A coup for democracy?

Whilst I lived in The Gambia I longed to receive a text message telling me that a coup had happened in the capital city of Banjul. I never received one. Why did I want a coup to happen? Was it a selfish desire for excitement, a way to shake up monotonous village life? Probably. But it was also a desire for change in a system which appeared stagnant, in a system where the president would wallow in power indefinitely unless something or somebody forced him out.

new yorker

But would a coup bring about change? The current president Yahya Jammeh had himself come to power in a coup in 1994. A Gambian Catch 22 – things won’t change unless there is a coup, things don’t change when there is a coup. Is the only choice for a country with no history of representative democracy between those who use coups and others who use coups?

There has obviously been change in The Gambia in the past twenty years and many people I spoke to in The Gambia commended the current president for being better than the previous incumbent. The country had changed substantially during Jammeh’s reign, yet the system of a government and the level of political freedom among the population is as it had ever been. President Obama recently said “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.”  Those strong institutions are seriously lacking in The Gambia. It also doesn’t help that Obama shakes the hand of these unneeded strong men giving them legitimacy.

Can you have a coup for democracy?

It seems unlikely that somebody who gains power through a coup will abdicate power through the ballot box. If you look to Nigeria as an example of a country that transitioned from military rule to a democracy that adheres to term limits for leaders, you can see that the transition to democracy came about under the leadership of General Abubakar who had gained power not through a coup but due to the death of his predecessor.

Rather than wishing for a coup, I should have been wishing for a change in leadership due to illness or death from natural causes. It might not be as exciting but it would more likely bring about stable democracy.


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