The following was recently published at The Loop: ECPR's Political Science Blog.
Salah Ben Hammou
When soldiers seize political power, our minds tend to conjure up assumptions about military rule. We might imagine officers in fatigues dictating legislation and the outlawing of political participation. In our vision, civilian leaders – civil society members and party leaders – might well be notably absent. But is this really what 'military rule' looks like?
Hager Ali recently called for greater analytical precision in the study of authoritarian regimes. The study of military regimes – particularly those with a significant civilian presence – is one area of research in need of such nuance. This is especially important in light of the 2021 military coups which toppled governments in Sudan, Mali, Guinea, and Myanmar. But rather than simply lumping all militarised governments together, researchers must do more to appreciate the subtle, but salient, differences.
Delineating (military) dictatorships
It's tempting to assume that all military governments share the same traits and behaviours. But this is not true. Moving beyond the archetype of ‘military rule’, we find great variation among militarised regimes. Researchers acknowledge a few of these distinctions. Most scholarship, for example, distinguishes between cases in which militaries govern through a collegial entity and those where a military officer ‘personalises’ political power.
Examples of the latter include Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet and Uganda’s Idi Amin. The former includes Brazil’s ruling junta 1964–1985 and the Derg in Ethiopia. Studies (here, here, here, and here) reveal these differences matter for a country’s foreign policy, political instability, and prospects of democratisation. Yet, despite receiving the most attention from researchers, the difference between collegial and personalist military rule is far from the only relevant distinction.
Scholars have done little to evaluate one key distinction across military regimes: civilian participation. Some typologies, such as the Autocratic Breakdown dataset, classify certain governments as having a dominant military and political party. Yet we still lack a nuanced understanding of these types of arrangements. It is unclear, for example, how much relative power each institution wields, or how we might compare such systems to each other.
Further, collegial military rule and military-personalist systems can experience significant involvement by civilian political parties even if they don’t meet the criteria of a ‘dominant’ institution. For example, Sudan’s Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri (in power 1969–1985) is often categorised as a personalist military dictator. Yet Nimeiri's regime initially crafted legislation and policy hand-in-hand with the Communist Party. Likewise, Turkey’s collegial military government (1980–1983) worked alongside a constellation of civilian allies who had previously demanded the armed forces’ intervention.
Bringing civilian participation into the mix
Rather than treating civilian participation as negligible, researchers can use the varieties of this feature to uncover more general trends in military rule.
Soldiers and civilians come to govern together through a variety of avenues. As a result, each avenue comes with its own implications for a country’s civil-military relations. For example, military dictators can form their own civilian political parties. Through these, they can channel mass mobilisation, reduce their reliance on the armed forces, and discredit civilian opposition. Nimeiri’s Sudanese Socialist Union is one such example. The SUU was created in the aftermath of Nimeiri's dispute with his former civilian allies in the Communist Party. In this context, civilians lack significant autonomy from their military allies and merely serve at officers’ behest.
However, civilian parties can also have a great deal of agency. They can build a strong following within the armed forces and use their military partisans to seize power on their behalf. The Ba’ath party’s ascension via a military coup in 1968 Iraq is one such example. Though it began as a military regime, the Ba'athist government saw its officers increasingly lose influence to their civilian allies. And this, of course, paved the way for a civilian – Saddam Hussein – to consolidate political power.
Blurring the lines between 'civilian' and 'military'
In some cases, the outcome is the opposite: officers successfully subjugate their civilian partners. In Sudan, Hassan al-Turabi’s civilian National Islamic Front (NIF) initially dominated Omar al-Bashir’s military dictatorship throughout the 1990s. Indeed, Turabi is often referred to as the power behind the throne. However, al-Bashir and his associates gained full primacy in the regime. By the end of the decade, they had sacked Turabi and his associates. And this type of arrangement is still distinct from cases that emerge from armed anti-colonial resistance, blurring the lines between what it means to be a 'civilian' and a 'soldier'. Algeria's military regime is one such example.
These examples are by no means exhaustive of all the potential civil-military arrangements possible under military regimes. However, incorporating the different dynamics sheds light on processes researchers have previously ignored. Instead of erroneously assuming militaries and civilians operate in distinct spaces, we can work towards a nuanced typology that includes the varieties of relationships between civilians and soldiers, their origins, their changing features, and more.
Why civilian participation matters beyond research
Unpacking civilian participation in military regimes extends beyond theoretical concerns.
First, if officers have civilian allies – either willing participants for post-coup governments or instigators of coups themselves – efforts to limit military intervention in politics will be futile.
Second, the international community’s recurring demand for a 'civilian' government after a coup overlooks the too-common strategy of handing power to an affiliated civilian party. Observers have raised similar concerns with the international community’s call for a civilian-led government in Sudan, pointing to the recent putschists’ move to form a government composed of civilian allies.
