Take away the dictators’ instruments of violence and coercive control – their guns

Dauda Yillah: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 31 January 2022:

Events that occurred in Burkina Faso just a week ago go to prove further that the contagion of military takeovers once considered dead and buried in our West African subregion has re-emerged with a vengeance. Sudden and violent regime change is back in fashion.

Indeed, this besetting political sin of ours is again on the march, galloping across national boundaries, having already engulfed Mali and Guinea and is set to swallow up more countries in the subregion.

Our fledgling democracies are teetering on the brink of an abyss. This ugly development makes a complete mockery of the strides taken in the subregion in recent years towards improving democratic governance.

The spectre of an Africa subjected to the will of military men has come back to haunt us, reminding us of Bokassa, Babangida, Doe, Abacha and many others including Eyadema and Mobutu, who started off as military coupists and later donned civilian robes while continuing to govern as before – with an iron fist.

And it seems that there was nothing that could have stopped the Malian, Guinean and Burkinabè men in khaki – the current vectors of the disease of violent undemocratic dispensation – from grabbing power at will from civilian authorities.

What is more, they have so far been able to weather the storm of internal and external pressures, outcries and condemnations aimed at getting them back speedily to their barracks where they truly belong.

Add to this, is the fact that sections of the civilian population of their respective countries were first out the blocks to welcome and embrace invariably hysterically armed, but to them no less angelic, agents of much needed political change.

The question therefore is this: why should these agents of political change’s jackbooted and Kalashnikov-toting colleagues elsewhere in the subregion not be tempted to try their luck, posing in turn as self-proclaimed saviours of their own countries?

The ungainly political reality is that in much of what is today independent and sovereign Sub-Saharan Africa, violence, that is, brute force remains at the heart of the exercise of political power. Those who possess and control the instruments of violence have always had the political upper hand.

A fact that the late Malian novelist Yambo Ouologuem saw with unparalleled clarity way back in 1968, when he revealed in all its starkness in his work ‘Le Devoir de violence’ (‘Bound to Violence’), the enduring hold violence has had on politics and its practice in our beloved continent from precolonial times through the colonial period to the present.

And a fact for which he was metaphorically speaking, hanged, drawn and quartered in many a political and intellectual circle in our continent for daring to wash our dirty linen in public.

Indeed, his detractors never forgave him for what they saw as his selling the continent and its people down the river at a time when these were just emerging from the cruelties and indignities of decades of European imperial subjugation to attain political independence and sovereignty.

However, time has proved Ouologuem right. Violence continues right into the twenty-first century to shape political life in our beloved continent, perpetrated now by those we have ironically democratically chosen to govern us, now by those who impose themselves through the barrel of the gun in the name of delivering us from our democratically-elected civilian rulers gone rogue.

Indeed, the targets of Ouologuem’s withering criticism – be they civilians or military men – are people who in deploying brute, coercive force achieve that ultimate of deleterious human desires: imposing one’s political will on others with utmost impunity.

The civilian or military dictators’ exclusive access to the instruments of brute force enable them to force the rest of us to bow to their will, thus transforming our societies into modern-day nightmarish, not to say Hobbesian, worlds of primeval men and forces.

Let us imagine even if momentarily the converse of such nightmares, meaning societies in which civilian dictators or their military counterparts wake up one morning and find out to their utter dismay that their instruments of coercive control have inexplicably disappeared.

We are left with men who are like the rest of us: ordinary, human, vulnerable, made to live and regulate our lives alongside other people through dialogue, cooperation, negotiation and ultimately consent and consensus.

The point then is: can states survive by allowing their citizens to self-police, self-discipline and to thus keep in check their desire to coerce and control and instead learn to govern themselves democratically?

If a formula can be found to create societies where the means and methods of exercising violence in the realm of politics are replaced by those that create and promote a sense of community, solidarity, peaceful co-existence and adherence to the rule of law, then our continent will be at peace with itself.

Perhaps the possibility of transforming our subregion and our continent more generally into human societies where governance by consent and consensus (in the place of governance predicated on violent, coercive control) is not a forlorn hope nor does it just belong to the realm of pure speculation.

Human beings have used their minds and imaginations to the point that they have been able to defy gravity, leave their planet of birth and reach for the moon and beyond. They only need to redeploy those self-same capabilities to look at themselves more closely than ever before, in particular at how they conduct their political lives here on earth.

In this way, that portion of humanity that is Africa can work out for itself ways of overcoming the instinctual and repulsive drive to subject its people to coercive political control, leading to the birth of societies where violence has no place in how they are run.


