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'Bonapartism' infects, leads to military coups in Africa

'Bonapartism' infects, leads to military coups in Africa

Is the US doing enough to ensure that security assistance isn’t making the problem worse?

Analysis | Africa

When Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d’état to oust the civilian government of the Directorate in France, he justified his actions as necessary to save the spirit of the Revolution. The army, in Napoleon’s view, had a solemn obligation to defend the nation against threats both at home and abroad.

The notion that a military, as guardians of a national spirit, has the right to seize the authority of the state became known as Bonapartism. This seemingly persistent belief in certain militaries in Africa emphasizes the need for comprehensive reform.

Military regimes can perceive themselves to be better at governance than civilians. The simplicity of efficiently carrying out orders stands in stark contrast to the seemingly endless bureaucracy impeded by incompetence and corruption. In crises where politics leads to impasses in service delivery, the military’s projection as being “above politics” can help it seize and keep power in fragile states.

Despite the anti-French rhetoric of coup leaders in Africa, many of them nonetheless invoke this spirit of Bonapartism in acting to “save” the state. As the French Revolution began to eat itself under the Reign of Terror, for Napoleon the only means to preserve the Revolution was for its defenders to remove the civilian leadership by force.

This was no singular event. Several times in the 19th and 20th centuries, the French army forced dramatic changes in the state whenever the national spirit had been challenged. Bonapartism furthermore formed a significant part of military formation in France’s colonies, particularly in Africa.

The problem with Bonapartism is that it has greatly undermined attempts to professionalize security forces. When we speak of professional soldiers outside of a (former) colonial setting, we mean a trained soldier who readily accepts and defends civilian authority. Such a situation is so taken for granted today that we do not always appreciate how necessary this is for a thriving democracy.

If a military perceives itself to be better, more competent, or in some way less fallible than the civilian government, then a risk of Bonapartism can persist regardless of how well trained they might be. U.S. training of officers, such as those in Niger, may unintentionally lead to a growing confidence in the military about their competence and increase the risk of a takeover.

The officers leading the coups in Niger and Gabon cite persistent civilian misrule, aided in no small part by continued French dominance in domestic political and economic policies in both countries, as the primary justification for their intervention. They present themselves as acting in the best interests of the nations they are nominally intended to protect. Seizing power away from incompetent civilians is merely a continuation of their duty.

Scenes of crowds celebrating the removal of decades-long dictatorships do indicate at least a modicum of legitimacy for the military’s actions in Gabon. Many coup leaders across Africa have justified their actions on the demonstrable misrule by civilian governments. In almost every scenario, however, the coup leaders merely became the new dictators. These actions further emulate Napoleon’s hold on power, although few did so as blatantly as Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, who declared himself Emperor 4 December 1977.

Bonapartism is not solely a francophone problem and can exist in any state with weak democratic institutions. In the cases of Zimbabwe and Egypt, despite the civilian façade, the spirit of Bonapartism still lingers. For both states, the military has long been the true source of the state’s authority.

Zimbabwe’s elections are a mere formality, a political tradition rather than any substantive effort to change the civilian authority. Aside from the Egyptian military’s brief foray into relinquishing power to the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012, the civilian leadership serves at the pleasure of the military, not the electorate. When the military felt that Egypt was at risk under the leadership of the Brotherhood, they acted to save the state by retaking authority, a quintessential Bonapartist action.

The coup in Sudan that ousted Omar al-Bashir was a remarkably similar instance of a military acting to change the civilian leadership during a crisis. However, the current infighting among senior officers points to an entirely different matter. It’s actually a misnomer to refer to states like Sudan as “weak.” Rather, the problem lies in the fact that the state is too powerful in relation to other aspects of the society, particularly the economy.

Such states are the ‘only game in town’ in terms of attaining mobility, income, and basic security. Fights over who controls the state become so violent because of a lack of options. As long as other sectors remain underdeveloped, the risks of coups will persist. In such cases, it may well be counter-productive to invest too much in the militaries, and making control of the military all the more tempting.

There are steps the African Union and other international bodies can take to militate against Bonapartism. The first concerns the AU’s Lomé Declaration of 2000, which established a norm against unconstitutional regime changes by stating that any extra constitutional changes in a government is grounds for immediate suspension. In practice, this commitment has been far from rock solid, with the AU making numerous exceptions over the years.

Moreover, tougher penalties could be applied, especially in the form of mandating Security Sector Reform (SSR) as necessary processes to return to the AU.

SSR entails a comprehensive overhaul of a state’s security sector. The security sector includes not only the military but also the police, judiciary, and any intelligence services. Importantly, SSR requires more than mere training, as the Niger and Burkina Faso cases demonstrate. Therein lies the rub of military governance and strengthening democracies: the only body with the authority to restructure the military is the military itself.

Save for the odd counter-example, democratic promises by army officers have rarely been realized. Even in instances where elections have been held, the military nonetheless retains inordinate influence over the civilian leadership, and the threat of future coups persists.

SSR is neither cheap nor easy to adequately implement. One of the most important factors is rewriting a constitution with sufficient judicial strength to ensure that an elected legislative body has the ultimate authority over all security forces. Doing so must result in the end of Bonapartism for the military and the conclusion that they are not the sole nor ultimate defenders of the nation.

The rush to hold elections after a coup is often seen as an act of good faith by coup-leaders to return a country to democracy. However, to be a democracy does not only mean having elections, as democracy contains a set of values, including civilian oversight and regulation of all coercive forces in a state.

Every soldier needs to be educated on the importance of civilian leadership as they are far more likely to know what is in the best interests of the civilian population than a general. Military training by foreign experts without complementary democracy training is, as Niger bears out, counter-productive to the overall mission objectives of combating Islamist insurgencies. US foreign military training reportedly includes instruction on safeguarding democracy and human rights.

While US policy is to immediately halt all military aid following a coup, the policy has not always been strictly enforced, more rigorous enforcement may be more effective in the long term. These recent coups raise the difficult question on the efficacy of democracy and human rights training for militaries who are evidently not receptive to the message.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte attempted a similar overthrow of a civilian government as his more illustrious uncle in 1851. This more foolhardy power grab led Karl Marx to quip that “history repeats itself, the first as tragedy, the second as farce.” Unless the right lessons are learned, the Bonapartism lurking in African militaries will continue the tragedy of military rule.

Napoleon's Return from Elba, by Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben. (1818)(Public Domain)
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