Why Africa is experiencing so many coups

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, and 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 shows that from 1950 through January 2022, there had been 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.

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