In 1962 Professor Samuel Finer published an original book entitled ‘The Man on Horseback’ a text devoted to the role of the military in politics, notably in the case of the military dictatorships of the time, and the prevalence of coups d’état. A few years later (1968), another ‘indispensable’ text, Richard Clutterbuck’s ‘Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook’ appeared.
That these two now classic texts on coups d’état appeared in the 1960’s speaks to the impact of the Cold War on poorer countries in Africa and Latin America, the willingness of mercenaries and world powers to supplant leaders to suit their own ends, and to the lure of mineral and commodity wealth.
Man on Horseback
To stay with the sixties, in 1966 there were 7 coups d’état in sub-Saharan Africa alone, followed by a cluster over the next decade, and this trend then petered out in the late nineties as democracy and globalization spread through the world.
What is new, and relevant today is that in the past year we have seen a rash of coups d’etat in sub-Saharan Africa (the highest number in over twenty years). Reflecting this France has announced that its anti-terrorism force will leave Mali – which itself has seen two coups in the last year.
This outbreak of coups is mysterious, certainly from the point of view of the French, and I am sure has the ingredients of a good spy movie. Some of the coups are driven by age-old factors – the venality of life long rulers, the negative side-effects of corruption and mineral wealth.
There is also, in some countries an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with democracy (surveys from Freedom House or the Mo Ibrahim Index suggest this) and the temptation of strong man ‘managed democracy’. In general, academic work shows that the success of coups depends on the international reaction to them, so the fracturing of the world order creates an environment that is arguably more permissive for coups.
There is also a more troubling trend, which in past notes I have discussed under the banner of ‘The Scramble for Africa’, after Thomas Pakenham’s book that detailed how the colonial powers despoiled Africa. The same is happening today, at the hands of mining companies, Russia and China (whose investment led conquest of Africa is well documented now).
In particular, the incursion of Russia into Africa, very often at the expense of France is a noteworthy trend and one that remarkably, the French have not aggressively pushed back at. It takes many forms – in 2019 the first Russia-Africa Summit was held and a year later Russian arms companies Rosoboronexport were doing billions in arms sales in Africa (rest assured that Western arms companies are doing even more).
The chief element in Russia’s Africa strategy, is the Wagner group, purportedly a mercenary company with very strong links to the Russian security establishment. They are present in Burkino Faso, Mali, Libya and notoriously so in the Central African Republic (CAR). Oddly enough, there is a close correlation between the occurrence of coups, and the presence on the Wagner group, (to add balance many of the coups in question have been led by younger army officers with Western counter terrorism training). At very least we can say that the Wagner group is capitalizing on instability.
In the light of Russia’s current attempt to terrorise Ukraine, the incursions of the Wagner group across Africa and the Middle East (Syria) suggest that there is a new chapter in the Great Game (you must read Peter Hopkirk’s book), where large powers spread resources across continents in a strategic power game (the Horn of Africa has at least thirteen military bases). Russia, arguably emboldened by the behaviour of Western nations, is spreading its geopolitical reach, largely I suspect to bolster its leverage through mischief, and also to harvest strategic resources (i.e. commodities).
The great loser here is Africa. Foreign intervention, the ‘coups epidemic’ and the breaking down of democracy and institutions makes Africa weaker – economically and politically – and a source of angst to neighbouring regions (i.e. the flow of emigrants to Europe).
More broadly, we discuss coups, we cannot avoid the ‘nearly coup’ in Washington last year, an event that highlights the fragility of even the greatest of nations and democracy. In that respect, the wildcard political event might be a coup of sorts in Russia, should Mr Putin miscalculate over Ukraine.