In the first two decades of African independence, there were some forty successful coups and countless attempted coups. In 1967 a 27-year-old Ghanaian army lieutenant, Sam Arthur, finding himself in temporary command of an armoured car unit, decided on an attempt to seize power because, he later confessed, he wanted to ‘make history’ by becoming the first lieutenant successfully to organise a coup. The coup attempt was given the name ‘Operation Guitar Boy’. Arthur’s armoured car unit drove into Accra but failed to gain control.
Many coups were accomplished without violence. Some countries even established a tradition of peaceful coups. In Dahomey – later renamed Benin – all six coups after independence were bloodless. In Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), where political activity was confined to such a small elite that incoming ministers tended to be related to those who had just been thrown out, politicians took pride in the fact that no one had ever been killed for political reasons. There was considerable disquiet, therefore, when, during the country’s fourth coup in 1982, rival army factions clashed; shooting had never occurred before.
Whatever their real reasons for seizing power, coup leaders invariably stressed the strictly temporary nature of military rule. All they required, they said, was sufficient time to clear up the morass of corruption, mismanagement, tribalism, nepotism and other assorted malpractices they claimed had prompted them to intervene and restore honest and efficient government and national integrity.
Some attempts were indeed made to return to civilian rule. The generals who overthrew Kwame Nkrumah stayed in power for only three years, taking no serious initiatives other than to increase the pay of soldiers, before handing back control to politicians. The next civilian government, however, encumbered by massive debts from the Nkrumah era, undermined by falling cocoa prices on the world market and pummelled by inflation and strikes, lasted for only three years before the army stepped in again. The next military ruler, General Ignatius Acheampong, ran a regime that was so corrupt that the army eventually removed him, installing another general. Just weeks before new elections were due to be held in 1979, a new phenomenon arose. A group of junior officers led by a 32-year-old air force officer, Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, seized power and embarked on what was described as a ‘house-cleaning exercise’. Eight senior officers, including three former heads of state, were executed by firing squad; traders accused of profiteering were publicly flogged; the main market in Accra was razed to the ground; and impromptu People’s Courts were set up to deal with scores of army officers and businessmen accused of corruption and malpractice. Rawlings then handed power over to the politicians. But only three years later he was back, staging a second coming in 1982. By then, after twenty-five years of mismanagement, plunder and corruption, Ghana had become a wasteland, a society that was crumbling in ruins at every level.
In Nigeria, after thirteen years of military government, General Olusegun Obasanjo presided over elections in 1979 reinstating civilian rule in what seemed to be propitious circumstances. Under a new constitution, Nigeria was divided into a federation of nineteen states, reducing the risk of polarisation between the country’s three main ethnic groups and allowing some minority groups their own representation. The new federal structure consisted of four predominantly Hausa-Fulani states, four Yoruba, two Igbo and nine ethnic minority states. Furthermore, the constitution required political parties to demonstrate a broad national presence before they could qualify for registration. Launching the new system, Obasanjo made clear he wanted no return to past practices. ‘Political recruitment and subsequent political support which are based on tribal, religious and linguistic sentiments contributed largely to our past misfortune,’ he said. ‘They must not be allowed to spring up again. Those negative political attitudes like hatred, falsehood, intolerance and acrimony also contributed to our national tragedy in the past: they must not be continued.’
The election in 1979 was held in relatively calm conditions. It was won by the National Party of Nigeria, a northern-based party which drew support from Yoruba, Igbo and minority groups alike. Its leader, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, was a mild-mannered, unassuming and ascetic politician from a northern Fulani family, inclined to seek consensus. Though the election aroused the old ethnic tensions and rivalries that had wrecked the First Republic, they were more diffused than before. What seemed especially promising were Nigeria’s economic prospects. By 1979 Nigeria had become the world’s sixth largest oil producer, with revenues soaring to $24 billion a year.
Such riches, however, set off a vicious scramble for political office and the wealth that went with it. Access to the government spending process became the gateway to fortune. Patronage politics and corruption reached new heights. The press spoke of ‘the politics of bickerings, mudslingings . . . lies, deceit, vindictiveness, strife and intolerance that are again creeping back into the country’s political scene’. Addressing the annual conference of the Nigerian Political Science Association in 1981, Claude Ake observed:
We are intoxicated with politics; the premium on political power is so high that we are prone to take the most extreme measures to win and to maintain political power . . .
As things stand now, the Nigerian state appears to intervene everywhere and to own virtually everything including access to status and wealth. Inevitably a desperate struggle to win control of state power ensues since this control means for all practical purposes being all powerful and owning everything. Politics becomes warfare, a matter of life and death.
