Soldier in Burkina Faso Soldier in Burkina Faso. Photo: / Public Domain

With ‘the men in khaki’ seizing power across a number of African states, a Nigerian socialist argues that there are no shortcuts to working class organisation

The recent spate of military takeovers in the Sahel region (Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso) and in Central Africa (Gabon) have posed a sharp question for the left and progressive forces in Africa: should these forces collaborate politically with the soldiers?

This question is pertinent, especially since some of these soldiers in the Sahel region have tapped into an anti-imperialist, anti-French feeling running through the mass of working and oppressed people in their respective nations. Whilst the military takeover in Mali, Guinea, Niger and Burkina Faso has taken on, opportunistically many may say, the mantle of anti-imperialism and left nationalism, the coup in Gabon is a classic example of the ‘court camarilla’ excising and ousting hated members of the ruling class who have familial relations.

The failure of governance and the absence of the dividends of democracy devolving to working and oppressed people has soured many towards bourgeois democracy. The failure of the ruling classes to direct positively the social and productive forces of society in favour of ordinary people, or to place limitations on their gargantuan appetites for the misappropriation of state resources, has created a very fertile ground for the resurgence of ‘the men in khaki’ seizing power.

Although the general consensus on the left is that military coups whether of the left, centre or the right are an aberration, this question of whether or not to collaborate with military regimes who use left rhetoric cannot be posed in the abstract.

Repeating history

Milan Kundera described history as essentially ‘the struggle of memory against forgetting’. While Marx agrees that men (and women) make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing, rather in circumstances directly inherited from the past, a conscious understanding of the ‘circumstances directly inherited from the past’ is necessary to avoid repeating history, first as tragedy and secondly as farce.

West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the high tide of military vanguardism and the collaboration of the left and progressives with radical sounding soldiers. In Benin, Ghana, Liberia, Burkina Faso, sections of the left eagerly joined the bandwagon of collaborating with military radicals, in essence eschewing the hard, arduous and difficult work of organising working people, looking for short cuts to power. Each episode is deserving of a full length study of its own, however for reasons of space only the pertinent lessons will be drawn.

Even in Nigeria, many of the left felt that military vanguardism was a sure route to social liberation. The late Tunde Fatunde, then a lecturer at the University of Benin, wrote a much-celebrated play entitled No More Oil Boom. The play was a coruscating put down of our putrid political economy but the deus ex machina of the play was a progressive coup launched by Captain Sanussi, obviously modelled on Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Some on the Nigerian left saw, to paraphrase S.E. Finer, their ‘man on horseback’ in the form of Colonel Abubakar Umar.  His radical education, received at Ahmadu Bello University, had many on the left groaning in ecstasy.

Although Nigeria escaped the pleasures of radical military vanguardism, if the results of other countries whose left embraced it wholeheartedly are anything to go by, it was an unmitigated disaster. These armies were hierarchical, based on command, jealously guarding their monopoly of the means of violence, and after a short honeymoon turned their fire power on their leftist collaborators.

Many were lucky to escape with their lives, fleeing from a peculiar form of barracks socialism. The rancorous disputations, concerning the direction that society was to take, were not settled by debate, appealing to the mass of working people, but with the use of violence by soldiers.  

Collective power

Today, in the face of the polycrisis facing humanity: economic retardation, the threat of species extinction and environmental degradation, the change that is necessary cannot be brought about through putschism, which involves a secret conspiracy among a few individuals to seize power on behalf of the mass of the people. The change required will involve the collective conscious power of working and oppressed people, concretely intervening in history, shaping and building the necessary institutional capacity to control and rebuild society from below.

Thus, the left has its work finely cut out. Mobilising and intervening in the struggles of working people will involve arduous hard work, sharp twists and turns, sweet victories and often bitter defeats. There is no short cut to power.

To undertake this task would mean that despite the decrepit nature of our democracy, it still provides an arena for working people to organise, distribute literature, hold rallies, protests and strikes. Working people require the schooling of operating in bourgeois democracy, despite its limitations, to prepare themselves for the task of rebuilding society anew. This is why when this democracy is threatened by putschists, we must defend it, irrespective of the vampires that may control it.                 

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