Seychelles: From Putsches to Development Pushes
There is another story to Seychelles aside from beautiful beaches and chilled atmosphere — as to how it got to be the first high income African country in spite of a familiar background of coups d'etat and a one-party state.
At 17:30 on 25 November 1981, Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare and a group of 43 mostly South African and Rhodesian mercenaries flew into Seychelles International Airport on the island of Mahé in a chartered Royal Swazi Airways plane. Disguised as holidaying rugby players bearing gifts from a charitable beer drinking club, Ye Ancient Order of Froth-Blowers, presumably to offer cover for a large group of mostly fit, young (all white) men arriving on an island with shaky politics, their plan was to link up with a nine-strong advance party and take over the government on behalf of the former president, South African-ally and full-time playboy James Mancham. They would do so in copybook Dogs of Warfashion, by seizing the radio station, police station, and the army camp to the south of the airport at Pointe La Rue.
A World War II veteran, Hoare, 99 in 2018, had plied his trade as a mercenary during various phases of the Congo civil war. In 1977 supporters of Prime Minister France-Albert René launched an armed coup using Tanzanian troops while Mancham was at the Commonwealth summit in London. A socialist one-party state had been established after elections in 1979, nationalising businesses, seizing land, instituting a national youth brigade, and doing away with a free press and private schooling. In the process René had made powerful enemies.
The wild scheme had been hatched between Mancham, a lawyer who became president upon Seychelles’ independence from Britain in June 1976, those Seychellois dispossessed by René’s nationalisations, and the apartheid South African government. Mancham had been “enthusiastically wooed” by the disgraced former South African Information Secretary Eschel Rhoodie as a politically useful ally. Of particular significance to South Africa was the cancellation of SAA landing rights by René, a vital stopover for Far East flights, which caused a near-calamitous 50% drop in tourism revenue to the island.
Like all badly cooked up schemes, the coup quickly went pear shaped.
The absence of finer tactical details were, from accounts, substituted by Hoare’s Irish gift of the gab and the sense that they were making a contribution to halt what then seemed an inexorable spread of Soviet-allied interests. But it was poorly planned and amateurishly executed. As Andrew Standish-White, a Rhodesian SAS veteran recruited to the mission recalls:
“What had happened to “The 7 P’s – Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent Piss-Poor Performance?” Hoare’s book The Seychelles Affair, published five years later, makes many references to troubled gut feelings, misgivings, instinctive aversion for certain people or procedures during the preparations. But the moral of the story is that he didn’t heed any of them. The rest of us were equally at fault for letting the colourful reputation of the man override the many unanswered tactical questions.”
Hoare, says Standish-White, had “reckoned that with about 50 men we could neutralise enemy forces, await the arrival of interim government and Kenyan paramilitaries by plane from Nairobi and then stand down”.
As “an ideologically receptive audience” the group “adopted a generally positive frame of mind. The main issue of money had then to be discussed. The deal was a thousand rand on the spot and another 10 on successful completion. This peculiarly skewed arrangement may have got some thinking, but we all signed up nevertheless … .”
The rand was stronger, of course, than the US dollar at the time.
The coup ended in ignominious failure when airport security discovered an AK47 in the false bottom of the bag of one “merc”(mercenary).
“The airport security chief rushed outside and shouted an order that our waiting buses were not to depart. This precipitated immediate frenzied action,” Standish White remembers, “amongst the team as each man tried to unite himself with his weapon, many of which were already on the roof racks of the buses. I leapt up alongside an amazed porter and started hurling his neatly packed bags to the ground again. It was like one of those time warp situations. A bunch of gaudily dressed holidaymakers frantically assembling weapons of war while the civvies stood gaping, paralysed with shock and indecision.”
Ordered by Hoare to “neutralise” (“just like that”) the barracks at the end of the runway, which would be a source of heavy weaponry, some of the group “piled into one of the tour buses and raced down there”.
A gun battle erupted which went on into the night.
