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.
The Arab World’s First Coup D’etat
While observers generally point to the 1952 Free Officers coup in Egypt as the MENA’s quintessential coup, the Oct. 1936 coup in Iraq stands as the modern Arab world’s first coup d’etat.
85 years ago, Hikmat Suleyman, the leader of the nationalist Ahali movement, and General Bakr al-Sidqi plotted against and successfully removed the government of Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi. Hashimi’s government staunchly repressed Iraq’s various political movements, including the Ahali group, and relied on clientelist networks to maintain power. The disillusioned activists began exploring options to strike at Hashimi and supplant him with Suleyman - ultimately establishing contacts with General Bakr al-Sidqi. Sidqi, a Kurdish army general, similarly grew disillusioned with the Hashimi government following massacres against Yazidi and Kurdish populations by the Royal Iraqi Armed Forces. Additionally, Sidqi shared Suleyman’s bitter sentiments over the government’s behavior, pointing to the leadership’s refusal to supply the armed forces with sufficient weapons while engaging in lavish purchases for high-ranking civilian officials. A dispute with Hashimi’s brother and the Chief of Staff, Taha al-Hashimi, further alienated the general from the government. With the shared goals of Hashimi’s removal, Sidqi and Suleyman thus formed a civil-military coup alliance - which struck on Oct. 29, 1936.
Iraqi soldiers under Sidqi’s command marched into Baghdad in the early morning. As these forces moved into the city, air force planes flew overhead and dispensed leaflets demanding Yasin al-Hashimi’s resignation and Suleyman’s ascension across the capital. The leaflet was also delivered to the king by Suleyman as Sidqi’s forces secured the city. To further press Hashimi’s resignation, Sidqi’s planes dropped bombs near his office. Shortly after, Hashimi tendered his resignation and Iraq’s king Ghazi bin Faisal called upon Suleyman to form a new government.
The post-coup government of Hikmat Suleyman and Bakr al-Sidqi faced significant challenges from its inception. Struggles within the new government and rivalries within the armed forces eventually culminated in Sidqi’s assassination and the forced resignation of Suleyman’s government less than a year later in August 1937. The government’s failure sparked a five-year period of chronic instability in Iraqi politics as six different coups followed. These putsches were punctuated with the April 1941 pro-Axis coup of nationalist Rashid Ali Gaylani and a group of officers known as the Golden Square. Gaylani fell from power when the British invaded a month later to reinstate the monarchy.
Ultimately, the Suleyman-Sidqi coup began a wave of coups d’etat across the Middle East and North Africa as nationalist officers and their civilian backers vied for power in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond. These events would dominate political life throughout the 1950s-60s before notably ebbing in the 1970s.
Al-Marashi, Ibrahim, and Sammy Salama. 2008. Iraq's armed forces: an analytical history. Routledge.
Batatu, Hanna. 1978. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers. Princeton University.
Khadduri, Majid. 1948. The coup d'etat of 1936: A Study in Iraqi Politics. The Middle East Journal: 270-292.
Khadduri, Majid. 1960. Independent Iraq, 1932-1958: A Study in Iraqi Politics. Oxford University Press.
Kinney, Drew Holland. 2018. Politicians at arms: Civilian recruitment of soldiers for Middle East Coups. Armed Forces & Society 45(4): 681-701.
Simon, Reeva S. 2004. Iraq between the two World Wars: The militarist origins of tyranny. Columbia University Press.
Sorby Jr, Karol. 2011. IRAQ's FIRST COUP GOVERNMENT (1936-1937). Asian & African Studies (13351257), 20(1)
Tarbush, Mohammad A. 2015. The role of the military in politics: A case study of Iraq to 1941. Routledge.
Tripp, Charles. 2002. A history of Iraq. Cambridge University Press.
The following was recently published at The Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
On September 21, 2021, members of the Sudanese military attempted to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in a failed coup d’etat. The attempt was allegedly the product of soldiers and civilian politicians previously linked to former strongman Omar al-Bashir. Al-Bashir was deposed in a coup amid mass protests in April 2019, ending his 30-year regime which was itself initiated by a coup in 1989. Hamdok, who has presided over the country’s transition as the head of a joint civil-military government, detailed the coupists’ attempt to seize the television and radio station in Khartoum, but assured the public that the attempt was quickly nipped and the plotters arrested. The failed attempt, according to Hamdok, was one of many recent events aimed at destabilizing the country.
