Why Uhuru and Magufuli also have to be ‘tough guys’

Thursday January 10 2019

military regalia

President Uhuru Kenyatta dresses in military regalia before presiding over Jamhuri Day celebrations at Nyayo Stadium, Nairobi, on December 12, 2018. PHOTO | PSCU 

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On Monday morning, a small group of incompetent soldiers in the central African nation of Gabon tried to stage a military coup — and failed miserably.

These are not happy hunting days for coup makers. In Latin America and Asia, and in Africa, once flourishing coup zones, military putsches have sharply declined.

A report by BBC’s Christopher Giles on its website noted that “since the 1950s, there have been a total of 204 coup d’etats — successful or otherwise — in Africa.

“In Africa, there have been 104 failed coups and 100 successful ones,” it says. “Sudan has had the most coups, with 14. Burkina Faso has had the most successful ones, at seven.

“Between 1960 and 1999, there were between 39 and 42 coups every decade. Since then, there’s been a drop-off. In the 2000s there were 22 coups and in the current decade the number stands at 16.”


Coups are dying out. Why? It’s the stuff of a book but, picking on a small bit of it, anyone who follows East African social media will have got some insight into one of the explanations.

President Uhuru Kenyatta, as commander-in-chief, appeared on Jamhuri (Independence) Day on December 12 in military uniform.

That kicked off a debate on social media with some arguing that it was a wink to authoritarianism for a democratically elected leader to don military wear.

Uhuru, though, had worn military uniform a couple of times over his presidency but it didn’t create such a debate.

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli, who, like Uhuru, was never a soldier or guerrilla, has also been pictured in military uniform.


As it were, at about the time Uhuru was showing up in his military attire, in Rwanda, President Paul Kagame, who was leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army and an officer of the country’s military, appeared for the first time in over 10 years in combat gear at a military exercise and talked tough about hostile forces threatening the peace and stability of his country.

On social media, a tweep posted photos of East African Community (EAC) leaders Uhuru, Kagame, Dr Magufuli, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and South Sudan’s Salva Kiir in military uniform and noted that the region is a tough neighbourhood and only Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza was missing.

No big deal though; Nkurunziza used to be a guerrilla leader.

However, it is not the leaders who have changed; it’s the conditions that they operate in.

As in many parts of the world, the lines between military and civilian governments have blurred and this has affected coups.


To stick to East Africa, we have a “civilianisation” of former guerrilla leaders and generals (Museveni, Kagame, Kiir, Nkurunziza) and a “martialisation” of civilian leaders (Uhuru, Magufuli).

Both are partly a product of necessity of the times. Former guerrilla leaders and generals have to ‘civilianise’ because the advance of democracy and the growing complexity of our societies means it’s almost impossible to rule without some form of electoral consent (however flawed) from the people.

But it is also true that East Africa is a tough neighbourhood.

If you take the wider eastern Africa region (including the Horn and eastern edge of Central Africa) it has over 50 percent of the UN’s peacekeeping forces.

It has also been plagued by terrorism with Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania suffering some of the worst terror attacks on the continent since 1998.

The conventional wisdom is that civilian leaders have to project strength.


Secondly, as Africa urbanises fast and its youthful population explodes, the hitherto civil protests have become militant.

In some countries, that has come along with more brutal policing and shock and awe tactics as a deterrent to militancy.

Then, to make way for new highways and housing in urban areas that are close to collapsing in dysfunction, governments are breaking down illegally constructed malls and brutally clearing out slums.

Because the constituencies and forces organised around these things are quite powerful, governments sometimes treat this as a form of warfare.

It’s unlikely that a crouched bookish president in monocles can succeed in these circumstances.

Additionally, for countries like Kenya, which haven’t had the traditional military rule or a post-independence guerrilla war, its October 2011 Operation Linda Nchi (protect the country) military campaign into southern Somalia was the end of the age of innocence, if it had one.

It moved from a country known mostly for its role in UN peacekeeping to war maker and, now as part of Amisom, peace enforcer.

The bigger surprise, then, is not that Uhuru appears in military uniform but would have been if he didn’t.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of africapedia.com and roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3