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Are Non-democracies More Susceptible to Coups than Democracies in West Africa?

Aditya Kurup

Apr 22 2022

In the vast and storied political landscape of Africa, the West African sub-region has certain distinctive features that set it apart from the rest of the continent. Boafo-Arthur (2008) called it the “heartbeat of politics in Sub-Saharan Africa”, claiming that it served as the vanguard of armed resistance against colonial rule.

Liberia, which gained independence in 1847, is the oldest African republic. Ghana was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to attain independence in 1957. Guinea’s independence from France in 1958 proved to be the first in a line of dominoes that ultimately led to the independence of the remaining Francophone countries in the continent. 

Unfortunately, West Africa also has the dubious distinction of ushering in a phenomena that would plague the continent for the next sixty years; regime changes through means of military coup d’états. The literature consensually agrees that the Togolese coup of 1963, which saw the assassination of prime minister Sylvanus Olympio, set the blueprint for all of Africa’s forays into military adventurism (Owusu, 1971; Conteh-Morgan, 2000; Boafo-Arthur, 2008; Kemmence, 2013). McGowan and Johnson (1984) would describe West Africa as ‘the region par excellence of the military coup d’état’ for having the greatest record of coup activity compared to anywhere else in the world. McGowan and Johnson (1984) and Kemmence (2013) noted that, despite encompassing one-third of all majority-ruled African States, this sub-region has seen about half of all successful coups d’états, one-third of all reported coups and  half of all reported plots in the continent. The only country out of the 16 countries in the sub-region that has never witnessed a military coup to this date is Cape Verde. 

What makes West Africa vulnerable to coups? This paper, upon synthesis of the surveyed literature, identified three broad reasons, namely ethnic fractionalization, lack of economic progress and military dominance over civilians.  All of these factors work in synergy with each other, creating an environment conducive for coup activities.

The relationship between social cleavages between ethnic groups and the persistence of coups was further operationalized by Jackson (1978) into three elements; social mobilization, cultural pluralism and political factors such as the prevailing political party system and mass participation. According to him, while a single-party system has a stabilizing effect on governments in countries that recently attained independence, a diversity of political parties can create a turbulent socio-political ecosystem. When faced with electoral turnout, this destabilizing effect caused by a multi-party political apparatus is further amplified by the dominance of a single ethnic group. Most West African countries associate political parties with ethnic groupings (Kemmence, 2013). This partisanship seeps into the military, creating conditions for rivalries that ultimately result in coups and counter-coups. A prominent example of a multi-party system and ethnic fractionalization catalyzing instability was in Benin after it declared independence from France. The period between 1960 and 1972 saw a cavalcade of regime changes through coups, with figures like Hubert Maga, Sourou-Migan Apithy and Justin Ahomadegbe-Tometin rising to power; all three of these men represented a different political party, and each political party predominantly represented a different ethnic group coming from different areas in Benin. On the other hand, freshly independent Niger was ruled for the most part by a single-party regime, which managed to stabilize the uprising of the less dominant Touareg group against the dominant Hausa group. Even though the former example saw greater success of coup-realization, it is undeniable that ethnic fractionalization has created conditions for the plotting and attempt (if not success) of coups in both these countries. 

Coming to economic performance, Johnson and McGowan (1984) provided empirical evidence which suggested that economic underperformance was a significant factor that could potentially lead to coups. They also argued that some measures of positive economic performance, such as high levels of productive employment, robust economic growth, sound export performance and diversified commodity exports, are highly stabilizing. However, Adebayo (2002) challenged this assessment by pointing to Nigeria and Togo repeatedly undergoing regime changes and (failed) coup attempts, despite their remarkable economic growth. Clearly, there is some lack of consensus in the literature regarding the impact of economic underperformance on the likelihood of coup attempts, though this paper argues that Johnson and McGowan (1984) made a more compelling case by studying underlying antecedents to coup activities in all countries of Africa.

Finally, military dominance over civilians also plays a role in subverting the socio-political order. Janowitz (1977) and Kemmence (2013) both addressed the nigh non-existent civil-military relations in West Africa; Kemmence argued that the repetitive military coups in Guinea-Bissau were a direct result of the lack of civil-military relations. He argued:

…even though the country has a civil government, the military dictates and controls every move of the civil rulers who are actually the puppets of the generals in the military

A reading of West Africa’s post-colonial political history suggests that the military and civilians constantly feud with each other, with both groups having their own internal cleavages and power struggles, eventually resulting in tumultuous civil discord. Ultimately, the military almost always emerges as the dominant actor in times of conflict. This leads us to question, why would the military want to interfere in the political functioning of these countries? McBride (2004) chalks it down to personal greed, motivated by the wealth and privileges enjoyed once they gain power and control over the state. How is it that the military is able to easily overpower civilians in this sub-region? Adebajo and Rashid (2002) contend that it is because of the vast resources at the disposal of the military, establishing a correlation between military spending and occurence of coups. Nigeria, for instance, has the most resourceful military in all of Africa and they’ve reported the most coup plots (including failed attempts and successes) at fifteen as of 2018. 

Are the relentless coups undermining democratization in West Africa?

