In Other Words

Africa’s Revolutionary Routine

Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3, September 2003, Cambridge Military coups have gone out of fashion across most of the globe. In the 1970s, colonels in Greece could take over the government, but today, a military coup anywhere in Europe would be unthinkable. Even in Latin America — once the world’s coup ...

Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 41, No. 3, September 2003, Cambridge

Military coups have gone out of fashion across most of the globe. In the 1970s, colonels in Greece could take over the government, but today, a military coup anywhere in Europe would be unthinkable. Even in Latin America — once the world’s coup epicenter — such an act would likely be greeted with mockery. Only in Africa does the coup remain a recurring aspect of public life.

Patrick McGowan, a political scientist at Arizona State University, tracks African military coups — successful, unsuccessful, and aborted — in a study published recently in the quarterly Journal of Modern African Studies. The results are not pretty. From 1956 to 2001, only three nations (Botswana, Cape Verde, and Mauritius) did not experience any coups or coup attempts. Overall, 30 African nations experienced 80 successful coups in that period; all of these states, except for the Seychelles, also faced failed coups and plots. Yet coups usually settled nothing; rather, they encouraged other military factions to try their luck. Indeed, 89 percent of African coup attempts during this period targeted military regimes that had themselves staged successful coups earlier.

McGowan pinpoints West Africa as the region most prone to such military adventurism, but any new African regime, whether elected or put in place by force, faces significant risk. Worse yet, McGowan finds no indication of improvement: Coups in Africa occurred as frequently in the 1990s — purportedly the decade of democratization — as in supposedly bloodier decades. The only encouraging sign is their declining success rate, which fell from a peak of 74 percent between 1966 and 1970 to 38 percent in 1996-2001.

McGowan aims mainly to document this epidemic rather than explain it, and he certainly does a thorough job. But his article bypasses the key question: Why have coups persisted across Africa when the rest of the world has repudiated this absurd form of regime change?

Africa’s enduring vulnerability to coups is clearly linked to the lack of legitimacy in most African states, an unavoidable condition for a continent where many nations achieved independence in just the past 30 years. But even over time, contemporary African governments have failed to gain popular legitimacy and acceptance, likely because they have failed their citizens. In many African states, living standards are lower now than they were 30 years ago. Notable exceptions include — no surprise — Botswana, Cape Verde, and Mauritius, where continuing economic success underwrites the governments’ legitimacy.

Of course, just as economic success helps guard against coups, coups themselves also undermine economic performance. Moreover, as McGowan points out, other historical and social factors are at work. African armies are often populated by soldiers who failed to make it into the civil service — the usual destination of postcolonial Africa’s best and brightest. To maintain control, military dictators frequently undermine the civil service by promoting corrupt sycophants, for they know that once the civil service is rotten at the top, reform becomes almost impossible.

So, what can be done? In 2003, two coups against democratically elected governments — the Central African Republic (CAR) as well as São Tomé and Príncipe — offer some interesting lessons. In São Tomé and Príncipe, quick condemnation from the African Union (AU) and Nigeria contributed to the coup’s reversal. (Admittedly, São Tomé and Príncipe’s armed forces have only 900 soldiers and the coup’s core consisted of fewer than 20). By contrast, the CAR coup brought international protest but no equivalent regional pressure. The coup leaders still run the country today.

In addition to political pressure, the international community can wield the economic privileges of sovereignty as a weapon in the battle against African coups. For most African countries, foreign aid is sovereignty’s key privilege. Rich donor nations could ally with the AU to withhold aid from African countries that stage coups or undermine democracy in other ways. (In many respects, the AU models itself after the European Union, where membership is contingent on democratic practices.) The AU offers political legitimacy for such actions but lacks the enforcement mechanisms. By contrast, the donor countries control the aid flows but lack legitimacy. Together, they could help make African coups a scourge of the past.

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