Opinions Mon, 13 Oct 2003

COMMENTARY: West Africa's Military And Its Troubles

Kofi Akosah-Sarpong takes a long look at the military incursion into West African affairs following rumours of coups, aborted coups and a successful coup in the last nine months

Ouagadougou says 12 people have been arrested for plotting to stage a coup. Public prosecutor Abdoulaye Barry said they included two army captains and had foreign backing. Barry did not say which foreign country was involved but tensions have recently been running high with neighbouring Ivory Coast following a coup there that, for over one year has seen the mired in bloodbath and effectively divided into two—the rebel-held north and government held south.

The Burkina aborted coup comes at the tail a successful coup in Guinea Bissau; failed one in Mauritania; rumour of coup in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana; and rumour of coup in some of the states in West Africa for the past six months. This is not surprising in a region that leads the rest of Africa in political instability, coups, civil wars and political paralysis. Since the beginning of the year it is only in West Africa that either there have been successful coup (Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, and Guinea Bissau), aborted coup (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea), rebel activities (Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire) and coup leading to political paralysis (Guinea Bissau). That West Africa is the most unstable region in Africa is unarguable. There may be civil wars in Burundi or southern Sudan or northern Uganda or eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo but the West African region has more security troubles than other regions in Africa, even ‘democratic’ Ghana is now and then gripped with the fear of coup (The northern part of Ghana, for the past ten years, have been engrossed in communal bloodbath. Still, intelligence sources in Ghana privately say that since President J.K. Kuffour came to power over barely three years ago there have been six coup plots aborted).

Ever since West Africa, led by Ghana, freed itself from over 100 years of colonial rule, it has been common feature to see officers with faces that look like the slums in Nima (Ghana) and Ajenkule (Nigeria) talked about a “state of emergency.” They rolled tanks on the streets of West Africa, warplanes roaring intimidatedly over the skies and told impassive lies. As the military took over last month in Guinea Bissau and the Burkina coup attempt foiled, the world imagined another Samuel Doe (Liberia), totalitarian, and probably the ‘70s and ‘80s bizarre military regimes in West Africa. If there is coup in Burkina Faso, rumours of coup in Ghana, military rebel activities in Cote d’Ivoire (once a showcase of order in West Africa destroyed by its own military) and Liberia (once an economic powerhouse of West Africa destroyed by its own military), then, where in West Africa can stability sleep?

The West African military has been the root of the long-running violent behavior in the region. In Burkina Faso, Captain Thomas Sankara was brutally murdered in a counter-coup d'?tat led Captain Blaise Campore. In Nigeria, Gen. Murtala Mohammed, the head of state, was shot at point in his car as he was going to work. Still, in Nigeria under Gen. Babangida, in perhaps the bloodiest failed military takeover in Africa, Major Gideon Okar and his cohorts attempt to topple the Babangida regime saw a brutal counter attack led by Gen. Sani Abacha (In an unprecedented act in West Africa’s military drama, Okar and his group announced, in their takeover, that they have cut, more appropriately “excised,” the north from the rest of Nigeria).

In Niger, Gen. Ibrahim Mainassara was shot at point blank. In Ghana, Gen. Emmanuel Kotoka, who effectively led the coup that toppled President Kwame Nkrumah, was killed in coup attempt and his body mutilated. Still, in Ghana, Gen. Kutu Acheampong, Gen. Akwasi Afrifa, Col. R. Felli and other top military leaders were summarily executed in a violent firing squad by the Jerry Rawlings’ Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) regime. In Guinea Bissau, Gen. Ansumani Mann, who had previously ruled the country as military head of state, was terribly killed in counter offensive by government forces following Gen. Mann’s failed attempt to come back to power. In Liberia, Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, who was the number two man in the n. Doe-led military regime, was killed in an invasion to topple Gen. Doe. Quiwonkpa’s heart was eaten raw, ritualistically (Some West Africans believe if you eat the heart or other body parts of a great person, you will be great also). Still, in Liberia, Gen. Doe was captured by a faction of the rebel group led by Prince Johnson, stripped naked, his ears cut off and killed and his body buried at an unmarked grave.

