Typologies of Coups in Africa

Published on 8th December 2015

The belief that there has never been a coup in Zambia arises from the fact that there has not been any analysis about the typologies of coups that are possible and in fact happen. There have been two coups in Zambia, though they have not been recognized as such because only one type of coup has been identified in the scholarship and that is the military coup. Africa has seen many violent military coups. It has been the main route of regime change, particularly in West Africa.

Some of the military coups are externally supported or induced, like those in Ghana in 1966 (the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah) and Congo in 1961 that overthrew Patrice Lumumba. Nigeria and Ghana had so many military coups you would think they were competing against each other. Military dictatorships ensured that there would be no other means of regime change except through another military coup.

But there has been another kind of coup that has not been recognized and that has been the typology in Zambia and Tanzania and other countries: the coup of the one party state rulership. The fact that this type of coup did not involve violence is immaterial as this coup altered the fundamentals of political dynamics, civil liberties, modes of governance and regime change. These coups were initiated from above without any referendum or popular vote. People got detained who may have won a popular vote or referendum if one were held. These coups were a continuation of the regime that was already in power albeit splintered. Zambia, Tanzania, Malawi and other countries like Kenya were typical examples of one party state coups.

Zambia returned to multiparty democracy after the peaceful overthrow of the one party state- coup of 1972  in 1991. The second coup in Zambia happened peacefully under President Chiluba when he brazenly rigged the elections of 2001. Chiluba openly stated on Voice of America in an interview with Shaka that he rigged the elections of 2001 in which President Mwanawasa was declared the President. Rigging an election by the ruling regime is a coup as possibly power and governance would have changed hands. Of course politics is dirty as the colonialists used to remind us but any means allegedly justifies the end. Politics is not for the faint of heart. But rigging as a coup should be recognized for what it is:  a coup by the ruling party in order to perpetuate itself in power. This kind of coup is what is keeping President Mugabe in power as he clearly lost one election to Morgan Tsangirai.

In Ivory Coast, another previous one party state-ruled coup, became embroiled in another attempt to engineer another type of coup, which is to simply ignore the election results and stay in power through violent means. Violence there in Ivory Coast did not succeed and the leader ended up in the clutches of the International Criminal Court and for a term of long imprisonment.

There is yet another type of coup which is succeeding in Rwanda where a regime has bribed its legislators to change the constitution and allow the leader to extend the two-term limit that had previously been constitutionalized. He borrowed the leaf from President Museveni in Uganda. Chiluba attempted it in Zambia in 2000/01 and that led to the emergence of the Patriotic Front (PF). What Kagame in Rwanda has achieved, failed in Zambia, Nigeria, Namibia and other places. It may succeed in Congo Democratic Republic. In Burundi, this type of coup was imposed by violence recently.

There is yet another type of coup which is a reaction to lack of democracy as experienced in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the past decade: mass uprising tinged with religiosity. These mass peoples coups are inevitable.

Military coups of the violent types are becoming rarer and rarer in Africa. What Africa must guard against are coups from above, by ruling regimes rigging elections or perpetrating violence against the opposition especially during the election period so that they can maintain themselves in power. Each episode of violence must be accurately recorded by the opposition and civil society for use at the International Criminal Court or the African Court of Human Rights or other tribunal. The Supreme Courts of African countries, or anywhere for that matter have been reluctant and understandably so, to overturn election results, rigged or obtained through violence. This is not a theoretical exposition and it rejects in advance any knee-jerk reaction from the reader that is not based on cool-headed analysis and contemplation but powered by political emotions, laziness, greediness and tribal insults.


By Dr. Munyonzwe Hamalengwa

Dr. Munyonzwe Hamalengwa practiced law in Canada for 25 years and is the author among other works of Class Struggles in Zambia, 1889-1989 and the Fall of Kenneth Kaunda, 1989-1991 (Latham: University Press of America, 1992)


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