“A flanking attack was attempted by the main group but this fizzled out in the face of vigorous enemy fire. Lack of RPG7s denied our own troops any effective response and camouflage and concealment wasn’t helped by the ‘Hawaii 5-O’ clobber the guys had on. What put paid to any further action at the barracks was the rapid descent of Stygian tropical darkness.”
The mercenaries eventually commandeered an Air India aircraft to fly them back to South Africa where they were arrested, tried and served sentences of various duration and severity.
The whole escapade was, Standish White concludes, “a clusterf*** from the word go”.
The level of (dis)organisation reflected tensions between its principal sponsor, the then National Intelligence Service of South Africa, and the then SA Defence Force. The South African Department of Foreign Affairs was, according to senior officials, in the dark about the whole event, requiring some diplomacy to repair the relationship, which happened in the early 1990s courtesy of Pik Botha.
The erstwhile Froth Blowers appear to have been set up in a South African domestic power play.
If it had not however been for the South African and mercenary involvement, the coup would probably not have raised much of a glance at the time. It gained notoriety in part because it was unsuccessful; less so because, just like René’s original putsch, it was unconstitutional.
Most African countries have suffered coups d’état. The continent has witnessed more than 250 military coups, successful or otherwise, since 1960.
During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in particular, Africa had a coup problem. It had a coup problem because it had a democracy problem, and vice versa. The basics of democracy require the armed forces to be loyal to the government of the day, and bound by their constitutional role – a trait which has separated India, for example, from much of Africa and, indeed, much of the rest of South Asia.
The coup habit slowed with the end of the Cold War, and the drying up of external patrons, and when the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) adopted the Lomé Declaration in 2000 which established a framework for an OAU response to unconstitutional changes of government. This progressive stance was reaffirmed in the Constitutive Act of the African Union, the OAU’s successor, which condemned and rejected unconstitutional changes of governments.
The likelihood today of another, successful Dogs of War-styled, mercenary-led coup in the genre of Bob Denard in the Comoros, the self-styled psychopath “Colonel” Callan in Angola, or the Seychelles misadventure, is negligible. Only the exceptionally stupid or arrogant or out-of-touch would even contemplate otherwise. The misadventure in Equatorial Guinea in 2004 plotted by the hapless Simon Mann and Mark Thatcher, among others, is a case in point. Mercenaries aside, however, the African coup habit has not been broken completely. Since 2000, there have been not less than 32 attempted and 12 successful coups.
Seychelles has moved on. It’s increasingly prosperous, the first African country to obtain middle income status. Its political condition has moved more slowly, from a one-party state to a multi-party regime and, more recently, to a form of “cohabitation”, where the president’s party comprises the minority in the national assembly.
The 1981 coup was however not the last of political and military instability in Seychelles. In August 1982, soldiers mutinied against conditions in the service. Having seized the radio station, they were overcome by Tanzanian troops again requested by René. In 1992, a prominent local businessman Conrad Greslé was arrested for his part in another this time allegedly CIA-sponsored coup plot.
René was elected unopposed in perfunctory “elections” in 1983 and 1987. Then in 1991 he announced a return to a multiparty system of government. Among the returning exiles was the former president James Mancham, who would (briefly and unsuccessfully) revive his Democratic Party. Illustrating how much the island had chilled, he died peacefully at his home on Mahé in 2017. Elections held in 1993, 1998 and 2001 were all won by René, better known to his government and party colleagues as “the Boss” or “Ti France”.
René retired in April 2004, passing the baton to his vice president, James Michel, who in turn handed over to his deputy Danny Faure in 2016. Faure, born to Seychellois parents in the Ugandan town of Kilembe, studied political science in Cuba before starting his career in government at the age of 22. Appointed as Minister of Education in 1998, he sent on to serve as Minister of Finance, during which time Seychelles carried out a series of IMF-advised reforms, becoming Vice President in July 2010.
Faure says that René’s coup and the subsequent one party state need to be viewed within “the context of the geopolitics of the time. The ruling party considered itself a liberation movement. It believed that the only way to have transformation was through the establishment of a constitution that gave full power to the President, where there was fusion between the party and state”.
