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After Guinea-Bissau’s failed coup attempt, expect the government to reshuffle political elites

It’s not a purge — the likely goal is to dilute the possibility of internal threats

- March 3, 2022

Armed assailants attempted to launch a coup against the Guinea-Bissau government last month. Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló quickly reported that the plot was foiled, and he linked the perpetrators to the illicit drug trade.

My research suggests Embaló’s actions in the coming months — especially decisions about the appointments and shuffling of political elites — will yield important clues about whom the president sees as threatening to his rule.

A coup isn’t over, even if conspirators fail

Once launched, a coup attempt ushers in a crisis rulers cannot afford to ignore. Embaló’s predicament is reminiscent of Yahya Jammeh, the former ruler of neighboring Gambia. After surviving a 2014 coup attempt, Jammeh proclaimed, “We will get to the bottom of this and we will not spare anybody. … They [the conspirators] want to destroy our country. We will destroy them.”

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It might seem logical, as Jammeh points out, for rulers to root out the remaining opposition lest they fall victim to more conspiracies. But while rulers know who launched the now-defunct coup, it’s a greater challenge to figure out the identity of people who did not actively participate in the attempt — and yet oppose the ruler. These plotters and sympathizers constitute what I call the “invisible enemy,” who can quietly retreat and melt into the sea of government officials.

How rulers weaken the ‘invisible enemy’

To understand how rulers deal with this challenge, my research focused on the reign of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, who ruled from 1930 to 1935 and from 1940 to 1974. In 1960, a clandestine group of regime insiders launched a coup led in part by Mengistu Neway, commander of the Imperial Guards.

Although the attempt ultimately failed, Haile Selassie learned that the core conspirators were the very officials whom he had fostered as the vanguard for modernizing Ethiopia’s government. These were his protegees. If they could betray him, who else could?

I collected the career trajectories of mid- and high-level officials over 34 years in Ethiopia and examined at the granular level how Haile Selassie responded to the failed 1960 coup. With this data, I could follow whom he appointed and when, as well as where these officials came from within the government apparatus.

Conventional wisdom might have predicted rulers purging widely after a coup attempt to get rid of all the potatoes in the sack, rotten or not. But purging is a risky strategy because it cripples the government, invites reprisals from elites and is likely to upend the ruler’s support base, which they have worked diligently to build.

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Mass purges may be the exception rather than the rule in dealing with failed coups. I found no evidence for mass purges in Ethiopia. To be sure, purges happen — as in Turkey in 2016, but rarely are mass purges mentioned in connection with failed coups, even though such purges become public spectacles that are easily observed and recorded.

My research instead points to leaders strategizing to dilute the power of anyone who might later challenge their rule. With their power over appointments, rulers infuse the center of the regime with officials from the periphery, for instance. Why? The goal here is to avoid officials becoming too embedded in the social networks of the people living or working in the location where they have been appointed to. Over time, this theory suggests, officials might adopt the outlook and goals of people who stand in opposition to the ruler.

Officials close to the center could be at risk

The role of embeddedness becomes magnified in the wake of failed coups. The most powerful branches of government — the defense and finance ministries, for instance — typically are based in a country’s capital. Proximity facilitates the spreading of conspiracies, which travel along the social networks that government officials form over time.

Officials stationed in far-off provinces or in embassies abroad, however, are not embedded in the existing cliques at the center. These outsiders are unlikely to have links to the conspirators. This quality makes them a valuable asset during the uncertain period following a coup attempt.

Rulers can infuse outsiders into the center where the invisible enemy is poised to do the greatest harm. Once there, outsiders can act as agents of the ruler, spying on and disrupting the activities of the invisible enemy. In so doing, the enemy may remain invisible, but they are no longer invincible.

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Comparing Haile Selassie’s appointments in the wake of the 1960 failed coup to the other 33 years of his reign, I found he relied on outsiders in a way he never had done before, and never would again. There was a sudden influx of outside officials to the center of the regime. For example, before the coup, Belette Gebre-Tsadik served as governor in the northern and southern provinces of the empire, and afterward, became vice minister in the Ministry of Information. Likewise, Hagos Tewelde-Medhin, a relatively obscure official working in Ethiopian embassies abroad, was brought to the center after the coup to serve as commissioner in the Ministry of Pension and Supplies — and ended up a close adviser to Haile Selassie. Officials like these were deliberately placed throughout the ministries, nestled within the ranks of any potential critics.

What to watch for in Guinea-Bissau

My research offers a guide on how to interpret the weeks and months ahead in Guinea-Bissau. First off, it’s important to consider the motives behind Embaló’s diagnosis of the coup attempt. The target audience for what he says isn’t just the public, but fellow regime insiders as he tries to manage the crisis at hand.

Second, although he served as prime minister before, Embaló’s election as president was contested, and he is relatively new to his position. It remains unclear how much institutional power and political capital Embaló has to reshape the composition of his regime. This makes his appointments a particularly important means of addressing the internal threats he is facing. And that puts a spotlight on the movement of ministers, but also on the lower-level bureaucrats who make up the government apparatus.

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Josef Woldense (@JWoldense) is an assistant professor in African American and African studies and affiliated faculty in political science at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.