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The drive towards political stability: Examining military interference in African politics

3rd January 2011


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The process of decolonisation took root in Africa more than 50 years ago, yet political stability remains far beyond the reach of many African states. Countries like Ghana and the Republic of Guinea gained independence in 1958; it can thus be argued that independence in Africa started in the late 1950s. Furthermore, independence from colonial masters did not immediately transform into socio-political and economic growth. Instead, a barrage of despotic and authoritarian leaders emerged, and the incessant retrogressive ideologies and methods of rule prompted the emergence of a kind of rule that has changed the face of politics in Africa for the last 50 (plus) years. This trend is characterised by the involvement of the military in African politics. Situations of army involvement in the political setup of Africa span from Nigeria and Sudan, down to Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Gambia, the Republic of Guinea, Uganda, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Algeria, Chad, and even the most recent cases in Equatorial Guinea and Niger republic.

In this light, this article examines the trend of military interference in African politics; the factors responsible for this engagement; what characterises this rule; its effect on the process of democratisation in the present state of African countries, especially in the wake of the third wave of democratisation; and how it has shaped the recent drive towards political stability among African states. The article also uses the trends in some of these states to examine how military interference has had a wide range of institutional constraints on many states currently battling with instability.


Military engagement in post-independence Africa

The replacement of civilian authority by military juntas in Africa only really commenced in June 1965 (in Algeria), except for the November 1958 case in Sudan when General Ibrahim Abboud seized control of the Sudanese Government.(2) From 1965, all hell was let loose in Nigeria until the African country returned to civilian rule in 1999. It can therefore be averred that although there is a relative reduction in military interference in African politics due to the pressures from Western superpowers in the wake of the third wave of democratisation, the cases of Equatorial Guinea and Niger still point to the readiness of the military to actively engage in politics within Africa.


This leads to the question of the factors that necessitated military involvement in politics. There is no doubt that the involvement of the military in African politics has, more often than not, been compelled by bad governance and corruption among post-colonial African leaders; the suppression of the opposition, neo-patrimonialism and prebendalism; and above all, the tendency of despotism as evident in drives towards one-party politics; absence of a free press and the preponderance of economic stagnation. The post-independence era noted serious drifts away from the inherited colonial constitutions and emergence of many leaders who propagated “Africanism” and/or socialism. Some of these leaders include: Sekou Koure of Guinea, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Leopord Senghor of Senegal and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, among others. These leaders pursued policies that, for them, aimed to return Africa back to its pre-colonial communalistic state, but many of them also degenerated into autocracies. Their administrations were unable to really drive the desired socio-economic goals that the people anticipated. In essence, their rule turned anti-democratic and authoritarian, hence the emergence of military elites who embarked on an African wide routine of coups and counter coups – beginning from the 1965 case in Ghana, through the 1968 incident in Nigeria, down to the 2010 coups in Niger and Equatorial Guinea.

The army argues that these ousted civilian governments were corrupt and lacked foresight regarding developmental strides. The post-independence leaders also did not lead their countries in terms of people-oriented policies as civil and political turmoil were the hallmark of those states, and neo-patrimonialism, nepotism, inclinations to ethno-regional politics and prebendalism were said to be championed by these leaders. “In fact, part of the rationale for military intervention has been not only to reorganize the economy, but also to set the stage for a return to constitutional practices, including basic freedoms such as open elections.”(3) In that case, it was imperative to have the political environments cleansed of all these impurities by groups of military elites who promised to set the countries back along democratic and developmental paths and then return to the barracks. But as the saying goes: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; the military elite found out that holding on to power was sweet, hence the trend of coups, counter-coups and more dictatorships from post-independence until the era known as the third wave of democratisation and the new world order.

Features of military rule in Africa

The military in Africa was not just pivotal in the decolonisation struggle,(4) but were instruments of the colonial state to keep the reactions of the colonised in check. They were mainly an arm of the state that, rather than fighting with the political parties, were used to repress rebellions, revolution, and mutiny in the colonial state. They gradually fell into a category of Mahmood Mamdani’s “decentralised despotism” – a creation of the colonial system with native authority in charge. (5)

As a force in the hand of the colonial state, the army was thus not integral to the quest for independence by different nationalist groups, hence the view that the decolonisation process in Africa differed from those in other parts of the world, especially in Latin America. One analyst argued that the “so called ‘African revolution’ ... differed from many other great political changes: hegemony was handed over without large-scale civilian uprising, campaigns of civil disobedience, or other techniques. African armies did not play a major role in nationalist movements ... [and] resentment against the colonial rule was channelled through political parties, not through military uprisings as they did not participate directly.”(6) In this way, it will be relatively easy to understand why the features of military rule in Africa have been one of gross human rights abuses that range from extrajudicial killings, authoritarianism, repression and suppression of any opposition, to the restriction of the press in a bid to stifle drives towards democracy.

