A recent coup in the Central African nation of Gabon is the latest nondemocratic transition of power on the continent, following a July coup in Niger and 2022 coups in Burkina Faso and Mali. But Gabon’s putsch is quite different from a series of coups in Africa’s Sahel region, highlighting the striking variation of coup efforts from region to region, with factors like history, foreign intervention, economics, and politicization of the military all playing a role.
Though military coups tend to have some common elements, Gabon’s doesn’t exactly fit the pattern of other recent coups in western Africa; there were no serious security threats like the Islamist terror that plagues Mali and Burkina Faso in particular — meaning there’s no justification for the coup from a security standpoint. And the ousted President Ali Bongo was part of a dynastic dictatorship that had ruled the country for four decades, unlike in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, which had at various points in the past four decades made strides toward democratic civilian rule.
Coup leaders from Gabon’s presidential guard, in particular Gen. Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, took advantage of the Bongo family’s corruption and disputed election results declaring another win for 64-year-old Ali Bongo. The Bongo family and its close associates have long profited off of Gabon’s oil wealth, but didn’t invest it into state institutions like healthcare, education, or infrastructure — rather, the ruling elites hoarded that wealth and left the vast majority of the population poor.
But rather than change that system, experts told Vox that Gabon’s coup leaders have undertaken a continuity coup, in which very little will change other than the figurehead benefiting from the state’s resources.
So yes, while there have been a lot of coups in Africa lately, they’re not all related, and they’re not all the same. And though these events often pop up on Twitter feeds or news alerts only to be forgotten days later, it’s worth examining the patterns of coup dynamics. As Americans know, this is not a phenomenon relegated to Latin America or the Sahel; January 6, 2021 showed that insurrection is possible even in a country with supposedly strong democratic institutions. Furthermore, understanding how these undemocratic transitions of power happen — their differences and similarities, the actors and forces driving them, and the context in which they happen — is a way to understand the countries themselves, as well as our global political moment.
What drives coups?
Coups are a fairly rare phenomenon, as the political scientists Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne demonstrate through their research. In a recent Voice of America piece, Powell and Thyne’s research showed that from 1950 through January 2022, there were 486 coup attempts, 242 of which were successful.
The regions that saw the most attempts were Africa, with 214 attempts, 106 — or just under half — of which were successful. Latin America was a close second, with 146 attempts. Of those, 70 were successful.
Both regions were coming out of centuries of colonialism, the effects of which are still being felt today. Both were relatively poor and overall suffered from high inequality, and both were also the loci of a Cold War-era proxy battle for influence, which capitalized on instability and represented a real struggle over what kind of governance and economic system was superior.
All of those elements can help drive coups, but perhaps the biggest predictor of whether one will happen in any given country is precedent — has there been a coup attempt before? Any sort of precedent, whether or not the attempt was successful, shows that it’s at least possible to try, and that other indicators for coup conditions are present. “If you’ve had a coup attempt in the last three years, controlling for a bunch of different factors, there are various studies that point to your probability of having a coup in the current year to be something between 25 and 40 percent, which is really, really high when you think about how rare these events are otherwise,” Powell, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, told Vox in an interview.
That can also inspire coup plotters in other nations that might have similar challenges or contexts, like in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, which all to one extent or another struggle with Islamist insurgencies. A coup attempt can seem appealing in “circumstances where the government might be seen as providing ineffectual leadership or is not giving the military the tools and the resources that it needs to be able to successfully fight a counterinsurgency,” Powell said.
That also allows for a kind of ripple effect as seen in the Sahel coups; in Niger, though the economic and security situation was trending more positively under the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, General Abdourahamane Tchiani and his fellow coup-plotters in the presidential guard used the security situation as an excuse to take over the government in July. But military governments don’t necessarily deal with security problems better than civilian governments; that’s demonstrated in both Mali, where the military governments have brought in the Wagner Group, Russia’s private military contracting company that mounted a challenge to Russia’s military establishment back in June. In Mali, civilian deaths due to violent incidents related to the insurgency have actually increased due to Wagner’s presence and military rule.
Are coup outcomes always bad?
Gabon’s coup has close parallels with Zimbabwe’s coup in 2017 which ousted longtime authoritarian President Robert Mugabe in favor of Emmerson Mnangagwa, a close ally of Mugabe who represents a continuation of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. In both cases, a major change to the system, like instituting true democratic reforms and holding free and fair elections, would actually harm the interests of the ruling elite.
