Coups, like other concepts in political science, do not have a universally accepted definition, though there is a general agreement on it.
The generally agreed-upon definition is that a coup is an illegal and overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of the executive (head of state or head of government) and then hold power for at least seven days.
Coups may result in regime change or rule change. In successful coups, the perpetrators hold power for at least seven days, and anything below that is categorized as a failed coup or an attempted coup.
In Africa, since 1952, only seven years have had no coups: 1953, 1957, 1958, 1988, 2008, 2016, and 2018. All the other years have experienced coups.
45 countries have experienced attempted coups, but only 36 countries have had successful coups lasting over seven days.
Since the inception of independence in Africa in the 1950s, over 200 coup attempts have occurred, with over 170 coups being successful.
Since 2017, there have been eighteen coup attempts, with seventeen happening in Africa and only one in Myanmar. While Burkina Faso has had the highest number of successful coups, nine out of ten attempts, with one failing, Sudan has had the highest number of coup attempts, sixteen in total, with only six being successful. Ghana and Sierra Leone have had ten coup attempts, Guinea Bissau nine, Benin, Niger, Nigeria have had eight, although Nigeria’s last coup was in 1993, Burundi had eleven coup attempts, along with other countries.
Why does Africa experience more coup attempts than other regions?
While popular mass movements and uprisings are constitutionally legal and legitimate in most countries, and people-centered, the ultimate success of a coup is determined by the decisions of the military.
Countries with high rates of poverty, poor governance, as well as leaders who have been in power for extended periods, are at a higher risk of experiencing coups, as seen in Sudan. Popular uprisings, protests against long-serving leaders, civil conflicts, and civil wars provide opportunities for coups to take place. Sudan is a prime example, as the public protested against General Omar Bashir, who had been in power since 1989 until 2019 when he was ousted.
Countries facing perceived insecurity due to terrorism and insurgencies, led by leaders lacking both military and citizen legitimacy, are more susceptible to coups. These factors are prevalent in the Sahel region, contributing to the occurrence of coups in countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.
Most African countries that have experienced numerous coup attempts are characterized by poverty and low gross domestic product (GDP). For example, Sudan had a GDP of USD 21 billion in 2019, Niger USD 15 billion, Mali USD 20 billion, among other countries.
Disloyalty of the military towards the executive, and vice versa, has also led to coups in countries like Niger, Burkina Faso, and much of the Sahel region. While some leaders buy military loyalty through substantial military expenditures, there is a positive correlation between governments with high military spending and a lack of coups.
Disloyalty often arises when the military and political elites hold opposing opinions on internal security issues like insurgencies, uprisings, and terrorist attacks. The military, having less incentive to maintain loyalty compared to the head of the executive, may decide to act against the government.
Other causes of coups include international interference and other factors.
Although coups have been attempted solutions, they have not proven to be the ultimate answers to the issues raised by the perpetrators.
With the exception of Michael Djotodia of Mali in 2013, none of these coups could have been led by civilians. Djotodia, as the leader of the entire Muslim community and the 1st deputy prime minister in charge of National Defense, took over power after the Seleka rebellion.
Coups have often disrupted the process of democratic consolidation and democratization, as seen in Mauritania, Thailand, and other countries.
For instance, during the 2005 coup in Mauritania, the military played an instrumental role but did not establish its own government. Instead, coup leaders barred the military from participating in elections.
On the other hand, coups can also lead to positive outcomes by removing long-serving leaders from power, as seen with Robert Mugabe’s ousting in Zimbabwe in 2017, which initiated a move towards democratization.
Coups can exacerbate civil wars by causing continuous government instability, as seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and post-1989 Sudan.
Conversely, coups can shorten civil wars and conflicts when the new leaders promote power-sharing agreements among different civil factions, as exemplified by Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso in 1983 and Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria in 1999.
In conclusion, coups can have both positive and negative effects on democratic consolidation, and while they lack a uniform impact on stability, economic stability, and internal threats, they remain unpredictable in their outcomes.