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.
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