Military interference or coups have accounted for more transitions in Africa than any democratic transition via elections. The military remains the major obstacle to democratisation in Africa, just as studies of transition must understand its role in the African political scene. Statistics in Africa show over 80 coups d’etat and 108 failed attempts(7) (1956-2001); authoritarian and often corrupt regimes in Nigeria (Babangida and Abacha), Uganda (Idi Amin), the DRC (Mobutu), to mention but a few. Indeed, military interventions are pervasive in Africa, despite democratisation trends since the 1990s, and the trends of coups, failed coups and coup plots remain syndromes of military-led political instability. “It is a widely shared assessment, however, that military regimes in developing countries cling to the power that has come to them easily by suppressing the very rights which they have promised to respect.”(8)

As such, Africa has indicated that successive military regimes wrote an entirely new history for its politics and its governance mechanisms. It hindered the state to develop as a democratic polity by stifling political activities and deliberations.
Effects of military interference on the process of democratisation and consolidation in Africa

Africa has had an ordeal with different trends in history and these have continued to hamper its drive towards socio-economic growth. Although the third wave of democratisation led to the establishment of democratic institutions and civilian rule in many countries on the African continent; it still remains a fact that democratic consolidation and political stability remains hanging in the balance in a plethora of African states – no thanks to the legacy of military interventions, its militarisation of politics as well as the politics of violence and bitterness. For “… much of the world, Africa remained little more than an unfailing source of bad news: famine, dictatorship and economic collapse; blatant violations of human rights and gross carnage wreaked by merciless warlords; a region where unashamed autocrats still tightened the screws of their despotism while their counterparts around the globe were being hounded out of presidential palaces by popular revolts.”(9)

In Nigeria, civilian leaders exhibit these military tendencies in their policies and projects. In South Africa – though not technically a country ruled by military dictators – this tendencies also emerge in the different policies that, in the long run, are undemocratic as evident in the drive towards limiting press freedom (with the proposed Protection of Information Bill). In the republic of Guinea, which is on the verge of transitioning away from military rule to civilian rule, the case is also not different as post-election crises also go a long way at pointing out what the legacy of militarisation of politics and the politics of bitterness can yield within a state.


Political stability and socio-economic growth remain huge imperatives for states in Africa. The quest for these goals involves a lot of socio-political crucibles and the deconstruction of a lot of institutional structures that militate against development. The trend of military involvement is one of those structural issues that need to be deconstructed within the state, and politics should be devoid of those tendencies that undermine fruitful democratic processes. There is the need to re-strategise along democratic lines and the obvious break must be made away from repressive and authoritarian characters ruling within African political environments in order to facilitate socio-economic and political development, and guard against political instability.


(1) Contact Kingsley Orievulu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict & Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Welch, C., 1967. Soldier and state in Africa. Journal of Modern African studies, 5(3), pp. 305-322.
(3) Henderson, C. W., 1982. Military regimes and rights in developing countries: A comparative perspective. Human Rights Quarterly, 4(1), pp. 110-123.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Mamdani , M., 1996. “Decentralised despotism”, in Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism. New Jersey, Princeton University Press.
(6) Welch, C., 1967. Soldier and state in Africa. Journal of Modern African studies, 5(3), pp. 305-322.
(7) McGowan, P. J., 2003. African military coups d’etat, 1956 – 2001: frequency, trends and distribution. Journal of Modern African Studies, 41(3), pp. 339-370.
(8) Henderson, C. W., 1982. Military regimes and rights in developing countries: A comparative perspective. Human Rights Quarterly, 4(1), pp. 110-123.
(9) Chege, M., 1991, Remembering Africa Source, Foreign Affairs, 71(1), pp. 146- 163.

Written by: Kingsley Stephen Orievulu (1)


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