The first coup in Africa in which the President was violently murdered occurred in West Africa. It occurred in Togo in 1963 against President Sylvanus Olympio, whose face was blown into pieces at point blank. From Togo the coup disease spread like bush fire to other West African states—Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin Republic, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, Niger, the Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. Those who haven't experienced this coup d'?tat disease got some hiccups through mutinies and attempted regime overthrows. It is only in West Africa, in Ghana, during the Ft. Lt. J.J. Rawlings 1979 coup, for that matter, that heads of state were summarily executed in funny excuses (Col Felli was executed simply because he has $300 in his foreign accounts). All the youngest coup makers in Africa have been in West Africa: Valentine Strasser (24), Julius Maada Bio (25), Yaya Jammeh (26), J.J. Rawlings (32), Samuel Kanyon Doe (27). Most of who, cursed by their ancestors, either blew their countries into pieces or paralyzed them. It is important to know, at this juncture, that the long-running socio-political and economic paralysis of Nigeria have been caused by its long-running military regimes. But for the grace of God either Gen. Ibrahim Babangida or Gen. Sani Abacha would have sent Nigeria to another civil war. (Just imagine over 25 million or more of Nigeria’s 120 million scurrying throw West Africa for refuge) largely caused by its military. Nigeria experienced the Biafran war in which over 2 million were killed.

As West Africans come to grip with the fact that coup d'?tat stifle development and create a vicious cycles of coup d'?tat and poverty (a West African cultural diet), the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) has inserted a clause in its regulations excluding military regimes from its fold (yet coup d'?tat and rumour of coup is a daily phenomena) and talking some successful coup leaders from hanging on to power. In Sao Tome and Principe, in a mixture of threats and economic repercussions, Nigeria and others talked the coup leaders from power and reinstated President Fradique de Menezes, a wealthy cocoa exporter, who was elected in July 2001 with 65 percent of the vote, while the president was on a private visit to Nigeria. In Guinea Bissau, Ghana’s President J.K. Kuffour led a West African delegation to talk to the coup leaders to return the country to civil rule (In the course of the coup, Guinea Bissau’s President Kumba Yalla, who appears to have little understanding of his own country, as most African leaders are, resigned).

In a state of West African confusion, Gen. Abacha, unelected and undemocratic, sent troops to Freetown to remove Major Johnny Paul Koroma’s bloody regime and restore democracy and the ousted President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to office. In a state of West African disorientation and blame game, West Africans, who have created a culture of coups and instabilities over the years, blame each other for the regions civil wars, coups and instabilities. Liberia under Charles Taylor always said Guinea was behind the rebel activities in his country. Guinea said the same about rebel activities in its territory. Various governments in Sierra Leone have accused Liberia of sponsoring military campaigns in its soil. Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore, who came to power in a bloody 1987 coup and has since won multiparty elections in 1991 and 1998, said there have been five aborted coups staged in Burkina Faso, with Cote d’Ivoire behind them. “They [the coup leaders] were waiting for arms from a foreign country which had already provided money," Burkina Faso’s public prosecutor Abdoulaye Barry said. Cote d’Ivoire’s President Laurent Gbagbo, on the other hand, has accused Burkina Faso of backing the rebels who tried to seize power last year and who still control half of the country. Burkina Faso denies the charges and in turn accuses Cote d’Ivoire of mistreating its many citizens living in Cote d’Ivoire. There are credible intelligence that Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire governments, convinced that Liberia under President Charles Taylor, was backing rebel activities in their countries, helped Liberian rebel groups to force Taylor out of power.

