16 Jul

Coup attempt in Turkey – what lessons for Nigeria?

Yesterday there was a coup in Turkey, a nation that straddles Europe and Asia. After an initial period of confusion, it has become clear that the coup is failing.

Anatomy of the coup

At about 2300 local time (2000 WAT), reports filtered through that military jets were flying low over Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and the military headquarters was taken over, with the Chief of General Staff, Hulusi Akar taken hostage. Simultaneously, the two bridges that connect Europe to Asia in Istanbul, Turkey’s commercial capital, were closed by soldiers. Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport was sealed off by tanks. Less than an hour later, the Reuters news agency reported that soldiers had taken control of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation. They forced the newscaster to make a statement which announced their takeover, assured the diplomatic community, and crucially, ordered the people to stay indoors.

While all of this was happening, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Binali Yildirim took to the airwaves and announced that the coup had “taken place outside the chain of command”. In all of this, there was confusion about the whereabouts of the President, Recep Erdogan. However, by 0100 local time (2200 WAT), Erdogan made a broadcast to the people via the Apple FaceTime app, and the broadcast was aired on CNN Turk. In the broadcast, Erdogan urged the people to take to the streets in defiance of the plotters. Also, perhaps even more crucial, the imams in the mosques also directed the people to defy the coup plotters and take to the streets. This galvanised those who would ordinarily have ignored Erdogan and they did.

Shortly after, the First Army General Command, located in Istanbul, issued a statement denouncing the coup attempt, and the fightback was on. A helicopter belonging to the pro-coup faction was shot down by an Air Force jet, and more jets took to the skies over Turkey to neutralise the coup plotters’ helicopters. The coup plotters panicked, and in some cases, began to shoot into the crowds, but this did not deter the people. As of the time of writing this analysis, many soldiers on the side of the coup plotters had surrendered, Erdogan is back in Istanbul, and it has become clear that the government will take back control.

Why did the coup fail?

A coup d’etat is an undemocratic, largely nineteenth and twentieth century method of changing power. There are many moving parts involved in planning a coup, and many of these factors are easily neutralised by modern technology.

The key events that turned the tide against the plotters were the failure to seize communication channels, and the failure to neutralise Prime Minister Yildirim. Had the plotters managed to block off all means of communication, Yildirim may not have been able to get his message about “an event outside the chain of command” out. That message effectively isolated a lot of the plotters. The failure to seize CNN Turk enabled Erdogan to eventually emerge, and make a broadcast which galvanised his support base. In the past, taking over state broadcasters and cutting signal cables would have cut communications off until the coup was over. This is no longer possible in today’s world.

Also important was the fact that the police which arrested many of the coup plotters were well trained and adequately armed, providing an alternate avenue of force for the government along with loyal troops. The coup plotters never attained a monopoly of force.

As a result of these failures, four key elements of a coup – initiative, speed, surprise and confusion, were taken out of the hands of the plotters. When any one of these elements is gone, then a coup fails.

How does this relate to Nigeria?

Nigeria, like Turkey, has a history of coups. Some have succeeded, some have failed. Our last successful coup was in 1993. Since that time, the levers to pull off a coup d’etat have increasingly been taken away from plotters.

First, when you look at all the successful coups in Nigerian history – the 1966 counter coup which overthrew the Aguiyi-Ironsi regime, the 1975 coup which overthrew the Gowon regime, the 1983 coup which overthrew the Shagari government, and the 1993 coup which overthrew the Shonekan interim government – these key elements, removed from the latest attempt in Turkey, were all present.

In Nigeria today, it is almost impossible to get all of these elements together. The speed required to capitalise on surprise, and capture strategic locations, may not be able to happen because of the now diffuse nature of Nigeria’s military structure. For that, we have the government of Olusegun Obasanjo to thank. The confusion necessary for the plotters to step in, as spectacularly proven in Turkey, can no longer be created. The ability to seize the single source of information, has been rendered impossible by the proliferation of private broadcasters, and alternative forms of media, mainly social media. In spite of Erdogan himself having banned some social media, he was still able to find social media vital as an option. It succeeded in putting his message out. One interesting video that emerged from the Turkish coup was an unnamed person upon watching the events at the state broadcaster, switching channels from the TRT, just in time to catch Erdogan speaking via FaceTime, on CNN Turk.

Despite Erdogan’s efforts to concentrate all powers in himself, having a relatively strong power centre in the Prime Minister, provided an initial rallying point before Erdogan’s re-emergence. Even if Erdogan did not emerge, the Prime Minister could have continued to lead the rally. This is also instructive.

Coups are inherently unpredictable. Every coup, either successful or not recalibrates power distribution. Erdogan has survived this attempt and if his statements are anything to go by, he will use this as an instance to purge the military. However, it is important to note that the people responded to calls from the mosques. We may well see a gradual reintroduction of religion having a bigger say in the Turkish state, after almost a century of absence due to Kemal Ataturk’s changes.

The same can be said of any coup attempt in Nigeria. The eventual distribution of power never goes as planned and new players eventually get a bigger say in national affairs.

Finally, there remained an implicit trust by the people, that the military would not butcher them in the streets, and failing that, a belief that whichever soldier did that, would eventually be brought to book. That element is missing in Nigeria. Today in Nigeria, the alternate source of force is not the police who are not as well trained or adequately armed. Most of the opposition to coups today will follow a pattern where the ethnicity and religion of the planners will cause opposition to arise from other ethnic militias and this can quickly devolve into anarchy. It is more likely that a coup in Nigeria will precipitate a civil war than a quick resolution.

Image credit: Reuters News Agency