An ‘expert’s’ view on how Tanzania and Kenya escaped putschs in the ‘Coup Age’

Saturday August 05 2023

Photo illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

On July 26, there was a military coup in Niger. It was the fifth coup in Sahel West Africa in three years, the others having been in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Chad.

Now, everyone is talking about the West African Coup Belt and the Sahel Coup Zone, and such other names. Some people are going as far as claiming that there is a return to the age of coups in Africa.

In some East African countries, citizens frustrated with the state of affairs, are praying for coups.

Read: Tough times for EA citizens over ambitious budgets

So far, thankfully, the gods haven’t heard their prayers.

There has been no successful coup in the East African Community zone for 30 years, the last failed bid being by Maj-Gen Godefroid Niyombare in Burundi in May 2015.


But the most remarkable thing about the EAC is that two countries, Kenya and Tanzania, survived the 1960s to 1980s coup epidemics.

Many clever men and women have wrestled with this apparent Kenyan and Tanzanian immunity to coups, and the question remains unresolved. I again asked a few East African experts and elders for an explanation and decided to create a composite of their most outside-the-box answers, in the voice of Abdul, that famous charac-ter from our old East African English textbooks.

COO: We are seeing coups in Sahel West Africa but, so far, none in East Africa. None in Southern Africa too, we must add. But let us stay with our East Africa, would you say East Africa is beyond coups?

Abdul: Definitely not, but the risks are very low except in three EAC member states.

COO: Which three?

Ask me in five years, right now I still have to eat, so I won’t specify.

Fair enough. However, it is noteworthy that in a period in Africa where we had coups almost everywhere, there were no successful ones in Kenya and Tanzania. What makes those two countries special?

Tanzania and Kenya had major anti-colonial wars; the Maji Maji Rebellion against the Germans between 1905 and 1907, in which between 75,000 and 300,000 people died; and in Kenya, the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960 against British colonialists, with between 12,000 and 15,000 people killed. It’s possible these countries got weary of violent political contestation, which made the ground sterile for coups.

But wait a minute, in Uganda Kings Kabelega and Muwanga also fought a resistance war against the British, but Uganda had coups.

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The Maji Maji and Mau Mau rebellions were from the bottom up. The Kabalega-Muwanga wars were from the top. Some of us in East Africa don’t understand you Ugandans and your kings.

Okay, but the Algerian war of independence against the French was deadlier than the Maji Maji and Mau Mau combined, with anything up to 1.5 million deaths. Yet, in 1965 Colonel Houari Boumédiène overthrew Algeria’s first President Ahmed Ben Bella.

True, which tells us other factors beyond a history of a bitter anticolonial struggle are at play. One of them is what people eat. Kenya and Tanzania are coastal nations which eat ugali. People in the East and Central African hinterland never used to eat “posho,” as they called it, and even despised it. People in the hinterland eat directly off their gardens. The coastal people buy their staple from the shops.

How does that factor into coups?

It means the cost of entry for a coup-maker is low in the East African hinterland. In the ugali-eating countries, the soldiers have to wonder about the cost and availability of maize flour. Maize flour is complicated. It seems that discourages them. That might explain why the leader of Kenya’s short-lived 1982 coup, Hezekiah Ochuka, was from the Kisumu lakeside. They are fish people, those ones.

You might have a point there, because the ugali (mealie)-eating countries of Southern Africa like Malawi and Zambia also escaped coups.

However, in northern Africa, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, where wheat flour for bread is more centrally organised than maize flour, had coups. And in Morocco, they haven’t.

True, I expected you would say that. Which is why it’s important to note another factor: Kiswahili. In countries where Kiswahili was the national or official language, there was never a coup. The sample is small, yes, but the East African hinterland came very late to Kiswahili. If they had adopted it earlier, they would have had happier political lives.

Read: How standard Kiswahili was created, spread

How does that work?

Because of the broad forces from which Kiswahili emerged, it is not the language of a particular dominant ethnic or national group, and therefore brings a culturally neutral conversation to national politics in diverse countries. Perhaps that keeps the sharp edge that motivates coup makers out of the mainstream. But I think the real anticoup balm in Kiswahili is its related Taraab mu-sic. Taraab, which originated in Zanzibar in the mid-1800s, is a uniquely East African coastal music form, and it has not percolated into the East African hinterland much, beyond the small traveller trading communities.

Explain. Can music impact politics that much?

Taraab is a slow, contemplative music. But most-ly, it is poetry, and serenades. It has a soporific effect, which is why East African coastal communities are largely calm. The greedy capitalists in East Africa consider coastal communities lazy. It is a serious misunderstanding. In Kenya and Tanzania, Taraab has seeped into the national consciousness and calmed political temperatures. This is most evident in Tanzania.

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