That the long-running coups and other instabilities triggered by the military have weakened West Africa’s development compared to other parts of Africa cannot be denied. That means the military in West Africa has been the curse of development, helping to bring the region down to the extent that West Africa is the poorest region in the world. The latest UNDP Human Development Index Report is disturbing, demonstrating that all the countries in the region are at the bottom of the global development table. The details show that Sierra Leone, a country that has suffered terrible coups, civil wars and instabilities, once again, is the poorest country in the world. In fact if data were supplied Liberia, a country which troubles following the violently horrible Samuel Doe coup, would have replaced Sierra Leone this time as the poorest country in the world.

Despite three years of rigorous effort, most West African countries are getting poorer, swinging between fear of coups, civil wars and general instabilities. On these trends, some West African countries will not overcome poverty until 2165, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) believes. The fear of more coups occurring in a region prone to instabilities is captured in a recent commentary concerning the impending oil boom in West Africa by the London, U.K-based West Africa magazine. West Africa asked West Africans to prove the skeptics wrong by planning ahead with backdrop that the region has high incidence of instabilities compared to the rest Africa. In a region prone to instability, the believe is that West African countries expected to become oil producers would not be able to cope with wealth that oil would bring in, triggering coup, civil wars and instabilities. The coup last month in Sao Tome and Principe, believed to be oil induced, is case in point. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian-born chief scribe of the UN, has said that Africa, more appropriately West Africa, is so dependent on international aid that the region will never know peace and prosperity until it takes responsibility for solving its problems. Things are going out of control in the region, as we are witnessing in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. As a result of long-running looting and recklessness by its military, current civilian West African governments cannot pay their bills and go on putting up the children and great-grandchildren as collateral. Aside from Nigeria, all budgets in West Africa are prepared with the assistance of donor grants. The region is so dependent on foreign aid that it is difficult for it to know peace and prosperity, as Kofi Annan has observed. None of the military regimes in West Africa can be credited with helping sow sound socio-economic development. The military in Latin America, despite human rights violations, helped foster economic development. Chile under Gen. Augusta Pinochet comes to mind. Chile is now officially a first world country largely because of the stern economic programmes laid down during Gen. Pinochet’s era.

If West Africa is the most corrupt region in the continent, its military regimes, operating with no accountabilities and intimidation, have been the main sources of corruption, despite what they say when they topple civilian regimes. In Nigeria’s Gen. Sani Abacha, Africa saw one of the most looting acts by a government and its cronies within a short period of time (The record time in which the Abacha regime looted Nigeria makes the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Gen. Mobutu Sese Seko, thought to be one of the corrupt leaders in the world, a child’s play). Gen. Abacha and his cronies in the face of abject poverty stole over US$10.00 billion. The Gen. Babangida regime comes to mind in West Africa’s military-corruption talks. Currently, Nigeria leads the world in corruption, according the Berlin, German-based Transparency International, an NGO that tracks corruption globally. With the seed of corruption sown by its long-running military regimes, Nigeria is the home of the famous scam called '419'. Cameroon, which briefly experienced a military coup, had led the corruption table last year. Even all the rebel leaders in West Africa who preach and use anti-corruption as their trump card are extremely corrupt--look at RUF's Corporal Foday Sankoh (a disgruntled military photographer who has been involved in numerous coup d'?tat before leading a mindless insurgent campaign) and the diamond looting.

No group in West Africa reflects the appropriation of its negative aspects of its culture, which has been inhibiting its development, than its military. With advise from his juju/marabous and witchdoctors, whom he spent millions of dollars on, Sani Abacha kidnapped innocent Nigerians who were either buried alive with juju potions and charms or beheaded for rituals or their body parts cut off for juju/marabou rituals for his grand ambition to transform himself into civilian president. As the most juju/marabou region in Africa, West Africa has such places like Kankan (Guinea) and Porto Novo (Benin Republic) (other top places are in Senegal) as the centres of marabous and juju where affairs of the region are determined to the detriment of rational choices. Most West African leaders, more especially its long-running military leaders, dabble so heavily in juju/marabou that some developments experts believe it is partly responsible for the troubles in the region. Witchcraft practices, heavily dabbled by its military in its incursion into politics, are so prominent in West Africa that development experts are investigating, and warning of its implications in national development.