Foremost in the scramble were Shagari’s associates. Renowned for venality, Shagari’s administration was termed ‘a government of contractors, for contractors and by contractors’. According to Larry Diamond, an American expert on Nigeria, ‘the meetings of his cabinet and party councils became grand bazaars where the resources of the state were put up for auction’. The expected kickbacks on contracts rose to 50 per cent. An official enquiry in 1980 established that the cost of government contracts, inflated by kickbacks, was 200 per cent higher than in Kenya. Another enquiry found that the costs of construction in Nigeria were three times higher than in East Africa or North Africa and four times higher than in Asia.
When the oil boom came to an end, the economy plunged into recession, government projects were abandoned, unemployment soared. State governments became unable to pay teachers and civil servants or to purchase drugs for hospitals. But among the elite, the scramble went on. Visiting Nigeria on the eve of elections, Larry Diamond recorded: ‘Everywhere one turned in 1983, the economy seemed on the edge of collapse. Still the politicians and contractors continued to bribe, steal, smuggle and speculate, accumulating vast illicit fortunes and displaying them lavishly in stunning disregard for public sensitivities.’
The elections in 1983 were conducted with such massive rigging and fraud that even hardened observers of Nigeria were astonished. Shagari, being the incumbent, won a second term, but as Nigeria descended into anarchy, the generals took control once more. ‘Democracy had been in jeopardy for the past four years,’ remarked a former army chief of staff. ‘It died with the elections. The army only buried it.’
‘The trouble with Nigeria,’ wrote the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, in 1983, ‘is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.’
There were a few military regimes that were noted for ruling effectively and for their efforts to root out corruption. In Togo, General Eyadéma, the former French army sergeant who had taken part in the assassination of President Olympio in 1963 and who seized power four years later, achieved a degree of stability rare in West Africa. In Niger, Colonel Seyni Kountché, after overthrowing Hamani Diori’s corrupt regime in 1974, demanded efficiency and discipline and dealt swiftly with anyone who did not comply, caring little whether his regime was popular or not. But Africa’s military rulers generally turned out to be no more competent, no more immune to the temptation of corruption, and no more willing to give up power than the regimes they had overthrown. And amid the hurly-burly of coups and revolutions that afflicted Africa came the tyrants.
In Zanzibar, Abeid Karume’s regime, set up after the 1964 revolution against the ruling Arab elite, was bizarre and vindictive from the outset. A former merchant seaman, once proud to have served as an oarsman for the Sultan’s ceremonial barge, Karume had little formal education but had gained popularity in the run-up to independence in 1963 as leader of the Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP), drawing support from African labourers, fishermen, farmhands and craftsmen occupying the lower rungs of Zanzibar society. In the last election before independence the ASP gained a majority of total votes cast, taking some 54 per cent, but won only a minority of seats. The result intensified deep-rooted racial animosity between Arab and African inhabitants, culminating in revolution and the emergence of Karume as head of a Revolutionary Council.
Once in power, Karume acted swiftly to crush the Arab community. The Revolutionary Council ordered arrests, imprisonment without trial, torture and execution as it saw fit and seized property and plantations at will. Thousands of Arabs were forcibly deported, packed into dhows, some old and unseaworthy, and sent to the Arabian Gulf. A British port official witnessed how the first three dhows were crammed with 450 Arab deportees given only 600 gallons of water for a journey expected to last anything from three to six weeks. A deserted, forlorn air settled over the narrow streets and alleys of Stone Town, once filled with thriving shops and businesses. A correspondent wrote of the Arab community in 1965: ‘They have lost the arrogance typical of their ruling days. Their shyness, their unobtrusive gait as they shuffle along the narrow lanes . . . gives the centre of the town the atmosphere of a ghetto.’
The prosperous Asian community, numbering 20,000, whom the sultan had encouraged to settle in Zanzibar, survived the revolution largely intact, but they too became the target of victimisation. Asian civil servants were abruptly sacked; their special schools were closed. Asians accused of minor offences were publicly flogged. When four young Persian girls refused to marry the elderly Karume, he ordered the arrest of ten of their male relatives for ‘hindering the implementation of mixed marriages’, and threatened to deport both the men and the hundred-odd members of the Persian Ithnasheri sect to which they belonged. President Nyerere prevailed on him to drop the charges, but a few months later, four other Persian girls were forced to marry elderly members of the Revolutionary Council; and eleven of their male relatives were ordered by a ‘people’s court’ judge to be imprisoned and flogged. ‘In colonial times the Arabs took African concubines without bothering to marry them,’ said Karume. ‘Now that we are in power, the shoe is on the other foot.’
