Coups are making a comeback

The recent coup d’état in Gabon marks the latest casualty of the “coup contagion” spreading across Africa. Given the frenetic pace of the minute-by-minute news cycle of the social media era, it’s easy to lose track of longer-term trends. Sure, it feels like there have been more coups than average lately, but is that just availability and vividness bias talking — humans’ known tendency to pay more attention to more recent, more prominent and more sensational information than that which is less so?

No, it’s not just your imagination — coups are making a comeback. Our team has recorded 73 successful coup attempts worldwide since 1990. From 1990 to 1999, 33 coups occurred, according to our team’s Country and Organization Leader Travel leader biography data. The following decade — from 2000 to 2009 — there were 18. And the decade after that, through 2019, there were only 10 successful coup attempts across the globe. That number has already been matched in this decade in less than four years, with 12 successful coup attempts recorded since the start of 2020.

Credit: Collin Meisel

The emphasis on global numbers is a bit misleading, however. For the large part, these coups have taken place in Africa, accounting for 60 percent of successful coups since 1990.  While once a somewhat more evenly distributed problem from a geographic perspective — from 1990 through 2000, 18 successful coups took place outside Africa vs. 20 within Africa — coups have increasingly been concentrated on the African continent since 2001. Africa accounts for 74 percent of the total during that time, and the majority of African coups — 31 since 1990 — have occurred in Western and Central Africa.

What’s to explain this comeback for coups? Some of it involves a case of repeat offenses. For example, Mali has seen five successful coup attempts since 1991, Niger four since 1996, Burkina Faso three since 2015 and Guinea-Bissau three since 1999. In fact, of the 15 West and Central African countries that have had a regime transition following a coup since 1990, fewer than half — seven of 15 — have had only one such transition. Put simply, one of the best predictors of future coups in a country is a past coup.

That said, the last successful coup in Gabon — and it was successful for only a few days — came in 1964. Clearly other forces besides path dependency are at work. The military coup leaders appear to have largely been motivated by their dissatisfaction with the Bongo family, which has ruled Gabon almost uninterrupted since 1967, though their full reasoning is likely only fully known to them.

And why now? Here, our understanding is even murkier. Social scientists have long attempted to predict coups, and yet each new successful coup appears to come as a surprise to most of us — even seasoned intelligence analysts. As former acting CIA director Michael Morrell recently said, “if the U.S. intelligence community sees a coup coming, it probably means the troubled leader does as well and can move to stop it.”

To be sure, “economic mismanagement, corruption, poverty, violent extremism and the failure of overwhelmed governments to resolve grievances over resources and progress social justice” — all factors that contribute toward coup-risk, according to the United States Institute for Peace — partly explain what has driven the recent coups in Gabon, Niger and elsewhere.

Close study of these and other factors, as well as advanced statistical techniques, have improved social scientists’ ability to predict coups, but much of our understanding remains “in the error term.” In other words, there remains a lot we don’t know about the “where” and “when” of successful coup attempts (though the “how” is better understood).

What is clear is that coups appear to have come back into style. U.S. policymakers wishing to blunt their effects will need to adjust to this new reality, including, if nothing else, a more consistent policy response. “When we say so” is not a policy for recognizing coups that the world will view with much legitimacy, nor is looking the other way when we are pleased with the results.

Collin Meisel, a geopolitics and modeling expert at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, is associate director of geopolitical analysis at the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, where Kylie McKee is a research associate and project manager.

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