Can there ever be such a thing as a good coup d’état? The short answer, in an ideal world, is No

Can there ever be such a thing as a good coup d’état? The short answer, in an ideal world, is No
Guinean special forces celebrate after the coup d’état with Guineans waving the national flag at the Palace of the People in Conakry, 6 September 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Should it be up to the military to decide when its fellow citizens are no longer free and to act on that decision against its civilian government? Is there such a thing as a good coup? In an ideal world, the answer to each of these questions is a resounding ‘no’. In an ideal world, moreover, there would be no need to ask these questions in the first place. In an ideal world, there would be no military, nor any government to overthrow.

Following the recent military coup in Guinea, coup leader and the new interim president, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, quoted Jerry Rawlings (former Ghanaian president and coup leader), who said: “If the people are crushed by their elites, it is up to the army to give the people their freedom.”

World history is replete with stories of relations between abusive leaders, suffering subordinates or citizens, and the attempted or successful overthrow of governments that oftentimes has followed. Because of its inherent capacity for exercising force, it is seldom that the military has not featured in these struggles, whether for or against those occupying the corridors of political power.

Where a government is overthrown from power, “through unmistakably unconstitutional means, mainly by part of the army: ‘either on their own or in conjunction with civilian elites such as civil servants, politicians and monarchs’ ”, such a change in power constitutes a military coup.

While military coups are far from being a uniquely African occurrence, the majority of the world’s attempted and successful coups of this kind have occurred in Africa. This is because the conditions for military coups have been more prevalent in post-colonial Africa than in other regions of the world over the same period.

Without denying the complexity of explaining military intrusion in African politics, security sector expert Dr Mathurin Houngnikpo outlines three crucial conditions for a successful military coup: the military must have the disposition, the opportunity and the ability to execute a coup.

The disposition

A military’s disposition to intervene is made up of two further conditions: “The motives for intervention must outweigh those against it… and… the armed forces must have the will to act.”

Factors that dissuade the armed forces from attempting a coup include “professionalism, acceptance of the principle of civilian supremacy, and fear of unintended consequences”. Included among the last of these are the erosion of military effectiveness, civilian retaliation in the aftermath of a failed coup and public discontent over the lack of progress following a successful coup.

Factors that encourage military intervention in politics are the ideas that the military is responsible for saving the nation or defending the national interest through intervention, and the desire to defend a sectional interest. Consider Doumbouya’s citing of Jerry Rawlings following Guinea’s latest military coup, in which he distinguishes between “elites” and “the people”.

The will of a military to execute a coup or not is largely dependent on its levels of frustration, “either with the country’s role and image in the world, with the inability of national institutions to deal with political, social and economic problems, or with the military’s own role in society”.

It would appear Doumbouya and his colleagues fulfilled this condition. When frustration becomes anger and this anger shifts to civilian leaders under circumstances where the motives for outweigh the motives against a coup, the military then has the disposition to attempt a coup. This is precisely what happened in Guinea last month. 

The opportunity

The opportunity for armed forces to execute a coup often exists in the form of weak or ineffective civilian political institutions that make for a state characterised by “political corruption, politically motivated strikes and demonstrations” and politicised state bureaucracy and civil society institutions. Houngnikpo writes that coups have generally “been symptomatic of protracted state failures, especially the inability of political leaders to institutionalise power, eradicate mass poverty and promote socioeconomic development”.

In the words of historian Giles Milton, “most coups that are successful are born out of a weak centre, that when the central government is on the point of collapsing or there’s social unrest and if there is someone there at the time to take advantage of that, that’s when it can work.” Togolese human rights activist Farida Nabourema testifies to this:

“In countries where the majority of the state institutions are completely weakened or are at the service of the ruling elite, the only institution that seems to have the kind of power that could change things becomes the army. In countries like mine, Togo, for example, as is the case in the vast majority of countries in the region, the army is the most funded institution of all. They receive good funding, they receive good training. The militaries are equipped better than other state institutions. As a result, it gets to a point where even citizens want the army to come in and to clean the mess.”

Civilian political leaders have often driven citizens into the arms of the armed forces. Where civilian governments have failed and political institutions more broadly lack legitimacy, it becomes easier for citizens to view the military as a source of legitimacy.