Nowhere is the projection of juju, marabou (otherwise called ‘Mallam’ in Ghana and ‘Alpha-man’ in Sierra Leone) and witchcraft into national affairs than during military rules. Nigerian believed Gen. Murtala Muhammed was assassinated simply because he forgot to wear his talismans around his waist on the day he was killed. Ghanaians believe Gen. Kotoka was killed because his killers had got the antidote to his juju. Ghanaians believe Rawlings could not be overthrown because he has a lot of juju. Ghanaians believe the key mastermind in Rawlings Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) Captain Kojo Tsikata could vanish or turn into any object—animate or inanimate—and has the ability to “see” coup plotters before they strike. Before he was killed two of Liberia’s Gen. Samuel Doe cousins told me in front of the American Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone during the first peace conference that “no bullet can go through Samuel Doe.” Togoleses believe Gen. Gnassinbge Eyadema has survived both plane crush and other serious attempts on his life because he is harshly juju-fortified. Benin Republic’s Gen. Mathieu Kerekou, who says he is now born again Christian, is hotly talked about deeply mired in voodoo. Cote d’Ivoire’s Gen. Guei, killed in a coup attempt a year ago, was discussed as having a lot of juju and able to vanish.

If Mali’s (and West Africa’s) top marabou man, M. Cisse, who juju-marabou-teleguided most West African leaders in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, more especially its military leaders, mirror how juju, marabou and witchcraft have been irrationally ruling West Africa, as the unfortunate affairs of the region show, Liberia under Gen. Samuel Doe and Ghana under Gen. Kutu Acheampong give us a glance of how juju, marabou and other witchdoctors effectively ruled West Africa. In Doe’s Liberia, through he and his cohort’s occult association called Zo, virgins were occasionally captured from the streets of Liberia. Doe will have sex with virgin and immediately he had orgasm the virgina of the girl is cut off, while the sperms are still hot, her breast cut off, and she cries in pain, her tongue is cut off and, finally, a side of her neck cut and blood drain into a calabash for ritual bath and other juju charms and potions. In all these, the girl has to be alive. On top of all these, Doe had vast array juju and marabou mediums and witchdoctors who he consulted daily to the detriment of rationally trained experts. More so, when rebel leader Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) were fast moving into the capital and innocent people were been killed and property being destroyed, he snubbed off both local and international advise for peace talks and political concessions simply because his juju, marabou and witchdoctors were constantly telling him that the NPFL cannot overthrow him and that they will die out. In fact at one such event, Gen. Doe slapped his Vice President, the much respected Dr. Emmanuel Moniba, simply because he suggested a peace deal with the rebels (Dr. Moniba and other top officials in Doe’s government such as Jenkins Scout, the Justice Minister, recounted this to me in Freetown where they have taken refuge). If Liberia is heavily ruined today, it is not only because of its mindless military but it can be safely argued that Gen. Doe was terribly blinded by juju-marabou-witchcraft to see reality (No doubt as the NPFL rebels near Monrovia, Gen. Doe and his group, soaked in juju-marabou charms and potions, chanted “No Doe, no Liberia! No Doe, no Liberia.” And when Gen. Doe was shot and captured near the ECOWAS headquarters in Monrovia among the talismans wrapped around his waist was human teeth, goat horn stuck into his anus and other fearful juju-marabou objects).