Ultimately, finding the language to describe situations in which civilians don fatigues and govern alongside officers clarifies what military rule can really look like. It also reminds us that civilians, too, have agency.
When Civilian Protests Facilitate Coups D'etat: Reflecting on Revolution & Counter-Revolution in Sudan
The following was recently published at Political Violence at a Glance.
Salah Ben Hammou
Monday marked three years since Sudanese officers toppled longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in a coup d’etat.
In April 2019, the military intervened amid a wave of sustained civil disobedience. Mass demonstrations against the ruler, originally spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), had filled the streets since late December 2018. Due to further civilian pressure after the coup, the armed forces entered a political agreement with pro-democracy groups and political parties known as the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) to navigate a transition towards democratic and civilian rule.
Today’s context is unfortunately much different than what many hoped for in those early days. Sudan’s officers are violently consolidating their authority in the country. In late October 2021, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan staged a coup against the transitional government and ended the power-sharing arrangement with the FFC. Days before the power-grab, former rebel groups and rogue members of the government organized protests in Khartoum, demanding that the military intervene and take power. Although much larger pro-civilian demonstrations followed, the armed forces answered the calls of the pro-military protestors. Now, the military is drafting a new transitional agreement with its civilian allies to entrench its power.
Despite protests preceding both events, the 2019 coup was ultimately followed by a democratic transition whereas last year’s power grab reintroduced authoritarianism. Why? The short answer is that the protests themselves were different. In 2019, mass protests emerged organically, and protesters succeeded in using the military to oust Bashir. In 2021, the military manufactured protests to prevent a civilian takeover of government and to maintain their own power.
Coups often take place in the wake of protests and civil disobedience, particularly in Sudan. Beyond the 2019 and 2021 coups, the 1985 coup against then-strongman Jaafar Nimeiri occurred in the wake of sustained anti-government protests. More generally, researchers have dedicated significant attention to the different ways protests can spark coup attempts (some examples here, here, and here). Recent studies have also explored what happens after such events. One study, for example, finds that democratic bona fides after protest-sparked coups are more likely today, in the post-Cold War era. But Sudan’s experience within the last three years suggests that isn’t always the case.
In 2019, anti-Bashir demonstrations swelled into an organic mass movement, cutting across different societal cleavages and incorporating a wide array of political parties, labor organizations, and members of the public. Though protestors initially demanded economic and political reforms, the wide-reaching scope of the protests eventually led to calls for Bashir’s resignation. Importantly, the demonstrations remained independent of the military, with protestors only calling on the armed forces’ intervention as a final effort to remove Bashir. Activists first appealed to army conscripts and the rank-and-file to defend them against the regime’s loyal security services. Shortly after, the top brass complied with protestors’ demands and arrested Bashir. However, civilians refused to allow the coup leaders to consolidate their authority. Various sit-ins and strikes continued after the coup, with activists demanding a civilian-led government. With overwhelming domestic and international support, protestors were able to push the officers to sign a power-sharing arrangement and allow for a civilian-led transition.
In contrast, the 2021 pro-military protests were not organic or wide-reaching and served as little more than a pretext for the subsequent coup. These protests were primarily organized by the military’s newfound allies, Minni Minnawi and Gibril Ibrahim—former Darfuri rebel leaders integrated into the transitional government and FFC. Claiming that other urban parties had “monopolized” control in the FFC, the former rebels formed their own coalition with other smaller political parties, declared their support for the military, and organized protests in the capital, Khartoum. Allegedly using financial aid from Sudan’s officers—such as the powerful militia leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo—the organizers had paid demonstrators driven into Khartoum, gathered in the heart of the capital, and fomented calls for the military to end the power-sharing government and formally hold power. Amid chants stating “one army, one people” and “the army will bring us bread,” observers noted the absence of security forces in quelling or containing the protests, fueling suspicions of the military’s involvement. Just a month before the protests, figures such as Dagalo and Burhan warned that they could use the public against the civilians in power amid growing civil-military disputes.
It was no surprise, then, when the military intervened only days later, using the protests as justification. The coup leaders have since worked to reinstate a dictatorship reminiscent of Bashir’s ancien régime, relying on repression to deter civilian opposition. Meanwhile, the armed forces appear to be rewarding their civilian allies with elevated positions in the new transitional government while still maintaining a monopoly over political power.
The military’s use of protests to manufacture a façade of popular support is not unique to Sudan. Observers have documented the Egyptian military’s use of the Tamarod movement and its demonstrators in 2013 to justify their intervention against President Mohammed Morsi. Funded by a constellation of business elites, opposition parties, and the military, the Tamarod movement mobilized in Tahrir Square and demanded the armed forces’ intervention to sack Morsi. These developments echo a growing body of research on civilian support and involvement in military coups.
