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Taking stock of 'good coups' in Africa

- May 18, 2015

Boys walk behind patrolling soldiers in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 15, 2015. Burundian forces arrested the leader of a failed coup on Friday, and President Pierre Nkurunziza returned to the capital, his spokesman said, but protesters pledged to go back to the streets, setting the stage for more clashes. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Increasingly, scholars are highlighting the occurrence of “good” or democratizing coups in the post-Cold War period. Alexander Noyes’s recent post summarizes the research showing that coups frequently usher in competitive multiparty elections and thus help foster democratic transitions.
For many, recent events in Burkina Faso indicate that the “good coup” theory also holds true for sub-Saharan Africa: The intervention of Burkina’s army in November 2014 put an end to Blaise Compaoré’s decade-long rule. A civilian interim government then paved the way for what promises to be democratic elections, scheduled for October 2015. Like other commentators, Noyes argues that the (by now failed) coup in Burundi could follow Burkina’s 2014 coup and turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Yet policymakers and academics should not get too excited about the allegedly positive consequences of coups in Africa. A systematic reexamination of all African coups after 1990 (for a list of all coups worldwide see Jonathan Powell’s dataset) reveals that African armies are as likely to establish democratic elections as they are to remain in power. African coup outcomes are mixed.
There is some good news for those who want to believe in “good coups.” A number of military interventions in Africa have led to competitive multiparty elections, creating a necessary condition for successful democratization. These cases include the often (perhaps too often)-cited Malian coup of 1991, the Lesotho coup of 1991, the Nigerien coups of 1999 and 2000, the Guinean coup of 2008, the Malian coup of 2012 and potentially Burkina Faso’s 2014 coup, among others.
However, even after the end of the Cold War, Africa had many coups by which African armies remained in power. To arrive at a realistic evaluation of African coups, it is important to note that armies have at least three options to stay in power in the aftermath of a coup.
First, armies overthrow a government and establish or reinforce a military dictatorship. As multiparty elections have become the norm across the world, African armies rarely choose to simply remain in power. The Nigerian coup of 1993 is a rare example of this strategy.
Second, in the aftermath of a coup, junta leaders form a party and subsequently rig the elections in their favor. This strategy is more common. Niger’s presidential election of July 1996 is a case in point. A few months after overthrowing the civilian government in January 1996, coup leader Col. Ibrahim Bare Mainassara formed a new party and declared his intention to contest the post-coup elections. After the first day of voting, the army dissolved the electoral commission and declared Mainassara democratically elected.
Third, the junta throws its support behind a civilian politician and promises to influence the election in his favor. In return the civilian candidate promises political concessions. This strategy is difficult for outside observers to detect. An example for this route to power was the 2007 Mauritanian presidential election that followed Mauritania’s 2005 coup. When newly elected President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi failed to pursue policies that were in line with the generals’ demands, the army removed him in 2008.
In addition to the examples cited above, the list of “bad” coups or coups leading to military rule includes the Sierra Leonean coup of 1992, the Gambian coup of 1994, the Ivorian coup of 1999 and the coups in Central African Republic in 2003 and 2013. None of these coups — and this list is by no means exhaustive — have created democratic environments or improved the lives of the citizens living under military rule. Overall, there are at least as many examples of “bad” coups in sub-Saharan Africa as there are examples of “good” coups.
The mixed outcomes of African coups have implications for scholars and policymakers.
Scholars need to engage more thoroughly with the structural factors and political processes that shape the post-coup environment. Although all African countries are aid-dependent, scholars need to focus on whom these countries depend. As argued by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, many donor countries care less about democratization and prioritize their own security and socioeconomic interests instead. China and France both fall into this category. Both nations constitute the main trading partners of African nations where “bad” coups have taken place.
Political path dependency might also account for some variation. Countries in which the army contributed to the political liberalization of many African countries in the early 1990s might be prone to democratizing coups rather than coups that lead to direct or indirect military rule. This might explain why, for example, Mali has experienced several democratizing coups.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, scholars must stop treating African armies as coherent entities. The example of the failed Burundian coup provides daily insights into how divided African armies are. The lead coup plotter, General Godefroid Niyombare, clearly underestimated the ongoing support of large sections of the Burundian army for President Pierre Nkurunziza. Internal fragmentation may also account for why some countries, e.g., Niger or Nigeria, have seen both “good” and “bad” coups within a relatively short period of time.
Although outcomes following military coups in Africa are mixed, it bears repeating that some coups were essential to subsequent democratic elections. Thus far, the reaction of international and regional organizations to military interventions has been confined to verbal condemnation and economic sanctions. Such reactions could lead to further destabilization and escalation. Given the diverse consequences of military coups in Africa, a more fruitful approach might be for the international community to seek dialogue with incoming juntas.
Sebastian Elischer is assistant professor of comparative politics at the Leuphana University Lüneburg and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. He will join the University of Florida in August 2015.