That’s a similar situation to Thailand, which has had a high number of military coups in recent decades. There, the putsches on the part of the military are to protect the power of the Thai monarchy and essentially keep progressive democracy from being able to develop — and thus threaten the establishment’s access to power and resources.
Even if the junta in Gabon does implement civilian rule, that’s not the same thing as democracy, as other post-coup governments have shown.
In Zimbabwe, where the ruling ZANU-PF party just won the national elections and gave Mnangagwa his second term in office, it’s difficult to argue that holding elections means that the country is actually functioning based on democratic norms, Joseph Siegle, head of the research and strategic communications program at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told Vox in an interview. “There’s really no pretense there,” of having competitive elections carried out by a robust electoral body. “They’re just going through the motions.”
But often, that’s good enough for Western and international bodies who provide aid to support democracies in developing nations, Powell said. Over time, entities like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as well as Western powers like the US “became more tolerant of really just any sort of a post-coup election, just so long as you had an election,” he told Vox. “Just so long as whoever won that election was wearing a suit instead of a military uniform, that would be enough to get sanctions lifted” and aid would flow back to the country in question.
That’s not to say that democratization never happens after a military coup; Niger and Mali are actually themselves examples of that. But that’s often “just an accident,” Powell told Vox. “In some cases, they might have specifically not wanted to have a democracy, but just because of various different things going on — social pressures, international pressure and things like that, the military finds themselves in a situation where they basically have to step back and allow a bonafide civilian government to take over.”
One notable exception, though, is Portugal in the 1970s; a military coup overthrew that nation’s long-standing fascist dictatorship in what’s now called the Carnation Revolution. In that instance, a military coup led to a real, durable, and competitive democracy and “also kind of started what folks refer to as the third wave of democratization where we saw a wave of democratization projects around the world,” Powell said.
That’s not to say that it was all positive, and it’s easy to romanticize it in hindsight. But during the Processo Revolucionário Em Curso, or the Ongoing Revolutionary Process, the country saw additional coup attempts, left- and right-wing violence leading to hundreds of deaths, a wave of refugees returning to the country from Portugal’s colonies, and massive economic upheaval.
Recent coups are part of a broader shift away from democracy
Undemocratic changes in power look different in different countries and in different regions — and they don’t always look like military coups.
While there were a number of military coups throughout Latin America during the 20th century, power grabs or attempts at power are more likely to take the form of an autogolpe, or self-coup, as Peru’s populist former President Pedro Castillo attempted last year. Guillermo Lasso, the president of Ecuador, was also accused of launching an autogolpe when he dissolved the National Assembly in May of this year, which is allowed under the country’s constitution. Lasso, however, did not stand in recent elections.
Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, has also used the institutions of democracy to cling to power; though he has been reelected multiple times, those elections cannot meaningfully be called free and fair, and he continues to erode institutions and opposition within the country.
It’s useful to think about coups and other nondemocratic power changes as part of a broader, global turn away from democracy, especially in the context of a great power struggle between the US and authoritarian governments like Russia and China.
“There’s a real tension between the West and the Russian groups for influence, especially in the Sahel region, where the Wagner group is operating quite freely,” Monty Marshall, director of the Center for Systemic Peace, told Vox. “And, you know, it’s a powerful argument in these contexts, that a military response is the only potentially effective way to manage the situation. And civilians really have trouble making a counter argument because they really need the military on their side, in order to control the situation.”
Particularly in countries where the economy and security is dependent on foreign aid — if there’s not a strong indigenous economy, Marshall said — democracy is difficult to sustain because it’s expensive. Without resources to sustain not only a government and a professionalized military but also to build up national institutions and integrate people into a sustainable economy, the political situation becomes much more tenuous and insecure. Foreign aid without sustained, wholesale investment in a country’s institutions is a recipe for democratic failure, especially when autocratic regimes are willing to step up to the plate.
Furthermore, in polarized societies, it becomes that much more difficult to build civilian institutions like labor or civic organizations that have the capability to push back against military rule, and to negotiate with governments to get people’s needs met.
“The risk of these kinds of coup situations or onset of armed conflict are highest in situations where the local population is strongly divided,” Marshall said. “We call it polarization — it’s become a buzzword in this country these days. But polarization is a symptom of societal disintegration and for democracy to work, you need the society to be fully integrated.”