The differences between the events of 2019 and 2021 should help inform how policymakers and academics think about the relationship between protests and coups. Neil Ketchley once noted that “we often think of street-level mobilization as the domain of progressives and revolutionaries… [but] powerful state actors can also orchestrate…collective protest for their own ends.” While 2019’s events revealed that a genuine civilian revolution could ultimately guide a country into a democratic transition, 2021’s events show that counterrevolutionary forces can rely on similar tactics to justify their return to power.
Claiming a coup conspiracy, President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti has ordered the arrest of prominent officials. The accused, including Major General Zakariya Sheikh Ibrahim, Colonel Abdullahi Abdi Farah, a former cabinet member, and officials who had recently returned from abroad, are reportedly under house arrest. The current situation was reportedly sparked by an intercepted phone call that might also compromise the first lady.
General Zakariya has been Djibouti's Chief of Defense Staff since the retirement of Major General Fathi Ahmed Houssein in late 2013. Colonel Abdi has served as the director of the National Police for over a decade. If the accusations are true, the two would have been very well-placed to coordinate on a conspiracy against their president.
The most remarkable aspect of Djibouti's coup history is that in a region rife with coups, it is one of the few countries that has not seen a leader succumb to one. Perhaps the closest was December 2000, when Guellah--still in his first term--was faced with a rebellion from the national police. Following the removal of the force's head, General Yacin Yabeh Galab, supporters of the latter revolted against the regime. Amidst a 45-minute firefight with the Army, the National Police temporarily controlled the television and radio waves but we unable to rally support for their cause. Though Yabeh managed to escaped to a French military installation, he was soon handed over to Djiboutian authorities. General Yabeh passed away in June 2002 after being handed a 15 year prison sentence.
Combined with a leader and regime that have long dominated the political scene, Djibouti could otherwise be seen as an unlikely candidate for a coup attempt. However, last April's presidential election--"won" by Guellah with 97%+ of a vote boycotted by the opposition--had seen the country jump to the top of CoupCast's list of likeliest places to see a coup. These predictions, which can vary substantially month-to-month, subsided following Guellah's victory, but might still have hinted that the potential for a coup was greater than what casual observers might have thought.
It remains unclear, however, what has actually transpired. Though the arrests could very well reflect a developing conspiracy, the recent coup epidemic in the region could just as easily help justify the elimination of anyone who could feasibly act as a threat to the incumbent.
Further reading on coup-related arrests and purges:
Jun Koga Sudduth. Strategic Logic of Elite Purges in Dictatorships. Comparative Political Studies.
Curtis Bell. Coup d'etat and Democracy. Comparative Political Studies.
The following was recently published at Political Violence at a Glance.
Jonathan Powell & Salah Ben Hammou
Coups in Africa have reached crisis proportions. Since Niger’s failed March 2021 coup, coup attempts have progressed at a rate rivaled only by the continent’s original coup epidemic in the mid-1960s. Just last week, soldiers attempted but ultimately failed to take power in Guinea-Bissau. While West Africa—and more specifically, the Sahel—receives the most attention, coups are happening across the continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Although coups are by nature domestic affairs, the international community plays a key role in the politics that drive them. Would-be coup plotters closely consider the potential responses of foreign actors, and observe and learn from recent precedent. A meek international response to coups could embolden would-be coupists to take power and vice versa.
Following this logic, it appears that coupists are learning to circumvent the international community’s typical demand in post-coup situations—that elections be held—to entrench themselves in power.
To be clear, the international community is rarely able to “reverse” a coup—i.e., reinstate the ousted leader. Of the dozens of successful coups in Africa since 1950, only a few have seen this outcome. For instance, French paratroopers reinstated President Léon M’ba in 1964 in Gabon. Peacekeeping forces under the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group successfully reinstated Sierra Leone’s Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to the presidency in February 1998. South Africa upended Lesotho’s post-coup government with a unilateral intervention in 1998. São Tomé and Príncipe saw its 2003 coup leaders quickly retreat following international backlash, including the specter of a Nigerian military intervention. These kinds of interventions are usually only possible in small and militarily weak states. In fact, efforts to reinstate leaders have virtually vanished despite the fact that various leaders have ostensibly embraced an anti-coup norm, and organizations such as the African Union (AU) are heralded for curbing the practice. In the case of the AU, it would be difficult to claim a single case of success. Simply put, when leaders are removed, they “stay gone.”
Rather than seek the return of ousted leaders, international and regional actors have instead emphasized a “return to constitutional order.” For instance, following the death of Chadian President Idriss Déby in April 2021, the military assumed power and abolished the constitution, which called for the Speaker of Parliament to take power in the event of the president’s death. Several countries, including France, urged the coupists to initiate a political transition—which would require the post-coup junta to hold or allow elections—rather than designate power back to parliament. (The junta has stated its intention to tentatively hold elections within 18 months.)