Naturally this latest event has quickly raised questions about the transition’s durability (here, here, here, here). After all, similar democratic experiments in Sudan’s history have fallen victim to coups - such as the 1989 coup by Omar al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi against the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi. In addition, observers have questioned the cohesion of the transitional government, pointing to an uneasy tension between its civilian body, composed of activists and technocrats, and its military body, composed of security actors who defected and removed al-Bashir in 2019. To be clear, these fears are not unwarranted as the civilian and military factions have initiated a war of words following the coup’s failure. Despite the troubling fragmentation of the transitional government, failed coups are often a part of the democratization story - even amongst successful transitions.
While many observers have treated coups as an afterthought in recent years (here, here, here, here, here), 2021 has seen a bit of a revival of these events. A failed coup occurred in Niger on March 31, when an air force unit attempted to seize power two days before the inauguration of President-elect Mohamed Bazoum. The military usurped the constitutional succession process after the death of Chadian president Idriss Deby on April 20. Mali experienced its second coup in nine months when on May 24, Colonel Assimi Goita supplanted Bah Ndaw, who himself had taken power in a coup in September 2020. Most recently, Guinean President Alpha Condé was ousted by a special forces unit in early September and the coup leader, Mamady Doumbouya, ascended to the presidency.
Various commentaries have sought to link these events given their proximity in time and space. For example, many observers have blamed the resurgence of coups on a perceived lack of response from the international community, especially regional actors such as the African Union. It is natural to try to interpret these events through the same general coup framework. However, whatever commonalities these countries might have, they are separated by a wide range of domestic political situations. Conde’s removal in Guinea occurred after circumventing prior restrictions on term limits, a fate previously seen in the region by leaders such as Mamadou Tandja and—almost--Pierre Nkurunziza. Mali has seen itself fall victim to the coup trap after a 2012 coup derailed its 20-year experience with democracy. In contrast, Chad’s coup, which saw the ascendance of Deby’s son as the new head of state, can at least in part be interpreted as an effort to preserve a regime rather than change it.
So how does Sudan fit into these dynamics? After the 2019 coup against Omar al-Bashir, Sudan has seen various coup plots aimed at avoiding any sort of a transition. Whether it is coups that come about in the midst of executive aggrandizement, or coups that seek to return or preserve privileges of other elites, a common theme throughout all of these events is the illegitimate effort to preserve authority. Thus far, Sudan has thus far avoided following Mali into the coup trap or Guinea into more explicit military rule. Aas it slowly moves toward assumed permanent civilian rule it is natural to compare the most recent coup attempt to Africa's other recent coups. However, a more hopeful comparison can be found in the more distant past.
Chris Fomunyoh has aptly described the region’s transitions as “democratization in fits and starts” and attempts to veto or reverse transitions from the armed forces are quite common. Even in the more successful cases. Following the 2014 removal of Blaise Compaore by mass protests against the leader’s attempt to extend his tenure, Burkina Faso saw elements loyal to the deposed leader attempt a coup just prior to its 2015 election. However, rather than successfully preserving regime holdovers, the plotters faced pronounced opposition from civilians, both at the elite and mass level, causing the coup to unravel within a week and the conspirators to be charged. Transitional president Michael Kafando was reinstated and Roch Marc Christian Kabore would go on to win the subsequent poll in November 2015. Kabore was the first president in nearly 50 years without any ties to the armed forces.
Mali’s infamous transition—set in motion by Amadou Toumani Touré’s coup against longtime dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991—was far from smooth. Similar to Burkina Faso’s transition, an attempted coup by Lamine Diabira sought to derail Mali’s liberalization. Diabira allegedly refused to hand power back over to civilians, placing him at odds with the rest of the transitional junta. However, his effort was squashed by forces loyal to Touré, and following support from pro-democracy demonstrators Alpha Oumar Konaré emerged as Mali’s first democratically-elected president.
In perhaps the most famous example of post-coup democratic transitions, Portugal saw the removal of Europe’s oldest dictatorship at the hands of its armed forces in 1974. Though celebrated for initiating the country’s transition to stable democratic rule, the path from coup to democratization was far from smooth or stable. Factions across the political spectrum tried to derail the transition and seize power for themselves. An attempted counter-coup in March 1975 by a far-right faction within the military sought to derail the transition but was thwarted. Similarly, leftist officers sought to establish a communist regime in November 1975 but were quickly subverted by forces loyal to General António Ramalho Eanes and the transitional government. Despite these veto attempts, the country’s democratic system was able to consolidate and remains robust to this day.
Failed coups have acted as harbingers of future coups, have sparked civil wars, repression, and mass killings. And though unlikely to be associated with democratization at first glance, recent evidence has suggested that “perhaps counterintuitively, failed coups that target transitioning regimes may play a role in helping those regimes consolidate” by outing opponents, rallying support for the regime, and justifying various elements of security sector reform. Though the transitional government remains divided, both Hamdok and Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, its chief military figure, have set their sights on substantial army reforms to forbid partisan tendencies amongst active-duty soldiers. Recent protests against military rule also highlight that potential future coupists could also face significant pushback from the domestic population, as seen in 1991 Mali and 2015 Burkina Faso.
