Africa's coup 'stars', including some unlikely ones, and why fear of soldiers might be good for economic growth

Unconstitutional takeovers of power are not alien to the continent, but which countries have been better at them?

COMOROS president Ikililou Dhoinine on Monday by decree postponed general elections, and offered no reason. The ballot will now take place in February 2015 instead of late December this year, according to the interior ministry. 

The archipelago nation is on the surface a picturesque holiday getaway. However, it harbours major tensions between its major constituent islands and the central government, the result of which over the years has been slow growth and less money in its citizens’ pockets.

Dhoinine’s term ends in 2016, and he will be glad to get there—the country has by some credible counts experienced at least 20 coup attempts since 1975, when three of its four islands declared independence from France.  

This puts it in the league of Guinea Bissau, another African country the media frequently refer to as “chronically unstable.” Since independence it experienced at least 10 coup bids, with the added distinction that no elected leader has ever completed their term.  

Mail & Guardian Africa categorised at least six of the attempts in Comoros as “substantial” or successful, meaning power changed hands. Using the same measure, the island would join two other countries that have had as many coup attempts since independence: regional powerhouse Nigeria, and Burundi. 

Never a dull year

There is never a dull year in Africa when it comes to unconstitutional changes of authority. The continent has been home to mercenaries who held sway over a raft of governments, in the mould of the Bob Denards and the Simon Manns.

There have been coups internationally condemned as unconstitutional but that have been popular back home, such as in Guinea in 2008 upon the death of president Lansana Conte. Some might even argue that coups were good for some countries—they brought to power figures who were important for stability, a key requirement in a fluid continent, but which that oppositionists would not take too kindly to, such as in Burkina Faso, the Congo Republic and Ghana.

There have been strongmen who have seized power (some even twice), and later reinvented themselves as regional statesmen, such as Burundi’s Pierre Buyoya and Burkina’s Blaise Compaoré.           

All in the family

Relatives have ousted each other, such as in Togo where current leader Teodoro Obiang Nguema relieved his uncle of state duties in 1979. 

There have also been palace coups where the people wake up to a new leader, with little sign of soldiers, such as in Tunisia, while some countries like Ethiopia and Liberia were never classic colonies but still made time for a coup or two.

While West Africa has often been identified as a coup hotspot, a count of successful power takeovers shows eastern Africa and the Maghreb have also weighed in admirably. 

It is also possible that the numbers of attempts are higher—Libya for example had only one successful coup, in 1969, but over six attempts during Muammar Gaddafi’s four decades in power, but most of these are undocumented, including at least one by his son.   

There are also some unlikely coup-prone “stars” that are now near-exemplary democracies, such as Ghana.

Amidst all this, there have been countries that have had no soldiers in power. Some have had no chance for soldiers to stage one—South Africa’s army was preoccupied with enforcing apartheid lines—while Swaziland has been a monarchy for as long as its modern history stretches. Zimbabwe, Eritrea,  and Namibia only became recently independent, and may have still been basking in their freedom.

But others have had all the ingredients, such as coup-happy neighbours and socio-economic unhappinness and still kept their heads all around them, making for bona fide governance stars: 

Scholars have studied the phenomena of coups in Africa, and given the army is part of the state, have found that many have been motivated mainly by two factors—national good concerns, and own grievances such as pay. 

The biggest triggers for coups according to studies are low income and slow growth, as opposed to inequality. So for many leaders the incentive to keep the economy growing and have a bigger cake to share out is the surest way to hanging on.

“Bribing” the soldiers

Interestingly also, to ward off risks of a coup many governments have increased military expenditure, but not always with the expected results. (See: Military expenditure in Africa: Paradoxically, having a legacy of army rule could mean the soldiers are neglected). Indeed analysts have found that increased spending on the army leads to a higher risk of coups.

So what to do as an African leader? Basically cross your fingers that you finish your term. Or pray for a distraction for your soldiers—and ensure they are well catered for—unequipped soldiers sent into battle make for very unhappen people, as Mali and Nigeria have shown, but not too much so that they get greedy and seek to control the pay purse. A tricky balancing act it is.

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