He says that René believes that “mistakes were made in the area of the economy, especially around the nationalisation of land, based as it was on the philosophy of the time that you needed to have both capital and land.’ The President admits that ‘we imposed the state in everything, but lacked the right people with the right competencies”.
René was able to create a measure of social peace by providing free education, health care and subsidised housing.
“Without this,” says the Finance Minister Maurice Loustau-Lalanne, “we could not have lifted the population out of poverty, as we did.”
Lalanne was the Director of Civil Aviation during the 1981 attempted coup when he was forced into a role as the immediate liaison with Mike Hoare “without whom I would probably not be alive today’.
As the politics matured, the economy has grown steadily to the point that the 95,000 Seychellois enjoy the highest per capita income in Africa, nearly $16,000. This has been on the back of a steady increase in tourism, from 250,000 visitors in 2010 to 350,000 in 2017. The investment in the international airport back in 1971, aimed at getting the fragile economy off its dependence on fishing and copra harvesting and onto tourism, has paid spectacular dividends.
The tourism industry accounts for 28% of GDP, employs 75% of the workforce and brings in $400 million, or three-quarters of foreign exchange earnings. The limits to tourism are increasingly, says the minister responsible Didier Dogley, less to do with clientele than the environmental impact and availability of skills. Increasingly Seychelles is dependent on migrant skills. There are 16,000 migrant workers on the islands, mostly from India.
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Seychelles possesses a remarkable international tourism brand. But its geography and natural beauty do not of themselves ensure the country’s success. To its south, the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros has lurched through its own mercenary history from instability to economic crisis. Like Seychelles it is a melting pot of cultures; yet its politics and economy has routinely melted down. Leadership, like liberalisation, counts for something.
In July 2016 Seychelles became the first African country to graduate to high income status.
But this path has not been without its wobbles. With its fiscal situation out of control and the debt-to-GDP ratio at 150%, in 2008 the government had to sign onto an IMF programme.
“Basically we were broke,” says Lalanne. “We used to subsidise a lot of things, most commodities, totalling $300-million of a $700-million budget. We also needed to create more of a tax base, and float the currency.”
Or as President Faure noted with respect to the country’s previous fiscal habits:
“Borrowing killed us.”
One consequence of increasing liberalisation has come in the form of much tougher political opposition.
While the ruling People’s Party (or Parti Lepep in Seychellois Creole) might have produced the government since 1977, victory by the opposition Seychelles Democratic Alliance (LDS) in National Assembly elections in 2016 means that consensus now has to be sought as a matter of political course.
“The role of the opposition,” admits President Faure, “is to increase the level of scrutiny in the management of government and its financial affairs.”
Still, concerns remain about corruption and lack of transparency, the treatment of migrant workers especially in the Free Trade Zone, and lengthy pretrial detention. Freedom House assesses Seychelles as “partly free”.
President Faure, like his finance minister, explicably rails against the constraints and delays imposed by the new and constraining political reality. Yet he acknowledges that while “politics has to be competitive, we need to be inclusive”.
“Africa,” he says, “has a history of coups out of a belief that the only people strong enough to make economic progress were the military. But times have changed,” he reflects.
“We need to pay respect to creating and empowering institutions to give them capacity to do their job properly. Strong institutions protect the welfare of people, and enable economic prosperity. While we had popular participation before,” observes the president, “even in the one party state, democracy has strengthened our stability. It has reinforced social cohesion by giving a voice to civil society and the media which previously was not there.”
Or as Didier Dogley sums up:
“Democracy is very important to us, especially among that young population which has been educated in Europe and is used to these standards and values. Today we live in a different Seychelles to 1977. It is not the same Seychelles, and it is not the same world.”
Dr Mills has been proving it is possible to work in Seychelles where he was researching a forthcoming book, Making Democracy Work.
This article was originally published in The Daily Maverick.