Very recently in Egypt, there was an overthrow of the civilian government of President Morsi. One fact that is very clear is that from Tahrir Square, the progressives and pro-coup liberals and progressives have been cheering on the coup in Egypt. It is the hope of the Egyptian people that this turbulent experience would bring about a stronger democracy where their aspirations would be met. Some have even labelled Muhammed Morsi as one belonging to a group of “democratically elected despots”, sharing such distinction with depots like Adolph Hitler and Robert Mugabe.
When the Egyptian military announced its overthrow of the democratically elected President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, it was clear to everyone this was a coup d’etat. In the determination of what constitutes a coup, the intention is immaterial.
The general consensus in the international community is that coups d’etat constitute a violation of international, particularly when it results in the violent overthrow of a democratically-elected government.
A coup d’etat has been described by James Fox as a “Blow to the state; revolutionary or military overthrow of a government with the formation of a new government.”[1]And according to Prof. Tayyab Mahmud, who see coup d’etat as successful treason, it is defined as:
“…a change in government (which) issues from the threat or use of force against the incumbent regime…a sudden, forceful stroke in politics; especially, the sudden, forcible overthrow of a government.”[2]
Though the July 3rd coup in Egypt is generally seen as a necessary evil as it was mainly a military intervention spurred on by mass protests calling for a revolution against Morsi’s increasingly undemocratic government, can the coup be legitimate in the eye of the law? Should we not see the act as a violation of democratic principles and international law? In a situation where the Constitution has been suspended and the legal system and democratic institutions have been circumvented, should we not be condemning the military coup against a democratically elected government?
By accepting the coup as legitimate, are we not going to be setting a rather dangerous precedent that a democratically elected government can be ousted out of power at the will of military generals whenever they deem fit for the purpose of carrying out the “wish of the people”? Again, on what specific yardstick can we measure the performance or otherwise of Morsi’s government? If any, is the military in a proper position to determine that in a democratic society?

The general idea has been that the military coup will most likely bring about stability in Egypt, helping to place the North African country on a sure path to a stronger democracy. However, before we legitimise the coup d’etat in Egypt by describing it as a “revolution” or “change”, the fact remains that Morsi was a democratically elected President of Egypt. Should we not see the successful attempt by the military removing him other than through the ballot box as a fundamental violation of democratic principles and international law?
Granted that very few Egyptians would say that Morsi’s government was not despotic, however, should this issue be about Morsi and his muslim Brotherhood alone? What about the democratic institutions, structures, systems and values of Egypt’s emerging democracy that have been practically thrown away like the baby with the bathwater? We must not fail to appreciate that the current development may bring up certain complications.
There are lessons in Africa’s political history, one of which is how coup d’etat, no matter how well-intentioned may result in the unexpected. Let’s take a brief look at the history of military take-over in a Nigeria. Here, the best of intentions by the military have done more harm than good to the country in its over three decades of military rule before its current democratic dispensation. Curiously, the Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu-led January 15, 1966 military coup and the 1979 coup, both against a largely unstable civilian government and a wasteful administration respectively, had led to counter-coups by other military generals who had their own conceptions about how the most populous black nation on earth should be ruled.
Briefly, the first ever military administration led by Aguiyi-Ironsi was then overthrown in a bloody coup which brought General Yakubu Gowon. He held power until 1975 when another coup, though bloodless, made Brigadier (later General) Murtala Mohammed the Head of State. In 1976, Murtala was assassinated in a violent coup, and Olusegun Obasanjo, his deputy, succeeded him. Obasanjo handed over to the civilian government of Shehu Shagari in 1979. Using the wasteful government of Shehu Shagari as the main justification for take-over, Shagari was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1983, which brought in Muhammadu Buhari, who had found the height of indiscipline in both leadership and followership intolerable. Before long, his high-handedness and growing despotism became unbearable.
After two years, he was overthrown by General Ibrahim Babangida, a self-appointed military President. Instrustively, Babangida had promised a return of power to a civilian government when he seized power. From 1985 to 1993, his promise was not forthcoming. Under immense pressure from the civil society, he “stepped aside”, temporarily handing power to the interim Head of State Ernest Shonekan, as a step towards return to democracy. However, two months later, Shonekan was overthrown by General Sani Abacha. Nigerians had to wait till June 1998, when Abacha died in power before their hope for a return to civil rule became renewed.
The Abdulsalam Abubarka-led military government was in power till May 1999, when it finally handed over power to Olusegun Onasanjo, to became the second military ruler to have kept his promise to hand over to a democratically elected government within schedule. General Olusegun Obasanjo, the civilian beneficiary of the hand-over, had himself handed over power as a military Head of State to the civilian government of Shehu Shagari in 1979.
It is instructive to point out here that the Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu-led January 15, 1966 military coup and the 1979 coup, were “revolutions” against civilian administrations seen by the military generals as been politically unstable and wasteful respectively. Apart from the generals themselves becoming increasingly despotic, particularly the Muhammadu Buhari administration, the events that followed the counter-coups against these generals clearly have lessons for Egypt. The international community may not have the luxury of trusting the military in Egypt long enough. There could be counter-coups.
Next week, we will closely discuss the different theories that have been developed to excuse the “democratic coup” in Egypt. These theories are mainly attempts to show that the coup d’etat in Egypt may be healthy for democracy.

[1] Fox, James, Dictionary of International and Comparative Law, 3rd Ed. (New York: Oceana Publications Inc., 2003), page 73
[2] Mahmud, Tayyab, Jurisprudence of Successful Treason: Coup d’Etat and Common Law, 27 Cornell Int’l L. J.

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Nigerian Law Today

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  • Interesting topic you've here. I have been looking for a legal position on the coup especially from a Nigerian point of view. I will certainly be following up. Thanks Henrietta