Power is sweet, isn’t it? Why let it go even if my life is in danger?

Thursday August 27 2020

Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. Mutineering soldiers on August 18, 2020 detained President Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse. PHOTO | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The soldiers “have did it” again, as Ugandans like to quip. On Tuesday soldiers overthrew Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The coup, rightly, has been condemned all round, and Mali has been suspended from the African Union.

And as soldiers made their way to the beleaguered Keita’s residence, the people cheered them on. They also looted and set fire to a building that belongs to Mali's Justice minister Kassim Tapo in the capital Bamako.

We’ve seen this movie more than a 100 times in Africa over the years. The soldiers who, as they always do, have promised elections, will probably do worse than Keita and try to cling on. And there will be more Keitas.

The support for the coup by sections of the public wasn’t surprised. The soldiers struck as the opposition were about to resume protests against Keita.

In the last few months, tens of thousands of protesters have been demonstrating to demand Keita’s resignation, accusing him of allowing Mali's economy to collapse and of failing to deal with extremist militias and a security situation that has left parts of Mali outside government control.

More than two dozen protesters and bystanders were killed during three days of unrest last month in Bamako by security forces.


It is perplexing, because even just for selfish reasons of survival, you would think a president would instead join common cause with the people and try to build an inclusive political alliance to deal with such crises. But they almost never do. And they are often unable to do what would preserve their lives — run away.

In 1990, the mad soldier Samuel Doe, who was president of Liberia, met a gruesome death. With the capital Monrovia besieged by rebels, Doe went to the poorly guarded headquarters of the regional Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) to try to save his job.

One of the rebels, Prince Johnson, stormed in with his heavily armed men and snatched Doe. Here’s how one dramatic account describes what happened next: “Doe was taken to Johnson's military base. To prove that he was not protected by black magic, Johnson ordered that his ears be cut off in Johnson's presence, and he chewed one of them, then some of Doe's fingers and toes were also cut off. After 12 hours of torture, Doe was finally murdered. His corpse was exhibited naked in the streets of Monrovia”.

In 2010, Cote d'Ivoire was embroiled in a civil war. An election was held, and incumbent Laurent Gbagbo lost to Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo then stole Outtara’s victory, and the war continued. With rebels, UN and French forces lined up against him, Gbagbo dug in at the presidential palace. He lost all ground, and continued to hold out in the bunker with his wife.

They were eventually disgracefully plucked, semi-naked, from there. Now Ouattara himself, has made a U-turn on leaving after two terms, and has decided to go for a third term — and Cote d'Ivoire is threatening to explode again.

Why didn’t Doe flee? Why would Gbagbo fight on when all he had left was a bunker? Why didn’t Keita cut a deal? African power must be the sweetest.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3