Propaganda, emotions and time: The ABCs of Africa’s 21st century coups

Propaganda, emotions and time: The ABCs of Africa’s 21st century coups
Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan (photo credit: Getty Images)

Sudan is still reeling from the unprecedented shock of a military takeover where the army wing of a shared transitional government arrested civilian leaders and dissolved the council- the main power-sharing axis.

Even though the bloodless coup had no casualties, and the orchestrators may have done it smoothly without confrontation; the fact remains that Sudanese civilian leadership led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has no grip of power. They are dislodged. 

It was a suave operation with no destructive endings but with psychological ramifications- one that typifies a modern-day coup with no gunfire and bloodshed.

The City Review analyses the guidebook for a modern-day military seizure of power and explores why timelines and mind games are irreducible factors for the coup plotters. 

First six hours significant

On October 25, 2021, from around 5:35 am to 6:35 am, the international media like CNN, BBC and Aljazeera gave faint but viral news reports that a military takeover was looming in Khartoum, Sudan. 

The media outlets quoted some Sudanese media reporting that the military officers had also arrested some members of the cabinet and whisked them to jail.

An analysis by CNN indicated that images of military officers surrounding the residence of Dr Hamdok were seen and upon conducting an aviation search on Khartoum flights, the hits returned no flights coming from the Sudanese capital. CNN added that there was only one flight heading to Khartoum of which it remained unclear whether passengers would be allowed to disembark.

At around 11.30 am CAT, Sudan’s top military personnel Gen Abdel Fattah Burhan started the dissolution of the civilian rule terming the decision ‘‘safe for the country’’. He also declared a state of emergency. The military had wrapped up the seizure in six hours as Al-Burhan heaped blames on the civilians for ‘‘engaging in infighting and attempting to trigger divisions in the military’’.

Past attempts

Sudan had been battling the ghost of a foiled coup attempt on September 21, 2021, where the country’s military came public with a statement declaring victory over an attempted coup hours after the plan was hatched by the critics of the government. 

After the media picked the reports, and the images from Khartoum went viral, the Sudanese government came out six hours later to declare victory over the coup. They described them as military officials and civilians who are the sympathisers of the fallen regime of autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

“A failed coup attempt, led by a group of armed forces officers and civilians from the former regime was contained at dawn,” Information Minister Hamza Baloul told the country’s state television.

“Eleven officers and several soldiers who participated in the failed plot were arrested, the army reported, and Mr Baloul assured that the situation was now “under control”, while the state media broadcast patriotic songs.

In the same month, on September 5, Guinea’s President Alpha Condé was overthrown by the army which blamed his regime for rampant corruption, disregard for human rights and economic mismanagement.

And again, it took almost six to seven hours to define the successors of Col Mamady Doumbouya.

In 2017, the Zimbabwean military led by the current President Emmerson Mnangagwa plotted a successful ouster of President Robert Mugabe after decades of leading the Southern African country.  

Mr Mugabe was put under house arrest by the military leadership which made the then 93-year-old leader resign. They accused him of attempting to clear the way for his wife Grace Mugabe to succeed him as a president.

After his resignation announcement, lawmakers and the public roared in joyousness.

In May 2021, army officers in Mali led a coup against the president and prime minister to assume the vice-president position in the country.

The officers who led the coup, Col Assimi Goïta, accused President Bah Ndaw and PM Moctar Ouane of failing in their duties adding that the two were seeking to sabotage the country’s transition.

They were arrested hours after a government reshuffle which saw two senior army officers replaced within 6-7 hours.

Col Goïta announced plans for elections as it was expected to in 2018-year time.

Military coups have been a regular incidence in Africa in the years since self-determination and there is a new concern that they are becoming more.

Beyond the hours

Besides the pertinence of hours which necessitate that the plotters have to act quickly and avoid the possibility of a counter mechanism, the military power involves propaganda and whipping of public emotions.

While the military power taken over is synonymous with the face of the organised forces as the protagonists effecting the changes, analysts argue that the military coups serve various interests where some individuals front their ideas anonymously. 

For instance, in his piece titled ‘‘anyone planning a coup should read this’’, published by Washington Post on September 10, 2015; Kim Yi Dionne argues that the military personnel is normally reduced to puppets for the power takeover to roll out a system that can serve the interest of the plotters. 

Kim notes: ‘‘How do coup-makers convince others their coup attempt will be successful? They convince military actors that the success of the coup has the support of almost everybody in the military and that any possible resistance is minor. One way coup makers have done this is by seizing the main radio broadcast facility’’.

As for which analyses the coups, on rare occasions do junior officers participate in the coup because of lack of influence. However, if the officers participate, there must be some ‘‘powerful plotters’’ to convince the executors of the importance of the move and its success chances.

‘‘Coups are secretive and premeditated plans shared by an exclusive group of plotters. Most coups are organized at the highest military ranks, though some emerge within the cabinet or ruling committee. Small groups of junior officers also execute coups, though these are less common and less likely to succeed,’’ it states partly on the coup plotting.

The two sources also argue that the coup orchestrators use the propaganda tool to justify their move and subsequently reduce the negative reactions that ensue after the ouster.