The population at large was subjected to dictatorial control. Ruling by decree, Karume declared a one-party state and ordered all adult Zanzibaris to sign up as members of the ASP. A picture of Karume had to be displayed in every home. His security service, trained by East Germans, was given powers to arrest, torture and imprison without trial. Anyone who complained, even about food or consumer shortages, was liable to be denounced as an ‘enemy of the revolution’. Karume also set up his own courts to deal with ‘political’ offences, appointing judges with powers to hand out death sentences from which the only right of appeal was to himself.
Distrustful of intellectuals and disliking experts, he soon fell out with Marxist members of the Revolutionary Council. Two former members accused of plotting against him were executed. Though given to making long rambling speeches, he never developed a coherent policy. More and more came to depend on his erratic and capricious personality. He banned contraceptives; forced ‘volunteers’ to undertake farmwork; closed private clubs and abolished private business and trading enterprises. He expelled staff from the World Health Organisation and suspended malaria-control programmes on the grounds that Africans were ‘malaria-proof ’, precipitating a huge surge in malaria.
His attitude towards government expenditure was equally bizarre. As a result of sharp increases in the price of cloves from 1965, Zanzibar gained substantial foreign reserves. But rather than spend the reserves on development projects or on much-needed imported goods like medicines, Karume preferred to hoard them. He insisted that Zanzibar should become self-sufficient. So while the exchequer bulged with funds, hospitals and clinics were chronically short of drugs, and basic supplies of rice, flour and sugar were rationed.
Karume’s end came in 1972 when an army officer bearing a personal grudge shot him dead as he was relaxing with friends on the ground floor of party headquarters, drinking coffee and playing bao, a Swahili game akin to draughts. Large crowds turned out for his funeral, but they were noticeably subdued.
Jean-Bedel Bokassa’s career as dictator of the Central African Republic combined not only extreme greed and personal violence but delusions of grandeur unsurpassed by any other African leader. His excesses included seventeen wives, a score of mistresses and an official brood of fifty-five children. He was prone to towering rages as well as outbursts of sentimentality; and he also gained a reputation for cannibalism.
From an early age, Bokassa’s life was affected by violence. When he was six years old, his father, a petty chief in the village of Boubangui, was beaten to death at the local French prefect’s office for protesting against forced labour. His distraught mother killed herself a week later, leaving a family of twelve children as orphans. Raised by a grandfather and educated at mission schools, he was constantly taunted by other children about the fate of his unfortunate parents. After completing secondary education, he enlisted in the French army, receiving twelve citations for bravery in combat during the Second World War and in Indo-China, including the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre. French officers, while recognising his courage under fire, also knew him to be a vain and capricious personality. But in the rush to independence, Bokassa gained rapid promotion. After serving as a sergeant for seventeen years, he left the French army in 1961 with the rank of captain and was given the task of helping to set up a national army. Three years later, at the age of forty-two, he was appointed chief of staff of the CAR’s 500-man army.
Bokassa seized power on 31 December 1965, after learning that President David Dacko, a cousin, intended to replace him. Initially Bokassa’s regime was not especially brutal. A former minister was beaten to death because he was deemed not to have shown enough respect to the army in the past. A former head of internal security was executed with extreme cruelty. Dacko was held in solitary confinement for three years. Political prisoners and inmates in Ngaragba prison in Bangui were routinely tortured or beaten on Bokassa’s orders, their cries clearly audible to nearby residents. But otherwise Bokassa’s preoccupation was to enjoy the pomp and power of office and to amass a fortune for himself.
He liked to describe himself as an ‘absolute monarch’ and forbade mention of the words democracy and elections. He promoted himself first to the rank of general and then to marshal, for ‘supreme services to the State’. For public appearances he insisted on wearing so many medals and awards that special uniforms had to be designed for him to accommodate them. He delighted in naming after himself a host of schools, hospitals, clinics, roads and development projects as well as Bangui’s new university. The front page of every school exercise book in the entire country was adorned with his picture. He adored the ceremony of state visits and toured the world a number of times, taking with him large retinues of assistants and distributing gifts of diamonds to his hosts.
His every whim became government policy. He himself held twelve ministerial portfolios and interfered in all the others. He controlled all decision-making, every promotion or demotion, every reward or punishment. Ministers were shuffled with monotonous regularity, as often as six times a year, to ensure that they did not become a threat. As the telephone system in Bangui hardly functioned, all government offices were required to keep their radios switched on in order to hear intermittent instructions sent directly from the presidential office. Development projects were sometimes started with sudden enthusiasm, then abandoned when Bokassa’s interest dwindled and the money was needed for another new idea. In a fit of pique about Bangui’s poor airline connections, he decided that a national airline should be established: Air Centrafrique was duly set up, then promptly collapsed after a few flights.
