent civil institutions and little or no history of freedom of expression or of the press.

Rebel in Bouake
The rebels control the country's second city

The military in Africa frequently step in claiming, often with popular support, to be guardians of the national interest who will cleanse politics of corruption.

But they learn little from history and soon repeat the mistakes or misdemeanours which they say they seized power to eliminate.

The cycle of corruption, coups, counter-coups and yet more corruption has proved hard to break.

And there is little sign that Ivory Coast is going to prove any more able to rid itself completely of the military virus than much of the rest of Africa.

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt
"The Ivorian government is clearly feeling under threat from all sides"
Journalist Emmanuel Goujon from Bouake
"They want to negotiate on equal terms with the president without laying down their weapons "

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