As so-called "experts" on the study of coups and providers of commonly used data on coups, we commonly interact with various interested parties - for better or for worse. Public engagement can be useful as it can clarify some of the mystery associated with trends in coups. Given this year's recent run of coups, our research or opinions have appeared in many outlets, including The Economist, Spiegel, Washington Post, and various other international media. Sometimes these interactions go well, sometimes we probably provide underwhelming insights and every so often something frustrating happens.
Enter Wall Street Journal (WSJ).
A reporter for the outlet was among those recently asking about 2021's spike in coup activity. The exchange was fine, though there was a continued need to correct or put conditions on a continuing suggestion that 2021 is Africa's worst coup year since its independence era. The relevant portions of the exchange can be seen below (JMP=Jonathan Powell)
There appeared to be a desire to offer an attention-commanding observation on how bad 2021 has been for coups in Africa. Though I made an effort to be clear that 2021 is not as bad as the 1960s or 1970s and that there have been a number of years since then either as bad (for successful coups) or worse (for all coup attempts) than 2021, it was wholly unsurprising to see the following headline:
Though not surprising, it makes it difficult to take the author and outlet seriously when basic, uncontestable facts are ignored in what is obviously an effort to present a clickbait headline that misleads anyone who reads it.
To provide a better picture of what's happening we return to the data that the WSJ directly referred to when concluding that Africa is experiencing coups at its "Highest Level Since End of Colonialism" and that "Attempted or successful coups in Africa are occurring more frequently..." The yearly total of successful and failed coup attempts are illustrated in the figure below, based on five year increments.
Africa's 4 successful coups this year on on par with 1999 when putsches removed governments in Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire, and Comoros. As was directly communicated to the journalist, you would need to go back to 1980 to see a year with more successful coups. That is a far cry from the "end of colonialism."
It has been a terrible year for coups by any standard. Commentators had largely come to celebrate the decline of coups and treated the events as afterthoughts, given the historically low activity recent years have seen. However, declaring coups in 2021 to be at their highest level since the end of colonialism is both an inaccurate portrayal of what is happening and--by relying on dynamics seen in one very short period of time--grossly underappreciates the threat of coups in Africa's early years.
October in Review
October continued to see dramatic developments around the issue of coups. The most notable event this month comes out of Sudan, as General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan staged a coup and dissolved the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on October 25. On Oct. 15, military officials in Guinea-Bissau reported an alleged coup plot aimed to unseat President Umaru Sissoco. In Guinea, coup leader Colonel Mamady Doumbouya was officially sworn in as the country’s president on Oct. 1 - less than a month after toppling President Alpha Conde. In Myanmar, the threat of a civil war continues to rise as regional and international actors take steps to ostracize the ruling junta the February coup against the country’s nascent democracy. These developments highlight the need to continue to monitor coup politics weeks and even months after coupists strike.
On October 25, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan staged a coup against the government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, placing the country’s head of state under house arrest and rounding up other civilian ministers. Al-Burhan addressed the nation and stated that the coup was a necessary move to rectify the revolution and save the nation from civil war. Following the dissolution of the transitional government, al-Burhan stated that a new government representing “all the members of the revolution” would be formed, composed of technocrats. Mass pro-civilian protests have since re-emerged against the Sudanese armed forces, leading to violent retaliation by state security forces. Jeffrey Sachs provides an overview of the coup, raising several questions amid ongoing developments. Salah Ben Hammou provides context to the coup and the preceding crisis amongst the Sovereignty Council’s civilian leaders. Giorgio Cafiero provides greater regional context to the coup, particularly the role that Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia played in the coup’s occurrence. Ishan Tharoor similarly contextualizes the coup in a regional setting and takes note of the Gulf states’ financial flow to the Sudanese military. Killian Clarke and Mai Hassan point to the need for sustained mass protests and international condemnation for the coup’s reversal.
Fourteen people are standing trial for the killing of Thomas Sankara and a dozen other victims of Burkina Faso’s 1987 coup. Such proceedings offer a rare glimpse into the black box of coups, events often shrouded in secrecy and their perpetrators often committed to obfuscating the event. Now over three decades from the coup, the trial opened on October 11 prior to being delayed at the request of the defendants.
Two prominent defendants are being tried in absentia. Most notably, former president and Sankara band-mate Blaise Compaore remains in exile in Cote d’Ivoire, whose government has refused extradition requests. Hyacinthe Kafando, Campaore’s aide de camp at the time, and eventual warrant office in the latter’s presidential guard, has eluded authorities since the fall of Compaore’s government.
On October 14, Army Chief of Staff Biagué Na Ntan announced the discovery of an ongoing coup plot within the armed forces. The discovery of the plot coincided with the 47th anniversary of the Military Police’s inception. According to the general, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of the People (RAFP) attempted to bribe lower-ranking soldiers into the coup conspiracy. However, several of the approached soldiers informed the higher echelons that a conspiracy was under way. The announcement came while President Umaru Sissoco was abroad in France.However, on October 15, the government announced that the comments were taken out of context and that the army chief simply meant to dissuade soldiers away from such plots.
Significant developments have emerged in Myanmar this month. First, ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) has declined to invite junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to 2022’s summit. Members of the shadow government, the National Unity Government, lauded the decision but stressed that ASEAN must engage in dialogue with a representative of the Unity Government. Second, violence between the ruling junta and opposition forces in the country continues to worsen. Martial law across various cities in Myanmar has led to increased government repression and the killing of protestors and opposition forces since the Feb. 1 coup. According to outgoing U.N. envoy to Myanmar, the country has spiraled into a civil war and that the ruling junta is unlikely to negotiate or cede power to the original civilian government.
On Oct. 1, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya was inaugurated as Guinea’s interim president. Doumbouya, a leader of a Special Units force in Guinea, staged a coup against then-president Alpha Conde on September 5 and formed a transitional military council. Doumbouya will allegedly be barred from running in any elections once power is handed back to civilians.
Nic Cheeseman recently asked whether Ethiopia could be spiraling toward a coup. Recent scholarship suggests this is increasingly likely. Curtis Bell and Jun Koga Sudduth have demonstrated not only that coups are in fact more likely to be attempted within the context of civil conflict, but are increasingly likely as rebellions move closer to the seat of power. The TPLF's recent gains certainly fit the mold and could prompt elements of previously loyal forces to turn against the regime.
Welcome to the Arrested Dictatorship blog. Posts on recent events are periodically updated as more information becomes available. It is currently edited by Jonathan Powell and Salah Ben Hammou at the University of Central Florida.
Civilian Participation in Military Rule.
Salah Ben Hammou.
Reflecting on Revolution, Counter-Revolution in Sudan.
Salah Ben Hammou.
Don't Forget the Coup Plots! Salah Ben Hammou.
Coup allegations in Djibouti. J Powell.
Conspiracy in the Congo? J Powell.
The Int. Community, Coups, and Electoral 'Attaboys. J Powell & Salah Ben Hammou.
Decolonizing Coup Data, Salah Ben Hammou.
Coups and Democracy, J Powell & Mwita Chacha.
Coups & Clickbait, J Powell.
Iraq 1936, Salah Ben Hammou.
Failed Coup...Successful Transition? Salah Ben Hammou & J Powell