  1. Messrs Hashim, Jalloh and Young4na, I have really enjoyed your very interesting and insightful comments. They prove just how thorny the issue of military takeovers in our subregion is. There is of course no simple answer to the challenges – political chaos and instability – the military coups pose to our societies. Neither the putschists nor the civilian authorities they overthrow are angels, sent from heaven for our collective deliverance. Celebrating one group and demonising the other is far too simplistic an approach, bordering on a complete misunderstanding of our continent’s complex and complicated political history.

    The point I have tried to make though is that difficult and complex as the problems of civilian misrule and the military coups they engender may seem, finding solutions to them is perhaps not entirely impossible. And such solutions do not have to come from above – being as it were the handiwork of some Deus ex Machina that is all knowing and all powerful. The problems are profoundly human. They are a creation of man and what man creates man can undo or at the very least control its effects. I consider the solutions to the problems resulting from the unholy alliance between the instruments of violence and the exercise of political power to lie in our minds and imaginations: in our ability and readiness to take an honest look at ourselves, at the uses to which we have so far put our independence and sovereignty gained or regained some sixty years or so ago.

    In other words, guns are man-made objects. They are a product of our minds and imaginations. Why not put these great, specifically human attributes of ours to use more positively and in so doing stop dead in their tracks the chaos and instability that guns have brought into our political lives? We owe it to ourselves and to generations yet unborn to think and do politics differently.

  2. Thanks professor Dauda Yillah for a well written, thought provoking piece, discussing the intertwine nature of brute force and governance in our beloved African continent. From time memorial, as you perfectly articulated, our continent has indeed continually experience a spectra of coercive, dogmatic, and authoritarian governance systems, from both our democratically elected and military rulers.

    Yes, the enabling factor for such undemocratic governance systems is the availability of unchecked access to what you refer to as ‘instruments of coercive control’, by our leaders. Now to your postulation, how and by what means can those unchecked access to ‘instruments of coercive controls’ be curtail, if not through the formation of credible, independent, governance institutions?

  3. Well, the very civilian ;leaders we all had yearned for never proved otherwise. Its a sad state of affairs with doom and gloom engulfing everything. Cameroon and others are not juntas, yet the old fool has refused to leave the stage, Buhari of Nigeria sustained banditry creating total chaos in Nigeria, from north to south , east to west the continent is unsettled and heading for further disaster. Where were the ECOWAS septuagenarians ,and the AU cash hawks when Kondeh manipulated the Guinean constitution, where were they when Ouattara purged the law to grant himself another authority to run for the presidency. This whole thing is a joke and must be called its name jokes and jokers.

  4. The author of this article Mr Douda Yillah have displayed his knack of understanding how past and present military juntas across the African continent have failed us. Indeed many of the wars and political, economic and social upheavals of the newly independent African states were caused by the men in military fatigue. The earliest military take overs started in Egypt, back in 1952 when Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser and the free officers decided to overthrow King Farook . In 1968 a young officer by the name of Col Gaddafi overthrew King Idris. By the 1960s we had military interventions in Nigeria in 1966, when Southern Militay Officers led by General Ironsi overthrew and assassinated the Housa Fulani Premier of Nigeria and most of the northern leaders which by the results of that action led to the Baifran civil war in which more than a million people lost their lives. The same year we saw the overthrow of Dr Kawme Nkrumah of Ghana,

    Patrice Lumumba in the early sixties by Mubutu, Idi Amin of Ugandan and many others. Perhaps the country that have the records of most coups in Africa is the tiny Island of the Comoros in the Indian ocean. Sierra-leone have had it fair share of military juntas. But we all know the military men are not qualified technocrats, or economist by profession or any others profession for that matter. They are trained killiers, with the sole purpose of defending the security and territorial integrity of the Sovereign States. But sometimes when we have a corrupt civilian governments, that don’t want to obey the constitution, and want to extend their rule in violation of the constitutional order, like in the case of Guinea under Alpha Conde, and Mali under fomer president Bubakar Keita, it is difficult to see how change will come about without mass civilian demonstration, or as a measure of last resort the military.

    As in 1980s Liberia under Master Sergeant Doe. The recent military takeover in Burkina Faso and the reasons given by the military junta for taking over the reins of government is the same reasons given by Captain Valentin Straser and Saj Musa in overthrowing the Momoh government. Both countries are facing an insurgency, but the civilan governments are failing to provide the adequate resources to fight the RUF, and in the case of Burkina Fasso, the Fulani herdsmen terrorising the Civilian populations in the North. For us to confine the Militay in their barracks, our elected civilian leaders should take their responsibility seriously. Stop the corruption, the nepotism, the tribalism, promote a Free and open press, be accountable and transparent, respect the rule of law, and above all else respect the constitution of your country.

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