Rather than harbingers of continued praetorianism, these events have sometimes acted as signposts on the road to lasting civilian rule. Hopefully—years from now—we will be able to look back at Sudan's recent coup conspiracies not through the lens of coups, but rather through the lens of a successful democratic transition.
Jonathan Powell is an Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Central Florida.
Salah Ben Hammou is a Ph.D. student of Security Studies at the University of Central Florida.
The demise of the coup, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated. The year began with the February 1 coup in Myanmar, which saw the termination of the country’s democratization process. Two months later, elements of the Nigerien Air Force under the command of Captain Sani Saley Gourouza were thwarted in their bid to unseat President Mahamadou Issoufou. The same month saw an alleged ambiguous plot against King Abdullah II of Jordan uncovered, implicating his half-brother Prince Hussein and his security detail. Putschists in Mali proved more successful in May, when forces under Assimi Goita ousted the interim government of Bah Ndaw, who himself had come to power via a coup last August. Following the death of President Idriss Déby, Chad saw the military usurp the succession process. The parliament was dissolved and a Transitional Military Council was announced. Major General Mahamat Déby Itno would assume his father’s place as the president. The recent run of coups in the Sahel were joined in September by the Guinean military’s removal of Alpha Condé on September 5 and a failed coup against the transitional government in Sudan on September 21.
Conde’s political entrenchment did not do much to boost his popularity. Following his constitutional push for a third term (the constitution allowed for two five-year terms prior to the change) in March 2020, protests erupted against the government and were met with force by security forces. The protests continued through his reelection in October 2020 , facing violent backlash, and continued well into 2021. Gunfire erupted around the Presidential Palace on the morning of September 5 as the coupists, led by Special Forces Commander Mamady Doumbouya, overwhelmed government forces and detained Conde, transferring him to a military compound.
The coupists soon took to social media to reveal that Conde was unharmed and to announce their intentions to the world. They cited the public’s grievances with the president, including allegations of corruption, financial mismanagement, and democratic erosion, and claimed that they would establish a transitional government with a new drafted constitution. They later clarified that Doumbouya would lead the transition but with a civilian cabinet at his side. International actors have largely condemned the coup and demanded an adherence to the now-suspended constitution. Thus far, it seems that the new junta has not faced significant domestic backlash but the country’s trajectory continues to appear uncertain.
This latest event saw soldiers attempt to seize the state’s official media building and gain access to television and radio stations around 3 am on Tuesday morning. A period of uncertainty quickly followed as Mohammed al-Faki Suleiman immediately took to social media and called on all Sudanese citizens to rise up and defend the transition. Soon after the announcement, pro-government tanks rolled into Khartoum and the attempt fell apart.
According to the government’s narrative, the plot was well-formulated beforehand and included elements of the armed forces stationed across the country such as in Shagara (south of Khartoum) and Wadi Sidna and Omdurman. Government statements placed Lt. Gen Abdul Baqi Al Hassan Othman, a commander from Omdurman, as the coup’s leader. Othman and his allied troops were arrested. They remain in custody and are allegedly facing interrogation. The joint civil-military transitional government reiterated its commitment to overseeing the country’s transition to free and fair elections set for next year. This event comes on the back of another suspected plot earlier in September, which saw reports circulate around social media claiming that the government uncovered a plot by army officers. The Sudanese army denied this claim, however.
General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti), a member of the transitional government, has stated that civilians’ lack of progress on economic fronts led to the coup, a sentiment shared by al-Burhan during their address to a military graduation. The military’s presence in the transitional government has been a point of criticism for many observers, particularly as the arrangement appears to weaken by the day. It is unclear whether this latest coup attempt will continue to escalate tensions in the government and jeopardize the transition.
While researchers and observers have increasingly pointed to the decline of coups, recent events this year have revitalized interest in putsches, mutinies, and similar contentious behaviors. This year’s coup events range across a host of different contexts. The Myanmar coup and failed Sudanese attempt occurred amid ongoing democratic transitions, with the former effectively ending the process. In Mali and Chad, the coup events occurred amid authoritarian contexts and the leadership changes continued to maintain the status quo. Conversely, in Guinea and Somalia (though the latter did not constitute a coup), the events occurred amid ongoing attempts of executive aggrandizement. Though the year is yet to conclude, 2021 shows that coups are not altogether relics of the past.
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