Africa Takes Tough Stand on Coups ; the Arrest of Margaret Thatcher's Son Last Week Is the Latest Example of a Crackdown on Overthrows

Article excerpt

The cast list of the alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea reads as if straight out of a cold-war thriller: An aging mercenary determined to organize his last big job, the corrupt leader of a tiny oil-rich nation, and the playboy son of the former leader of a world power.

The titillating story, which first came to light with the detention of 70 men on the runway of a Zimbabwean airport on March 7, hit international headlines again last week with the arrest by South African police of Mark Thatcher, son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He is accused of partially financing the overthrow of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the strongman of Equatorial Guinea, a small country on Africa's west coast. The plot allegedly planned the takeover of the continent's third-largest oil producer.

To many observers, the tale is another example of Africa's political instability. But African security experts say that the foiling of the plot, which required intelligence cooperation among three different African nations, actually points to an end of a tolerance of the African coup.

"We've entered a new era," says John Stremlau, head of the international relations department at the University of Witwatersrand here. "Around the region over the last few years, you've seen an increased willingness to be more assertive in the face of this kind of action."

Postcolonial Africa has been hobbled by illegitimate political takeovers. According to research by Patrick McGowan, a professor of political science at Arizona State University in Tempe, in sub- Saharan Africa between 1956 and 2001 there were 80 successful coups, 108 failed coup attempts, and 139 reported coup plots. There have been 11 attempted or successful coups since then.

Professor Stremlau and others say that there has been a marked change in the way Africa responds to unconstitutional changes in government.

"With the new activity we've seen from the African Union and other organizations, it's going to be increasingly difficult to topple a government and take its place," says Angela McIntyre, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, a South African think tank.

She points to several recent instances where the African community has intervened after attempted coups or other military takeovers. African mediators stepped in to negotiate a peace settlement in Ivory Coast after an armed rebellion divided the country in 2002. And when a small band of disgruntled soldiers overthrew the president of Sao Tome last year, pressure from the AU and neighboring countries like Nigeria convinced the plotters to hand back power to the president in return for their grievances being addressed.

Of course, not all coups have been condemned with the same force. …