Using government funds at will and fortunes he made from diamond and ivory deals, Bokassa acquired a whole string of valuable properties in Europe, including four chateaux in France, a fifty-room mansion in Paris, houses in Nice and Toulouse and a villa in Berne. He built a huge ‘ancestral home’ at Berengo, fifty miles from Bangui, and ordered a motorway to be built to it. The presidential estate there included private houses and apartments for foreign visitors furnished with reproduction antique furniture and gilt mirrors.
He permitted government ministers to make their own fortunes, occasionally chiding them for excessive greed, but willing to overlook corruption when it suited him. He also pampered the army with large salaries and sophisticated equipment and allowed officers to engage in commercial activities, recognising that his hold on power depended on the army’s loyalty. Defence expenditure doubled between 1967 and 1969, and remained the second largest item in the budget. He packed the Presidential Guard with members of his own Mbaka tribe, mainly from his own village, providing them with the best uniforms and equipment. The government’s finances were accordingly chaotic. No proper records were kept; budgets were ignored in favour of ad-hoc spending. Civil service salaries were often three or four months in arrears.
His sexual proclivities were voracious. He installed wives and mistresses in separate residences, leaving his palace several times each day to pay them visits, holding up traffic on the way. His principal wife, Catherine, a strikingly attractive woman whom he first spotted at the age of thirteen, lived in the Villa Nasser and owned a fashionable boutique in the city centre. Another favourite, La Roumaine, a blonde cabaret dancer whom he met on a visit to a nightclub in Bucharest, lived in the Villa Kolongo, a palatial residence on the banks of the Oubangui river, surrounded by tropical gardens with courtyards, pools and fountains. Most of his wives tended to be known by their nationality; they included the German, the Swede, the Cameroonian, the Chinese, the Gabonese, the Tunisienne, and the Ivorienne. He was proud of his conquests. ‘I did it like everyone,’ he said in an interview in 1984. ‘In Formosa, for example, I hustled the most beautiful woman in the country whom I later married. In Bucharest, the most beautiful woman in Romania; in Libreville, the most beautiful woman in Gabon . . . and so on. My criterion was beauty.’
He spent considerable effort tracking down a daughter named Martine born to a Vietnamese wife he married in Saigon in 1953. The first Martine to arrive in Bangui turned out to be an impostor. Nevertheless, to show his magnanimity, Bokassa adopted her. Then the real Martine was found working in a cement factory in Vietnam. Bokassa offered both of them in marriage via a kind of public auction. The eventual winners were a doctor and an army officer. Bokassa joyfully presided over a double wedding held in the cathedral, attended by several African heads of state. For the fake Martine, the marriage was to end in disaster. Her husband was involved in an assassination attempt on Bokassa and executed. A few hours after his death, she gave birth to a baby boy. The infant was taken away and murdered.
The French, keen to ensure that the Central African Republic remained within the French orbit, continued to underwrite Bokassa’s regime with financial and military support. In wayward moods, Bokassa frequently picked quarrels with them, occasionally threatening to leave the French fold. In 1969 he announced a ‘Move to the East’ and proclaimed scientific socialism as the government’s goal, expecting rewards to flow from the Eastern bloc, but when they failed to materialise, he reversed course. He abruptly converted to Islam, taking the name Salah Addin Ahmed Bokassa, hoping for Arab funds, but disappointed by the result soon reverted to the Catholic Church.
Despite the quarrels, Bokassa’s attachment to France remained profound. He worshipped de Gaulle, addressing him as ‘Papa’ even after he had become president. The greatest moment of his life, he once said, was when he was decorated by de Gaulle in person. During de Gaulle’s funeral, he was inconsolable. ‘Mon père, mon papa,’ he sobbed in front of de Gaulle’s widow. ‘I lost my natural father when I was a child. Now I have lost my adoptive father as well. I am an orphan again.’ Bokassa also struck up a warm friendship with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing – ‘a dear cousin’ – putting a wildlife reserve at his disposal for him to hunt every year and plying him with generous gifts of diamonds. Bokassa estimated that Giscard personally killed some fifty elephants and countless other animals during the 1970s.
It was during Giscard’s presidency that the French indulged Bokassa’s greatest folie de grandeur. In an attempt to emulate Napoleon, whom he described as his ‘guide and inspiration’, Bokassa declared the Central African Republic an empire and himself emperor of its 2 million subjects and made elaborate arrangements for his own coronation, using as a model the ceremony in which Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France in 1804. From France he ordered all the trappings of a monarchy: a crown of diamonds; an imperial throne, shaped like a golden eagle; an antique coach; thoroughbred horses; coronation robes; brass helmets and breastplates for the Imperial Guard; tons of food, wine, fireworks and flowers for the festivities and sixty Mercedes-Benz cars for the guests.