Post-coup elections once meant that coupists would hand power back to civilians and depart from politics, particularly after the AU’s formation in 2002. For instance, among eleven different coups across the continent between 2003 and 2012, only two (Togo 2005, Mauritania 2008) saw a coupist retain power via election.
More recently, however, that trend has reversed. Military coups in Egypt (2013) and Zimbabwe (2017) saw coup leaders or their close associates retain power via elections. The only potential recent exception is Burkina Faso, where, following Blaise Compaoré’s 2014 ouster, elements of the armed forces took power and ushered the country toward democratic elections that were not contested by coupists.
Another pattern is at work, however. Though coups in Mauritania (2005), Egypt (2011), Mali (2012), and Burkina Faso (2014) were followed by elections free from coupist participation, these cases saw the armed forces re-intervene against the electoral victors. For instance, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the victor of the 2012 post-coup elections, was deposed in 2013 by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who went on to win the presidency in the 2014 election with little pushback from the international community. Mauritania’s 2008 coupist, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, would go on to win the presidency in the country’s 2009 and 2014 elections but did not seek reelection in 2019. In a highly contentious case accompanied by substantial international pressure, Madagascar (2009) saw a coupist, Andry Rajoelina, reluctantly step away from contesting the election. He did, however, return to win the presidency via the next election in 2018.
What do these developments suggest? Despite the international community’s view that elections might drive coupists from politics, the armed forces and their associates are in fact entrenching themselves in power, either directly through the use of elections or in spite of them. This trend coincides with the rise of democratic backsliding and executive aggrandizement, in which incumbents use democratic institutions such as popular mandates or elections to erode checks against their political power. Paradoxically, coup leaders have increasingly cited executive aggrandizement as a key reason for their intervention into politics. For instance, Guinea’s September 2021 coup saw Colonel Mamady Doumbouya topple President Alpha Condé, citing the president’s “non-respect of democratic principles.” For context, despite the constitution’s two-term limit, Condé had won reelection for a third term in 2020, sparking mass unrest and leading to allegations of electoral fraud and democratic erosion. The question now becomes whether Guinea’s armed forces will use the country’s elections--which have still not been announced—to similarly entrench themselves or if the junta will make good on its promise to bar its members from running as candidates.
Ultimately, efforts to preserve or initiate democracy in post-coup states will require the international community to move beyond the simple demand that elections be held. Rather than issuing a yellow card that tells coupists such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to tread carefully while remaining on the pitch, the international community must unequivocally demonstrate that coupists face lifetime bans from holding power.
Salah Ben Hammou
New Lines Magazine recently published a rich first-person narrative by Dr. Faysal Abbas Mohammed, a retired Syrian-Canadian professor, on the experience of Alawite dissidents against the Assad regime in Syria. While narratives of Syrian politics emphasize the Alawite sect’s support for the Assad family, Mohammed provides a more nuanced perspective. Specifically, he draws on his experience in Syria as an Alawite dissident during the reign of President Hafez al-Assad to recount different forms of Alawite opposition against the regime. This includes the author’s own efforts to organize anti-Assad protests and demonstrations after the dictator’s rise in 1970. The author also mentions one striking detail in his narrative - in 1972, Alawite officers attempted to oust Assad in a coup d'etat. These officers were supporters of Assad’s deposed rival, Salah Jadid, but the putsch was crushed and purges of the armed forces followed.
Out of several available datasets documenting coups d’etat around the world, not one collection includes the failed 1972 coup.
Though one might argue that the event’s exclusion is due to its incompatibility with coding criteria, its absence from “candidate lists” suggests that scholars have simply not encountered the event before. This possibility would be unsurprising given that coup researchers near-exclusively rely on Western and popular international media sources during the data collection process. As a result, researchers are neglecting to systematically consult a list of regional and local sources, possibly omitting several coup events. Below, I emphasize this issue by honing in on the treatment of Syria in coup data. I then speak broadly about the perils of overlooking specialized sources for data collection. Put simply, I urge scholars to take more adequate steps towards “decolonizing” coup data through the integration of local sources and regional scholarship.
SYRIA IN COUP DATA
Once known as “the world’s most unstable country”, Syria is well-known to have boasted one of the highest rates of coups d’etat in the world during its post-colonial era. One US ambassador called the country’s experience in the 1960’s “the stability of instability.” The country experienced its first coup in March 1949, led by Colonel Husni al-Zaim, who was later deposed and executed a mere 137 days later by his former comrade Colonel Sami al-Hinnawi. Hinnawi himself was later ejected from power in December 1949 by Colonel Adib al-Shishakli, who would consolidate power again in 1951 and rule Syria until a coup by Baathist-affiliated Druze officers unseated him in 1954. This instability accelerated in the aftermath of Syria’s failed merger with Gammal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, which ended by a secessionist coup in 1961 and saw several subsequent coup events throughout the decade.
