A coup d’état (coup) is the seizure and removal of a government and its powers. Typically, it is an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power by the military.
In the immediate post-colonial period in Africa, coups d’état although illegal, occurred in virtually every part of Africa, but which African country was the first to experience a military coup?
The First Military Coup in Africa
The first ever military coup in Africa occurred in Egypt on 23 July 1952 with the toppling of King Farouk in a coup d’etat by the Free officers Movement, a group of army officers led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The coup which is the first military coup in Africa started on the night of 23rd of july 1952 and lasted until the 28th of the same month when a new leader was sworn in.
The coup was initially slatted by the free officers to start on 2–3 August, but it was hastened after their official leader, Muhammad Naguib, gained knowledge on 19 July, that King Farouk had acquired a list of the dissenting officers and was set to arrest them.
The officers thus decided to launch a preemptive strike and after finalizing their plans, they began their coup on the night of 22 July 1952.
The toppling itself took two days, by the 25th, the army had occupied Alexandria, where the King was in residence at the Montaza Palace. Terrified, Farouk fled his palace.
The former king’s departure into exile came on 26 July 1952 and at 6 o’clock that evening he set sail for Italy with protection from the Egyptian army and on 28 July 1953, Muhammad Naguib became the first President of Egypt, which marked the beginning of modern Egyptian governance.
The coup was conducted by less than a hundred officers – almost all of which were drawn from junior ranks — and prompted scenes of celebration in the streets by cheering mobs.
Though initially focused on grievances against King Farouk, the movement had more wide-ranging political ambitions. In the first three years of the Revolution, the Free officers redistributed land, tried politicians for corruption and abolished the constitutional monarchy and aristocracy of Egypt and Sudan, established a republic, ended the British occupation of the country, and secured the independence of Sudan.
The early successes of the Revolution encouraged numerous other nationalist movements in other Arab, and African countries, such as Algeria, where there were anti-imperialist and anti-colonial rebellions against European empires. It also inspired the toppling of existing pro-Western monarchies and governments in the region and the continent.
The anniversary of the revolution is commemorated on Revolution Day, an annual public holiday in Egypt, on 23 July.
The First Military Coup in Sub Saharan Africa
On 13 January 1963, Togo’s first President Sylvanus Olympio was killed outside the US Embassy in Togo’s capital Lomé while fleeing from angry soldiers led by Emmanuel Bodjolle and Étienne Eyadéma who were conducting a coup d’état. Olympio is remembered as the first African president to be assassinated in a military coup.
The coup which is remembered as the first successful military coup in sub-Saharan Africa began on 13 January 1963 in the wee hours of the morning with shooting heard throughout the capital city of Lomé as the military attempted to arrest Olympio and his cabinet. Before dawn, Olympio’s body was discovered by the U.S. Ambassador Leon B. Poullada three feet from the door to the U.S. Embassy. His body was taken inside the embassy and later picked up by his family.
The togolese coup of 1963 was the first coup d’état in the French and British colonies in Africa that achieved independence in the 1950s and 1960s, and Olympio is remembered as the first president to be assassinated during a military coup in Africa.
During the coup, most of his cabinet were arrested but the interior minister and information minister were able to escape to the Republic of Dahomey (Benin Republic).
The reasons given for the coup by the military leaders in a radio broadcast were economic problems and a failing economy. However, analysts often contend that the main roots of the coup were in the disgruntled ex-French soldiers who were unable to gain employment because Olympio kept the military small.
Apparently, when Togolese soldiers who had been serving in the French army returned to Togo, he refused to expand Togo’s military force of 250 to accommodate them. Bodjollé and Eyadema were prominent members of the returnees who later went on to plot the first successful military coup in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the immediate aftermath of events in Togo, Ghana was implicated in the coup d’état and assassination, but no evidence was gathered to support these allegations.
After the coup, the military leaders quickly recalled exiled political leaders Nicolas Grunitzky (Olympio’s brother-in-law and political rival) and Antoine Meatchi to take over Togo’s leadership. They both ruled the country until 1967 when their government was deposed in a bloodless coup organized by Eyadema on the fourth anniversary of Olympio’s assassination.
Causes of coup d’état in Africa
There was an average of 25 coup d’états taking place on African soil every decade from the 60s to the 90s but this number greatly reduced at the turn of the 21st century when many African states embraced democracy, organized elections and acceded to international human rights laws and other international norms and principles.
However, in the past decade, unconstitutional regime changes and “constitutional crises” have gradually crept into the African political sphere, occurring in Madagascar, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and most recently Guinea.
In 2014, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) noted that African coups mostly originated from ‘deficiencies in governance, greed, selfishness, mismanagement of diversity, failure to seize opportunities, marginalisation, human rights violations, unwillingness to accept electoral defeat, quality of electoral processes, manipulation of constitutions and their revision through unconstitutional means to serve narrow interests, and corruption.
Aside from the reasons given by the AU above, the following factors are also associated with coups:
Military officers’ personal grievances, economic decline, domestic political crisis, contagion from other regional coups, ethnic factionalism, supportive foreign governments, leader inexperience, slow growth, commodity price shocks, and poverty.
Remembering sub-Saharan Africa’s first military coup d’état fifty years on