This month's coup in Ghana could well presage a fresh wave of military takeovers of Africa's fragile states. The toppling of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in 1966 unleashed a cascade of coups throughout the continent. More recently the return to representational democracy in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Uganda, and, for a time, in the Central African Republic, was the decisive impulse.
Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, Ghana's military leader for the second time in three years, is not unique in ambition and in his contempt for politicians and for the people who vote them into office. Whether President Hilla Limann and his cabinet were corrupt and inefficient, just inefficient, or simply unable to return Ghana to its one-time prosperity may long be a matter of opinion.
What is clear, however, is that Ghana's balance of payments difficulties, its severe shortages of foreign exchange, and the inability of the state to deliver essential services gave Mr. Rawlings ample excuse to oust the politicians.
Ghana largely depends upon earnings from the export of cocoa. But the world prices of cocoa have fallen dramatically in recent years. Ghanaian peasants have stopped growing for the cash market and have also been adept at smuggling their crops into the neighboring Ivory Coast. Thus, the inability of Ghana to prosper has been as much the fault of commodity price instability as it has local mismanagement. Moreover, all governments since the time of Mr. Nkrumah have suffered from the burden of debt left by him and from his diversion of Ghanaian resources and energies into a myriad of unprofitable, grandiose, and draining industrial and agricultural schemes.
Mr. Rawlings may follow Col. Muammar el Qaddafi of Libya, from whom he has had finanical support, and move Ghana to the left. More upsetting to Ghanaians may be his attempt to impose austerity and asceticism on a country where governmental corruption and the market economy are ways of life with centuries of tradition behind them.
If Mr. Rawlings reforms Ghana without too many deprivations of liberty or other tribulations, his rule may be welcomed by Ghanaians. But his 112 days in charge in 1979 are not remembered with any fondness by politically active Ghanaians. Then he appeared mercurial, headstrong, and imbued with a sense of personal self-righteouness.
Other soldiers in Africa may be as ambitious and strong-minded as Mr. Rawlings. If corruption, governmental mismanagement, and economic decay are the guides, then a country like Sierra Leone could well be the scene of a coup. But does Sierra Leone have a Jerry Rawlings in the military? And would he dare attack the heavy-handed rule of President Siaka Stevens, a grand old man of Sierra Leonean politics?
Nigeria is a worry, too, for the military are credited with running the country well from 1976 until 1979, when they permitted a national election. Prime Minister Shehu Shagari is accused of favoring members of his own National Party when jobs and other perquisites are distributed. He is also regarded by numerous Nigerians as being indecisive at a time when the country's oil-derived revenues are ebbing and agricultural output has slowed. Whether or not there is discontent sufficient for the soldiers to move once more from their barracks must be a matter of local judgment and timing.
Farther afield, Zambia has been precarious for some time. President Kenneth Kaunda has been in office since 1963. The military is well armed and strong. The urban population, about 50 percent of Zambia's 6 million total, is anxious for better and less expensive consumer goods, and for an end to the shortages that plague Zambia. Beef, cooking oil, and even maize, the staple, are frequently in short supply. The main trade unions are also angry at Mr. Kaunda, but whether the soldiers are prepared to move against the ''father'' of their country must depend on the existence of a local version of Jerry Rawlings.
The coup in Ghana may end up being personalized, local, and of short duration. Or, as once before, the soldiers of Africa could rise up both for causes and excuses on the right as on the left.