To their credit, large-N coup datasets such as Powell & Thyne’s Global Instances of Coups (P&T hereafter) and the recently released Colpus data project largely showcase much of Syria’s early political turmoil, particularly concerning successful and failed coup attempts. For instance, the datasets do a good job of capturing the onslaught of successful and failed coups throughout the 1960’s. Projects including coup plots and rumors such as the Cline Center (which uses machine learning to data scrape potential events off the web) and the Center for Systemic Peace also appear to capture the general atmosphere of instability.
However, to scholars familiar with the country’s history of civil-military relations and political development, there are glaring omissions in Syria’s data coverage beyond the failed 1972 coup. The most obvious omission once again comes during the regime of Hafez al-Assad - when his brother, Rifaat, attempted to seize power in March 1984. The coup attempt occurred amid Hafez’s failing health and represented perhaps the most serious threat to the autocrat’s rule. Despite the event’s importance, only one dataset released in August 2021 - the Colpus dataset by John Chin, David Carter, and Joseph Wright - includes it. Their codebook indicates that the authors encountered the event while consulting secondary literature to write case narratives about pre-identified cases. Similarly, until recently (by Powell & Thyne), no dataset includes the failed August 1968 coup by officers loyal to Major General Ahmed Suadani. Following P&T’s inclusion of the event, the Colpus project dismissed the event as highly ambiguous given that reports on the event allegedly originated from the right-wing Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar a week later. However, al-Hayat, another Lebanese newspaper, reported the event prior to al-Nahar as did the French newspaper Le Monde. Further, reports emphasized clashes between army units in Aleppo. The Syrian government, represented by Colonel Abdal Karim al-Jundi, would go on to further implicate Suadani in an interview with the Egyptian Press, subsequently jailing the officer for a quarter-century. Further, scholars of Syrian politics such as Hinnebusch (2015), Moubayed (2006), and Khatib (2010) reference the event.
These omissions would be less likely if scholars more seriously engaged with localized sources. It should be noted that a wealth of local resources are available for data collection purposes. Hicham Bou Nassif’s 2020 paper on pre-Ba’ath Syrian coups is an excellent example. Bou Nassif consults several memoirs penned by Syrian civilians and military officers in the 20th century and provides several novel cases unavailable in any large-N project. This includes a thwarted coup plot in 1950 & 1954, another failed attempt in 1955, two plots in 1956, and two failures in 1957. While these events may not meet the conceptual criteria of all datasets - such as the coup plots - these events should still certainly show up in candidate lists. Coup datasets generally present the 1950’s as a decade of fewer coups in Syria but Bou Nassif’s consultation of local sources suggests otherwise.
THE PERILS OF “COLONIZED” COUP DATA
Scholarship focused on other forms of contentious politics - such as protests, riots, and terrorism- continues to recognize reporting bias in their data. The same cannot be said of coup research. That this has failed to garner any serious attention is striking given that nearly every mainstream coup dataset mostly relies on a) Western and international media sources and b) previous coup datasets similarly neglecting local sources and scholarship, as shown in the table below. More specifically, scholars appear to rely on newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, sources found in LexisNexis and ProQuest as well as encyclopedias such as Keesing’s Records of World Events and Encyclopedia Britannica. In addition, candidate lists also appear to be compiled using other pre-existing large-N datasets such as Singh (2014) and the P&T project. In short, coup datasets have become somewhat of an echo chamber as a result.
Why should we care about reporting bias in coup data, exactly?
First, a reliance on Western sources compromises scholars’ accuracy in data collection and subsequent empirical tests. Coup reporting by media outlets is not a random phenomenon and can likely be skewed towards specific types of events. In particular, there may be a bias to capture successful coups or particularly violent and bloody failed coups given the high-profile nature of the events. More mundane failed coups and coup plots are less likely to receive coverage as a result. In an ongoing project with Jonathan Powell and Bailey Sellers, we utilized regional and local sources combined with academic scholarship on Syria to produce a collection of coup data (successful, failed, and plots) between 1949-1968. Our research yielded 29 different events compared to the efforts of CSP (14) and CCD (17). For more on this work, check out on our ongoing coup narratives on Syria - drawn from a collection of country-specific scholarship and local sources - here.
Although including Syria’s omitted events does not dramatically change its overall “coup-proneness”, the timing of the omissions can have broader implications. As mentioned, the 1950’s - a period which is thought of as the country’s “democratic” era - appears less promising when including several of the omitted plots and failures found by Bou Nassif. Similar misperceptions could be made of Hafez al-Assad’s 30-year reign, which is depicted as generally coup-free both at his regime’s initiation and throughout his tenure. This would suggest that a) Assad did not face instability from Jadid supporters after the seizure of power and b) faced few challenges during his tenure. However, the 1972 coup signals that Assad faced a backlash to his rule early on just as the 1984 coup by his brother Rifaat shows that Hafez faced challenges from within his inner circle later in his tenure. For scholars interested in questions of coups and autocratic stability, using data which omits these events could bias any meaningful statistical test.