In Ghana under Gen. Acheampong, juju-marabou and other negative spiritualists ruled so much that the country was run aground. A former senior Ghanaian military officer told me Gen. Acheampong, who was told by some juju-marabou mediums to swim in one of the rivers in Accra every midnight to ward off being overthrown, had some sort of juju pot, containing some fearful potions and charms, hanging by itself, through juju-marabou means, in his office at the Osu Castle in Accra. During the “invasion” (as Acheampong terms it) at the Castle by the top military officers who had gone there to over throw him because of the state of the nation, Gen. Odartey Wellington, who was later killed by the Rawlings group, is said to have smashed the hanging juju-marabou pot into pieces, ranting at Acheampong that while Ghana is running aground and “the people are in torment you dabbling in juju and listening to what the people are saying.” Like Gen. Abacha, Acheampong brought spiritual mediums from far and near. An American white necromancer, imported by Acheampong to whip the superstitious and gullible instinct of Ghanaians told Ghanaians how Gen. Acheampong is “God sent.” (Juju and marabou men and women and witchdoctors had Samuel Doe the same and he preached this anytime he has chance to do so). Like Doe and other West African military leaders blinded by juju, marabou and witchcraft, Gen. Acheampong run Ghana aground and was subsequently executed (Sources close to the Acheampong regime told me that, Acheampong, himself as bloodthirsty as other West African military leaders, spared the lives of the numerous military officers and civilians who attempted to overthrow him plainly because some of his juju-marabou mediums told him that if he execute anybody his government will be overthrown within days).

At this juncture, it is important to note that when the senior officers who went to topple Gen. Kutu Acheampong went to his office to remove him there was a marabou with him. The point here is that why didn’t the marabou tell him that some officers were on their way to overthrow him?

For some time now West Africans have been talking about moral decay in the region. Values are going down. Respect is no more. Small arms are the play toys in the region. Despite going through terrible civil war, Freetown is safer than Accra largely because there are huge UN troops there. In Nigeria, the government has been talking about the implications of crime to foreign and domestic investment as the scourge of armed rubbery and ‘419’ disturb the country. In Ghana, Rawlings popularized marijuana smoking and experts argue that he is largely responsible for the mass indiscipline in country. During Acheampong’s regime there were talks of the head of state having sex at the Osu Castle and giving his numerous mistresses Golf cars and foolishly ordering banks, against banking rules, to give loans to his women. In Liberia, Gen. Doe after gulping a bottle whisky in front of some his numerous “sweethearts,” as they call girlfriends in Liberia, will rant, “I go die, I go die, I go die.” In Nigeria, Gen. Babangida was said to be so arrogant and deceitful that it formed the basis of the Gideon Okar’s bloody coup attempt. That Nigeria suffers from acute indiscipline can be traced to the long-running military rule. In Sierra Leone the military and rebels left in their wake armed robbery, a thing earlier unknown in the country. There are generally high incidences of corruption in West Africa largely because of its long-running military regimes.

The West African military’s stifling of the regions development reflects the mind of West Africa. Some important part of the West African mind, as its military reveal, has gone over into a territory of massive superstition and gullibility and denial of reality. In the battle between the scientific side of the West African military mind--which demands objectivity--and the brain’s mythopoeic magic, juju/marabou thinking side, the mythopoeic side wins. West Africa is the leading region in Africa of juju/marabous practices and has some of the most prominent juju-men/women and marabous. And can be said to the leading area of irrationality--just look at developments in the region. The region is so infested with juju/marabou and witchcraft culture that its leaders, as its military regimes have demonstrated over the years, and their opponents employ it as propaganda tool, among others, to induce fear—Gen. Eyadema and Togo and Gen. Kerekou and Benin Republic are cases in point. It is common to hear the West African interpreting anything bad or good in witchcraft or juju or marabou terms, or suspecting such no matter the person's education level (Most senior military offices in West Africa are highly educated).

How can West Africa, ever prone to coups and instabilities, totally deal with its untrustful military? Or does it lack defence experts to advise them with how to deal with its coup-minded military? Should the region go the Sierra Leone way (as is about to happen in Liberia) by asking for large UN troops to be stationed there to ward off threats of military coups? Or as the Ghanaian police force is doing in fighting armed robbery, by implicating juju-marabou and other spiritual mediums who assist coup plotters in treasonable charges to send a message to juju-marabou mediums who help in coup and other instability?

Mr. Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, a contributing editor of the London, U.K-based West Africa magazine and Africa-Affairs editor of the Paris, France-based www.expotimes.com, is described as Africa’s leading development journalist.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi