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.
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.
Initial Success & Regional Reponses: Sudan's 1971 Coup.
S Ben Hammou.
The 1995 Coup in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Egypt's Free Officers Through the World's Eyes.
J Powell & S Ben Hammou.
Anti Coup Strategies & Civilians.
S Ben Hammou & Avery Reyna
Sudan's Leader Says..
S Ben Hammou
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