King Coup

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“African Military Coups d’État, 1956–2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution” by Patrick J. McGowan, in The Journal of Modern African Studies (Sept. 2003), Cambridge Univ. Press, 100 Brook Hill Dr., West Nyack, N.Y. 10994–2133.

Military coups seem pretty much a thing of the past in most of the world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, only a few coups have succeeded (notably, in Haiti and Pakistan) since the mid-1980s. But sub-Saharan Africa is another story altogether: Between 1985 and 2001, it experienced 21 successful coups and 41 failed attempts, reports McGowan, a political scientist at Arizona State University.

Coups d’état began to become frequent and widespread in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1960s, he says. Between 1956 and 2001, the 48 independent African states experienced 80 coups, 108 failed attempts, and 139 coup plots. Eighteen countries suffered more than one coup, and Nigeria, Benin, and Burkina Faso had six apiece. West Africa, with one-third of the states but 45 percent of the coup attempts, is the most coup-prone region.

Only six African countries have been completely free of coup plots and attempts, but three of those (Namibia, Eritrea, and South Africa) became independent or majority ruled only in the 1990s. “Only the multiparty democracies of Botswana, Cape Verde, and Mauritius,” McGowan observes, “have been both independent for more than 25 years and entirely free of the coup virus.”

Despite the trend toward democratization in the 1990s, the African propensity for coups hardly changed, though their success rate diminished. In the dozen years before 1990, there were 54 attempted coups, 26 of them successful; in the next dozen years, there were 50 attempts, 13 successful. “New, weakly institutionalized democratic governments are as apt to suffer from the coup virus as are weak one-party and military regimes,” McGowan points out.

But since 1990, a slim majority (27) of the African states have had no coup attempts. The reasons vary, says McGowan. In some countries, “the military has been bought off by sharing in the spoils of the regime”; in others, civil wars are in progress. And a dozen of the coup-free states have “functioning multiparty democratic political systems.” Democracy, even when well-established, does not eliminate the risk of a coup, he observes, but it helps.

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