Spectre of coups haunts both Africa and Latin America

Friday October 9 2009


Latin America has a lot in common with Africa. Besides the colonial past, both regions are still beset by the spectre of coups and presidents trying to extend their stay in power.

The most recent case was in Honduras where President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown on June 28. He was at the end of his presidential term and there were fears by the opposition that he wanted to extend his stay in power.

Mr Zelaya, who was elected in 2005, was trying what had already been implemented by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Mr Chavez had tried to seize power in 1992 through a coup but failed. He finally took power democratically in 1998 and was the victim of a coup attempt in 2002. He won a new term in 2006 and early this year, he won a referendum to eliminate term limits.

Big news

The Honduras coup was big news because Latin America has not seen a coup since the early 1990s. In the early years, instability was a common by-word for countries that form what is known as Central America: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico.

In the Caribbean, most countries among them Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Anglophones such as Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada and Barbados have known some volatile pasts. The final part of what forms Latin America are countries such as Peru, Colombia and Chile plus giants such as Argentina and Brazil and smaller ones such as Paraguay.

Besides coups, there is also a clash of ideology in Latin America where the radicals commiserate around Mr Chavez while the conservatives are led by Mexico and Brazil. The term “Latin America” denotes a common heritage that is shared from Mexico to Argentina and Cuba. The common heritage is Latin culture in languages — Portuguese, Spanish and French.

“There is no clash of ideas. Whether Mexico, Venezuela or Brazil, there is a general agreement that the institutional and constitutional order of democratically elected governments should be the rule,’’ says Mr Jorge Laguna Celis, Mexico’s deputy ambassador in Nairobi.

In 2009, many countries that had experienced many bloody coups in Latin America, among them Brazil and Argentina are now flourishing democracies.

Bloody rule

Chile, another victim of many years of bloody rule under General Augusto Pinochet, has now seen many years of civilian rule. In Haiti, ask Jean-Bertrand Aristide how many times he has had to flee the country, and Haitians cannot forget the reign of François Duvalier or “Papa Doc”.

Democracy now appears more common in Latin America, says Mr Celis, who spoke on behalf of ambassador Juan Carlos Cue-Vega. “When democratic institutions are interrupted, it is not an issue of ideology, but a matter of principles. Every political system should allow a peaceful transition of power and authority based on rules and democratic institutions.’’

Compare this to Africa. In August, Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja forced through a referendum ensuring he can override the two-term rule. Idris Deby of Chad, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, and Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika also belong in this club.

Other African leaders who overrode the two-term limit were Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, Abdou Diouf of Senegal, Lansana Conte of Guinea, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso and Zine Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.


There are also presidents who tried to extend their rule but failed. In Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo’s attempts at a third term was rejected by the Senate. Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba and Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi also tried to extend their terms but failed.

There are also rigged or messed elections in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Gabon. Back to Latin America, the similarities with Africa are many. One of these is the failed attempts at unity, especially in Central America where many tiny states have failed to unite and take advantage of their strategic position that places them close to the US’s southern border and the big market that this offers. African countries on their part have failed to realise the dream of a single government for the continent.

Henry Owuor is Diplomatic and Foreign Affairs Writer, Daily Nation.