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Are African military coups on the increase once more?

The recent events in Guinea, which resulted in President Condé's ouster, are the latest example of the army interfering in domestic affairs.

Throughout the decades after independence, military coups have become commonplace in Africa.

The recent events in Guinea, which resulted in President Condé’s ouster, are the latest example of the army interfering in domestic affairs.

In less than a year, the army has intervened twice in neighboring Mali, the most recent in May.

In March, just days before a presidential inauguration, a coup attempt in Niger was foiled.

So, are military interventions on the continent becoming more common?

When is a coup d’état a coup d’état?
An illegal and overt attempt by the military – or other civilian officials – to depose sitting leaders is one definition.

Over 200 such attempts have been documented in Africa since the late 1950s, according to a study by two American researchers, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne.

About half of them were successful, meaning they lasted longer than seven days.

Burkina Faso, in West Africa, has had the most success, with seven successful and only one unsuccessful.

A graph depicting successful and unsuccessful military coups in Africa.

Those involved in such an intervention may deny it is a coup.

Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule in Zimbabwe came to an end in 2017 after a military takeover.

One of the leaders of the action, Major General Sibusiso Moyo, appeared on television at the time, flatly denying a military takeover.

In April this year, after the death of the Chadian leader Idriss Deby, the army installed his son as interim president leading a transitional military council. His opponents called it a “dynastic coup”.

“Coup leaders almost invariably deny their action was a coup in an effort to appear legitimate,” says Jonathan Powell.

Zimbabwean soldier
There were celebrations after the Zimbabwe army intervened against President Mugabe in 2017
Are there fewer coups now in Africa?
In the four decades between 1960 and 2000, the overall number of coup attempts in Africa has remained remarkably consistent at an average of around four a year.

Since then, this has fallen – to around two each year in the two decades to 2019.

Jonathan Powell says this is not surprising given the instability African countries experienced in the years after independence.

“African countries have had the conditions common for coups, like poverty and poor economic performance. When a country has one coup, that’s often a harbinger of more coups.”

Ndubuisi Christian Ani from the University of KwaZulu-Natal says popular uprisings against long-serving dictators have provided opportunity for the return of coups in Africa.

“While popular uprisings are legitimate and people-led, its success is often determined by the decision taken by the military,” he says.

Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno
Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, who succeeded his father as Chadian leader in April 2021
Which African countries have had the most coups?
Sudan has had the most with 15 – five of them successful. The most recent came in 2019 with the departure of Omar al-Bashir as head of state following months of popular unrest.

Bashir had himself taken over control in a military revolution in 1989.

Nigeria has a reputation for military coups in the years following independence with eight between January 1966 and the seizure by General Sani Abacha in 1993.

However, since 1999 transitions of power in Africa’s most populous nation have been through democratic election.

Map of Africa with coups per country (May 2021) (May 2021)

Burundi’s history has been marked by eleven different coups, largely fueled by the conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi communities.

Sierra Leone experienced three coups in 1967 and 1968, and another one in 1971. Between 1992 and 1997, it experienced five further coup attempts.

Ghana has also had its share of military coups, with eight in two decades. The first was in 1966, when Kwame Nkrumah was removed from power, and in the following year there was an abortive effort by junior army commanders.

Overall, Africa has experienced more coups than any other continent.

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