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The generals might deliver, but military rule is not the solution

By Kamotho Waiganjo | October 30th 2021

Protest in Sudan after Military Coup.

The week’s coup in Sudan points to a worrying trend in governance where militaries, sometimes after being incorporated into civilian governance, are rejecting the barracks as their only locus in public life.

In April, the military in Myanmar, formerly Burma, overthrew the elected government in which they were a principal partner. They jailed the leader, Nobel Prize Winner Aung Sang Syu Kyi, and have continued to run the country, the wrath of the regional and international community notwithstanding.

But it is in Africa, where the trend, forgotten since the numerous coups of the 70s, has resurfaced with worrying regularity. In August, the Malian military took over the troubled nation and imprisoned many in the civilian government. They have since refused to return to the barracks, despite pressure from Ecowas and the African Union, only promising elections “shortly”.

In October, charismatic and young Colonel Mamady Doumbouya took over the reins in Guinea, disbanded the civilian administration and went on a “listening to the ground” process culminating in a promise to hold elections in 2023.

Meanwhile, the boys in uniform remain in charge. Interestingly Colonel Doumbouya remains popular with the populace, which points to the level of mire the civilian rulers had left the country in.  Closer home, Sudan take over by Gen Abdel Fattah Burhan after months of wrangling threatens to destabilise the country and possibly the region. When long-serving General Bashir was ousted from power by the military, it resulted into weeks of civil disobedience and anti-government protests, until the military agreed to share power with an alliance of civil society, political parties, and professional groups.

Many commentators warned of the difficulties that would follow the arrangement but the military’s overwhelming power, compared to the civilian wing’s sole “people power” forced a compromise. This was the same situation in Myanmar.

Right from the beginning of these arrangements, there were serious differences between the civilian and military wings of the government. Not only were there serious contrasts in style, with the military used to a hierarchical “law and order” approach against a more consultative collegial leadership of the civilians, there were also strong substantive differences on the management of key issues. 

In Myanmar, issues included the treatment of Muslim minority Rohyingas, which the military wanted banished and the role of the military in the economy. At some point, it forced Ms Syu Kyi, despite her Nobel Prize credentials, to justify serious human rights abuses against this minority. In Sudan, the military were to hand over to civilians in November, a situation they did not seem to countenance so they just threw their civilian partners into jail.

Why is all this analysis important? The current Jubilee administration, rightly frustrated by inefficiencies of the regular bureaucracy, has turned to the generals to run several civilian operations. And to their credit, the generals have presented splendid outcomes. One has only to see the re-engineered Kenya Meat Commission, which has increased its capacity and profits several hundred-fold, to recognise the value in using the generals occasionally.

However, there are risks attendant to this process and its expansion must be checked. Firstly, this process defeats key constitutional principles of open and competitive recruitment into the public sector.

But more critically, it allows the military a taste of civilian power and access to resources which is difficult to undo once it is part of our governance culture. Once we send the message that the country is only efficient if run by the generals, it is the first step towards legitimating their claim for a bigger, and ultimate only share. That, even for the sake of efficiency, must never be contemplated.

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