Second, and on a normative level, disproportionately relying on Western sources for data collection de-centers the experiences and histories of the countries in question. This perpetuates exclusionary practices in scholarship and places primacy on the objectives, concerns, and biases of non-local, Western actors. This is particularly problematic considering that local voices have historically been excluded and marginalized in the academy. Seriously reckoning with inclusion in the academy extends into the best practices we promote during data collection. Failing to do so results in “colonized” data. It should go without saying that local oral histories and narratives, memoirs, archives, and scholarship should be seriously integrated into any meaningful data collection project.
Ultimately, one might argue that accessibility and limited resources shape the decision to rely on non-local sources. This is a valid counterargument. However, scholars can take steps both in the immediate and long-term future to alleviate concerns of Western source bias and practical limitations. In the immediate short-term, scholars should integrate academic research reliant on local sources as valuable repositories for data and information. The Colpus project, for instance, mentions that they identified 74 new coup events in secondary literature (pg. 5). This is laudable but also suggests that these sources should be front and center to data collection rather than supplementary to general media sources. As a more long-term goal, scholars should seek to make coup data collection more collaborative, promoting interdisciplinary research by working with historians, sociologists, and anthropologists for data collection. These efforts should heavily emphasize trans-regional cooperation for research by prioritizing collaboration with scholars and researchers based in universities abroad. This helps to promote inclusion with historically-marginalized voices in Western academia as well as bolster the academic rigor of coup research.
Jonathan Powell & Mwita Chacha
We’ll start by unequivocally stating coups are problematic events that should not be fomented and should be treated with extreme skepticism. To the degree “good” coups occur, they often result by accident. Though legitimately well-meaning coupists may (occasionally) exist, they face an array of challenges and rarely have the ability to successfully navigate post-coup politics. Even if coups are occasionally well-intentioned, they can still worsen social, political, and economic crises rather than improve them. We can, however, try to learn what might have gone right in the cases with better outcomes, and what went wrong in the bad.
In reference to “good” outcomes, Nic Cheeseman’s recent contribution to The Africa Report points to the rarity of coups leading to democracy. He builds on his earlier essay that identified the negative consequences of coups for civilian rule and constitutional order, this time highlighting the failure of even the “best case scenarios” to produce democratic outcomes. Ultimately, he concludes that in a continent beset by over 100 coups, military interventions in politics have rarely had a “positive and sustained democratic impact.”
Cheeseman rightfully questions the degree to which coups can act as “springboards for democracy.” We build on his comments by pointing to two issues we feel are critical to understanding the issues. First, the high standard adopted in the essay obfuscates many lessons that can be learned from post-coup politics, both in terms of democracy and broader political and social outcomes. Though we fundamentally reject the idea of a “good coup,” using “positive and sustained democratic impact” is an exceptionally high bar that is very difficult to cross. Second, it is impossible to evaluate a coup’s impact without gauging the context in which it occurs and considering the broader prospects for democracy. Needless to say, coups occur in contexts that are hardly conducive to democracy. Addressing these issues, we argue, can help us look beyond the coup itself and look for lessons from history.
A HIGH BENCHMARK FOR SUCCESSFUL DEMOCRATIZATION
Though agreeing with Cheeseman’s general point, focusing solely on outcomes with a “positive and sustained democratic impact” is not an investigation of “good” coups, but instead approaches a veritable unicorn in the study of democratization. Applying this standard to other political phenomena will inevitably lead us to conclude that virtually every indicator fails the democracy test. This is because the likelihood of democratization is exceedingly low to begin with, sustaining democratization over the long term is even lower, and the context in which coups typically occur are especially poor environments for democratic transitions.
For example, Thyne and Powell’s commonly cited study on coups and democratization concluded that an average authoritarian regime has a 1-2% chance of democratization in a given year–outside the context of coups. Joe Wright’s influential study on foreign aid and democratization pointed to similar rates of transition, again, outside the context of coups. And one must keep in mind that these studies are referring to an initial transition, not a “sustained” one, whose probability will be even lower. A recent review conducted by Scott Mainwaring and Fernando Bizzarro, for example, indicated that more than half of third wave (those born between 1974-2012) democracies reverted to authoritarianism, while fewer than one-fifth of these saw major improvements over the long-term. Only Namibia, Cabo Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe, accounting for no more than 0.3% of the continent’s population, represented Africa in the 23 cases of major advances.