Is South Africa on such a trajectory? I have noted before how “research conducted by the World Values Survey between 1996 and 2013 showed an increase among South Africans in openness to military rule as a form of governance.” The results of a study recently published by Afrobarometer show that although respondents only had 49% trust in the South African military, this level remains higher than most other institutions in the country, including the judiciary, religious leaders, the public protector, the President, the Electoral Commission, Parliament, the ruling party and opposition parties. For the military to exploit a lack of legitimacy in other institutions, however, and attempt a coup, it must have the ability to do so.

The ability

According to Houngnikpo, “political advantages [such] as cohesion, prestige and overwhelming relative power enable the military to intervene successfully in political affairs”. Interestingly, these are among the features of a professional military, which is why it is vitally important in a democracy that military professionalism be accompanied by or include the willingness of the military to subordinate itself to civilian supremacy. This subordination of the military has been a problem in Africa.   

Should it be up to the military to ‘set people free’?

Should it be up to the military to decide when its fellow citizens are no longer free and to act on that decision against its civilian government? Is there such a thing as a good coup? In an ideal world, the answer to each of these questions is a resounding “no”. In an ideal world, moreover, there would be no need to ask these questions in the first place. In an ideal world, there would be no military, nor any government to overthrow. The circumstances confronting the world, its nation-states, the relations between them and the relations within them are, more often than not, far from ideal, however.

Since the introduction of the Organisation of African Unity’s anti-coup policy in 2000, there have been 20 successful military coups in Africa, four since this report in early 2019, including those in Chad (April 2021) Mali (August 2020 and May 2021) and Guinea (September 2021). The latest of these recently prompted The Resistance Bureau to ask: “Can there ever be a good coup?

On 12 October, the Institute for Security Studies will be hosting a webinar, “Are coups back in Africa?”. On 8 September already, John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was more forthright in his assessment: “Coups are back in West Africa” [emphasis added].

Why do military coups matter?

Coups come with several drawbacks, including for democracy and good governance. Each of these drawbacks originates from the fact that militaries are designed, trained and equipped for warfare or the application of violence more broadly, and not for exercising governance.

Clearly, within the military institution, uniformed leaders are responsible for exercising governance over their designated area/s. Even so, the governance that military leaders exercise within the military institution is very different from democratic governance. Militaries are hierarchical and undemocratic organisations. These traits are crucial if governments, including democratic ones, expect their armed forces to defend their states and their people against security threats

Put differently, although the military exists and serves as a tool or instrument of governance, it shouldn’t be the institution to govern, at least not beyond its own domain, which, at its core, involves the management and exercise of violence.

The military therefore exists to perform a very different function from the functions of a democratically elected civilian government, and democracy is what Africans want. The fact that militaries are not designed and equipped to govern beyond the military organisation and its operational space, let alone govern democratically, is the primary reason military coups are a problem.

According to Laurie Nathan of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, an expert on African regional security, “coups are a scourge that destroy the constitutional order and preclude the emergence and consolidation of democracy”.

What then of the good coup?

Does Nathan’s argument not fail to consider the possibility of a military coup setting a country on a new trajectory, away from an unconstitutional, undemocratic and/or oppressive past? Military coups have seldom, if ever, occurred in the wake of good governance. Africa’s citizens, including South Africans, will know that a military coup, although an extreme form, is only one among several possible threats to democratic consolidation.

Guinea’s recently ousted president, Alpha Condé, initiated reforms to remain in power beyond the constitutional two-term limit. Following a disputed election in October 2020 and the commencement of his third term, “dozens of demonstrators were killed by his security forces and many more injured, [while] hundreds of political opponents, journalists and activists were imprisoned”.  

A military coup might appear to be good because it offers citizens respite from a dictatorial or authoritarian regime and hope for a better future. History suggests, however, that hope for change following a military coup has more often than not been short-lived. See Zimbabwe. From his study of military coups in sub-Saharan Africa between 1956 and 2001, professor of political science Patrick McGowan concludes:

“Military rule is by definition authoritarian and is often very corrupt… and the historical record shows that military rulers ‘govern’ no better than elected civilians in Africa, and often much worse. Because African militaries in power often fail to create political order, they are part of the problem, not its answer.”