According to the Polity IV scores of West African nations between 1958 to 2018, 7 out of 15 countries (excluding Cape Verde) have, at some point, received a score that would place them in each of the Polity IV categories; autocracy (-10 to -6), closed anocracy (-5 to -1), open anocracy (0 to 5) and democracy (6 to 10). These countries are Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Niger and Nigeria. Cote D’Ivoire, Guinea and Mauritania have received scores at some point in this period that placed their regime type as either autocratic, closed anocratic or open anocratic. However, they never scored high enough to be considered democratic. Togo is the only country to not have progressed beyond the ‘closed anocracy’ regime type. Liberia, Mali and Sierra Leone have undergone all regime types other than closed anocracy, while Senegal has undergone all regime types other than open anocracy. Scatter-plots illustrating periods of each regime type for each country is presented in Appendix 1, graphs 1 to 4. An inspection of the scatter-plots demonstrates that, for most countries, their status as a ‘democracy’, ‘anocracy’ or ‘autocracy’ is not defined by a continuous time-period, but is rather dispersed throughout their history. Ghana, for instance, started as an autocracy post-independence and, following a 1978 coup, was classified as a democracy. However, following the 1981 coup, Ghana once again regressed into an autocratic regime. Over time, the regime became progressively less autocratic, until it achieved full democracy once it attained some stability (Appendix 2). Similar trends can be observed in Gambia, Liberia, Mali and several other countries in the sub-region. This trend is indicative of the destabilizing power of coup d’états and how they undermine the democratization of this sub-region. Boafo-Arthur (2004) and Conteh-Morgan (2000) argued that the political instability shepherded by the culture of militarism has jeopardized the establishment of a steady democracy in the sub-region.  The onset of the third wave of democracy in the early 1990s did arouse some optimism that the sub-region is on the verge of reaching political equilibrium. However, the expectations of a stable democracy are yet to materialize (Boafo-Arthur, 2004). Côte d’Ivoire is one example of a country that was an aspiration in the sub-region for maintaining stability and progressing towards a full democracy. Unfortunately, the country imploded following multiple coup attempts from 1999 to 2002. Sierra Leone and Liberia are still trying to forge a stable political model after landmark elections in 2002 and 2005, respectively. The elections in the two countries also marked the end years of civil wars. In 1997, Liberia had an election (albeit, under questionable circumstances according to Boafo-Arthur (2004)) to end the civil war that started in late 1989. Charles Taylor won that election but the instability in Liberia (mostly encouraged by Taylor himself), continued until he was forced into exile in Nigeria in 2003. In a nutshell, the West African sub-region has struggled to achieve sustained democracy in the face of rapid regime changes.

Identifying some research gaps: Are democratic regimes really less susceptible to coups in West Africa?

As mentioned in the previous sub-section of the literature review, an overwhelming majority of the nations in West Africa have experienced the full spectrum of regime types, ranging from autocracy to democracy, in their short post-colonial history. Furthermore, all 15 countries under examination, except Senegal, faced at least one reported coup attempt in each of the regime types that they experienced. This is illustrated in the scatter-plot given in Appendix 3. Senegal experienced only one coup attempt in this period, when Mamadou Dia failed to overthrow sitting president Leopold Sedar Senghor in 1962. Senegal had a polity score of -4 in 1962 (making it a closed anocracy that year) and has not faced a coup attempt since. 

Given that a lot of these nations have experienced at least one coup in each regime type, this sub-region would be ideal for studying whether democratic regimes are truly more susceptible or resilient to coups than autocratic and anocratic regimes. However, very few studies have empirically explored this sub-region specifically (outside of studies looking into Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole) and investigated country-wise effects. 

The relationship between regime types and their susceptibility to coup attempts is a contentious one amongst scholars; Tulaslem (2015) referred to it as an “empirical conundrum that remains unsolved”. Huntington (1968), Linz (1978), and O’Donnell (1979) all argue against the conventional wisdom that democracies are resilient to regime instability, primarily because they invite political pluralism. The domineering presence of interest groups tends to weaken the state from carrying out its capacity to govern effectively. When economic modernization outpaces the development of democratic political institutions, the emergence of political order and stability becomes less likely. As a result, coups, revolutions, and the breakdown of democratic institutions are likely scenarios in highly democratic regimes. Powell et al (2017) found that young democracies are more predisposed to coup attempts than either civilian authoritarian regimes or older democracies. While none of this literature focuses on West Africa specifically, the findings might be relevant to establishing a priori expectations of this paper’s final results. 

On the other hand, modern empirical studies by Casper and Tyson (2014), Marinov (2014), Tusalem (2015) and Bell (2016) have provided sufficient evidence using a global sample that democracies (with a higher Polity IV score) are less coup-prone than autocracies; Bell (2016) has also validated this hypothesis for Sub-Saharan African nations separately. In fact, the most convincing argument for expecting West African democracies to be less coup-prone than autocracies can be found in the aforementioned Powell et al. (2017) paper, which essentially echoes the literature surveyed so far:

 …we recall that coup perpetrators must come from either the military or other elites in the state apparatus—people who already enjoy a privileged status in society. Thus, leaders seeking regime change are likely to exhaust other legal channels before perpetrating a coup and are most likely to do so only when they expect their leadership to cause a significant improvement in the status quo

Furthermore, all the aforementioned literature concedes that coups arise more frequently when coup plotters have genuine goals of creating both economic prosperity and political legitimacy. Economic prosperity can be achieved by opening an economy to foreign aid, investment, and international business transactions-all of which are strongly tied to democracy (Tusalem, 2015; Powell et al., 2017). Thus, it’s reasonable to assume that in West Africa, coups are more often plotted to either escape situations of non-democracy or to strengthen democracy, since this sub-region is economically deprived and politically unstable. This paper shall, therefore, hypothesize that the odds of a coup attempt occurring in an autocracy or anocracy is greater than that of a democracy, and attempt to validate this hypothesis

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