Cheeseman speaks of “frighteningly bad odds” of a “positive and sustained democratic impact” following coups, but this is precisely the nature of authoritarianism more generally. Moving away from authoritarianism is itself a very low-probability affair, and staying away from authoritarianism is an even lower one. In spite of this, most readers will likely be surprised at how common democratic transitions actually are. Jonathan Powell and Mwita Chacha explored post-coup trajectories in an earlier post at the Monkey Cage. They used monthly regime type data from the REIGN project started by Curtis Bell. It is important to clarify that decisions to code a country as a democracy are independent of any consideration of coups and incorporates a range of dynamics beyond the return to civilian rule and holding of an election. Using Powell and Thyne’s coup data, Powell and Chacha found that the post-Cold War era has seen nearly half of coup cases (against authoritarian governments) followed by a democratic transition within three years.
This hardly qualifies as sustained, however, and it is the case that many of these transitions are quickly unraveled. Rather than scoff at a presumed frailty of such regimes, those researching post-coup transitions are instead trying to determine which factors can help them last. In doing so, it is important to understand the environment we are investigating.
THE UNDEMOCRATIC CONTEXT OF COUPS
The low prospects for democratic transitions and survival appear even more dire when considering the environment in which coups occur. Coups, of course, do not occur randomly and researchers have pointed to a number of (unsurprising) factors that are consistently associated with the act, such as poverty, low rates of economic growth, having small and underfunded militaries, weaker ties to the global economy, ongoing domestic political instability, etc. These dynamics are inverse correlates of democratic transitions and democratic failure. Not only is this the case, but in the African context these dynamics seem to be worsening when it comes to coups.
Above we illustrate the mean GDP per Capita (constant 2015 US$) in Sub-Saharan African over time. We illustrate GDP per capita for all states in the region (green) and specific country-years that experienced a coup. It is not exactly a shock to see that wealthier states are more immune to coups. What is perhaps surprising is that the wealth gap between the typical country and the coup-afflicted one has become increasingly lopsided over time. GDP per capita in the 2010s reached 3x that of states that had coups. Further, recent coups have targeted states that are on average poorer than those targeted during the Cold War. While the continent has experienced sustained economic growth in recent decades, coups continue to target the poorest states. Paradoxically, as the world has witnessed a precipitous decline in coups, we have seen an improvement in many of the conditions that could provide a boost toward post-coup transitions, including national wealth.
Cheeseman’s essay refers to “best case scenarios” in the sense that there are a few commonly referenced “good” outcomes. However, there are no “best case scenarios” in which to investigate post-coup democratization prospects since coups are clustered in a subset of countries that are otherwise least likely to see sustained democratic growth. This can help us contextualize Mali’s 1991 coup, which targeted a long-entrenched dictatorship that had recently killed hundreds of protesters who had dared to ask for change, and had mismanaged the economy to the tune of a 2.5% GDP decline the previous year. The case was hardly suggestive of a positive outcome, and combined with a plethora of other challenges, the obvious conclusion was that any experiment with democracy would quickly fail. Mali instead spent the next 20 years as an often-referenced success story. A new military intervention two-plus decades later should not distract us from Mali’s 20 years of democratic rule, especially given the exceptionally challenging conditions from which Mali’s democracy was born.
These challenges extend beyond wealth, of course. Powell and Chacha raised the issue of dominant party legacies after Robert Mugabe’s ouster in Zimbabwe. While the event prompted considerable excitement and occasional sympathies that a transition had effectively already occurred with Mugabe's exit, it quickly became clear that the new regime had little interest in opening up the political system. Powell and Chacha's assessment, illustrated below, identified but a single case of dominant party systems democratizing within three years of a coup.
DEMOCRACY AS ONE OF SEVERAL “POSITIVE” OUTCOMES
Democracy is also but a subset of outcomes that can be described as “positive.” In many cases, particularly during the Cold War, there is little utility for using democratization as a metric as it was on few actors’ radars, was a low priority among both domestic and international actors, and coups almost invariably occurred in contexts in which more immediate challenges prevailed.
For example, Thomas Sankara’s coup-born government does not qualify as having had a “positive and sustained democratic impact.” In fact, it can’t claim a short-term democratic impact either, nor any sustained long-term impact given his brief tenure. He is, however, celebrated for having commenced a range of positive programs in Burkina Faso. Not only are these discounted when fixated solely on the issue of democratization, Sankara likely would not have been able to pursue many of his critical reforms within the context of a democracy, as many were quite unpopular with more conservative elements of society.
In other cases, democracy might be an accidental consequence of coups attempting to promote other positive outcomes. The actions of Portuguese soldiers in its 1974 Carnation Revolution had the immediate goal of ending the Novo Estado Regime’s colonial wars. Though democratization was not a specific goal of the coup, within three years the country had both witnessed its own transition and set off democracy’s “third wave” globally. However, any celebration of the event must be tempered with tragic short-term consequences. The transition period was accompanied by multiple further coup attempts, large scale civil violence, and a complete economic meltdown. Any assessment of “good coups” is destined to be a complicated affair and focusing on a single outcome could keep us from understanding important gains.