John Campbell adds: “With the exception of Ghana’s 1979 coup which brought Jerry Rawlings to power, coups have not been the vehicle for social revolution.” Speaking during the Resistance Bureau webinar on 21 September, Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono advised the rest of the continent, including Guineans, saying: “I’ve learnt from the coup in Zimbabwe… that coups do not resolve the political issues of the day. They simply make them worse because this is just a contestation of power by the same group of people.”

Who should “save the people” from a tyrannical government if not the military? The short answer, the ideal answer, if societies wish to avoid the complications that accompany military intervention in domestic politics, is the people themselves. More appropriate than asking whether there can be a good coup, is to ask what is required to prevent tyranny and the conditions that precede a coup in the first place.

An engaged and courageous citizenry

Democracy is a team sport. For it to work, all stakeholders must play the game according to the rules. The best deterrent against a military coup is a democratic culture. As with any cultural change, developing a democratic culture takes time, resources and, above all, the will to develop.

Even if Africans want democracy, the continent’s political and military elites have historically been reluctant to allow a democratic culture to grow and flourish in their respective countries. Before military coups become a problem is the problem of Africa’s failed political leadership that, from the perspective of oppressed and weary citizens, lends legitimacy to the military and its intrusion in politics.

Democratic culture clearly must include democratic governance, but it also must include military professionalism and the subservience of a country’s armed forces – first before the country’s constitution, then before its civilian political authority. This order of allegiance is important.

If an elected political authority fails to govern constitutionally, by, for example, commanding the deployment of the armed forces or any other security actor against a peaceful mass protest, with the instruction to use force even in the absence of violence, it is incumbent upon the state security actor/s in question to respectfully disobey such a command or follow the command only in as far as the constitution allows – assuming the constitution is ethically grounded and values-based. This is what leadership and management expert Ira Chaleff calls “intelligent disobedience”.  

Governments can only oppress citizens to the extent that they have willing participants, the most significant of which are those who have the capacity to exercise force. This is why irony characterises the 2017 military coup in Zimbabwe and the latest coup in Guinea, to name just two examples.

In both instances, the actors toppling the government were the same that previously allowed and participated in the undemocratic and inhumane deployment of force against citizens. Doumbouya, for example, is among 25 Guinean officials under threat of European Union sanctions for alleged human rights abuses committed in recent years under deposed president Condé.

If militaries are determined to stay out of domestic politics altogether, the likelihood of an oppressive government will be substantially reduced and therefore the need to overthrow an authoritarian or dictatorial regime. Where the armed forces pay allegiance first to the constitution, ruling political elites are constrained in terms of the coercive means they have at their disposal to seek self-interest and prolong their rule indefinitely.

Citizens must carry some responsibility. Among the political parties campaigning for South Africa’s upcoming local government elections, some have claimed to be the country’s last or only hope. As important as government, political parties and political competition may be, citizens must fight the temptation to accept such claims as truth and focus instead on the agency they possess and which a democracy allows and encourages them to exercise.

Where failed military leadership (failed in terms of failed ethics, failed professionalism and failed constitutionalism) combines with failed political leadership, the task of standing and working for freedom becomes substantially more challenging for citizens. With the necessary courage, education and training it remains a possible task, however. As far as citizens are able and encouraged to do so, they must exercise their agency in getting women and men of character and competence into power, and, once in power, they must hold them accountable. In response to the question of whether military coups can possibly create “openings that are good for long-term democratic sustainable reform”, Nabourema said:

“I want to be pragmatic and say that hope is something that we have to create and this can only be done by ensuring that we continue to train the citizens so that they understand that they must be involved in organising and they must play a role in… holding the government accountable. Sometimes citizens think that once you have a change of government the job is done.” 

Chin’ono said of Zimbabwe’s military coup that it was “the first coup in southern Africa and hopefully the last”. Let us hope for the same and work to ensure it will be so. DM

Craig Bailie is a Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) scholar placed with the foundation’s Parliamentary Research Programme. He has more than 10 years’ experience as a defence civilian, teaching Political Science. The views expressed are his own. 


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bhekinkosi Madela says:

    I love the bit on responsible citizenry: where political parties claim to be our ” last and only hope”, citizens must fight the temptation to accept such claims as truth and focus instead on the agency they possess and which a democracy allows and encourages them to exercise.

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