As it is, the African context has seen many coups that have been argued to have prevented further political deterioration or social unrest. Just prior to Portugal’s coup, Seyni Kountche’s 1974 ouster of Nigerien president Hamani Diori occurred in the context of worsening personalism and an inability to respond to a major drought that had plagued the Sahel. While the average person struggled during famine, President Diori’s family was accused of hoarding and profiteering from food aid. That there was support for the coup was hardly surprising, and while Kountche made no real effort to democratize, the post-coup administration represented a substantial improvement over what had immediately preceded it.
Christophe Soglo’s first coup in 1963 Dahomey was widely interpreted as having prevented a civil war. As a coup leader, Soglo’s declaration that his move was a “renovation” instead of a revolution is easy to dismiss. Scholars at the time, however, referred to the coup as “caretaker” and “referee,” while later studies with the benefit of hindsight still referred to Soglo’s intervention as a “corrective intervention” or “arbitrator coup” that kept a rapidly deteriorating political crisis from getting worse. Though Soglo would intervene again two years later, this was again a direct response to a rapidly worsening political crisis. While Soglo and the Dahomeyan army proved unable to fix their country’s politics, this must be understood within the context of a broader political context in which civil war was a likely alternative outcome.
LEARN FROM SHORT-TERM AND LOOK BEYOND COUPS
It is easy to dismiss the quick unraveling of a democracy as a sign that a country did not “really” transition to democracy. However, these events often reveal legitimate political changes that are unraveled by competing actors and interests or processes outside the control of the armed forces altogether.
Mauritania’s 2005 coup saw elements of the presidential guard overthrow what they described as President Taya’s “totalitarian” regime. Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall’s junta would navigate a transitional regime toward a new constitutional and a widely-praised election in which soldiers were forbidden to participate. Officers such as Vall were widely reported to have political ambitions, the fractured outcome of the parliamentary poll prompted fears that the new regime would be ungovernable, and there was clear interest among the armed forces in extending the transition period. However, they ultimately allowed the election to play out without their participation or interference. That the army did return to power 16 months later should not prompt us to ignore the short-term impacts of the 2005 coup. We should instead acknowledge what limited successes had occurred and to try to learn from them.
Perhaps the most important challenge to understanding post-coup developments is to move beyond a fixation on the coups themselves, and particularly successful ones. Though some might refer to coups as potential “springboards,” springboards only capture one small part of a multi-staged exercise. Anyone vaulting from a springboard must also execute their maneuver and stick the landing. The outcome already faces a high level of difficulty, but post-coup leaders have the added hazard of various actors who have incentives to sabotage their performance.
More plainly stated, understanding democratic transitions requires far more than focusing on high-profile events such as coups themselves. These events must be interpreted within the contexts they occur, and particular attention must be given to parsing out whether it is the coup, failed or successful, that is driving any political changes or whether the coup is itself a product of broader political or societal events already in motion.
For example, the 1982 failed coup in Kenya may have been followed by Moi’s authoritarian entrenchment. Yet closer inspection reveals that Moi had already been increasing his hold on power prior to the coup attempt. His aim, prior to the failed coup had been reducing the influence of Kenyatta holdovers in his government. Conversely, the failed coup in Zambia against Kenneth Kaunda in 1990 reportedly reinforced Kaunda’s commitment to returning to multiparty politics. However, the coup took place in the midst of ongoing mass discontent and Kaunda’s moves towards political liberalization. Both coup attempts had divergent outcomes influenced by their unique political contexts.
All cases are different, and assessing whether any particular event was “good” requires considering what would have happened in its absence. Cheeseman notes that of all of Africa’s coups, perhaps less than 5% had a “positive and sustained democratic impact.” But what was the likelihood of sustained democratic impacts in the absence of coups? For example, what would Mali’s history of democracy have looked like in the absence of ATT’s March 1991 coup?
It is also important to remember that coups often reflect attempts to prevent further deterioration. While many discussion’s of Mali’s 2012 refer to the disastrous developments that followed it, fewer commentaries acknowledge the coup itself was a direct product of an already deteriorating security situation. To be clear, the coup failed to prevent a further slide and instead contributed rapid territorial losses that amounted to roughly half the country. In other cases, worse outcomes might have been avoided. While not able to “fix” the political system or promote democracy, Soglo’s 1963 coup is credited by many with preventing civil war. Had the coup that brought Sankara to power not been attempted, there almost certainly would have still been a coup undertaken by more conservative elements of the armed forces in August 1983. Sankara taking power may have “failed” to bring demonstrable improvements in terms of democracy, but they action might have prevented a worse outcome. In short, the appearance of no change can sometimes reflect a major achievement.
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.
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