Mali Coup: Are military takeovers on the rise in Africa?

Christopher Giles & Peter Mwai – BBC News

Military coups have been a regular occurrence in Africa in the decades since independence.

Recent events in Mali are just the latest example of the army exerting its influence over events – the second intervention by the army there in less than a year. In neighboring Niger, a coup was thwarted in March just days before the presidential inauguration.

So, are military interventions occurring more often on the continent?

When is a coup a coup?

One definition used is that of an illegal and overt attempt by the military (or other civilian officials) to unseat sitting leaders. A study by two US researchers, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne, has identified over 200 such attempts in Africa since the late 1950s.

About half of these have been successful – defined as lasting more than seven days. Burkina Faso, in West Africa, has had the most successful ones, with seven and only one failed.

A chart showing successful and failed military coups in Africa.

A chart showing successful and failed military coups in Africa. Sometimes, those taking part in such an intervention deny it is a coup.

In 2017 in Zimbabwe, a military takeover brought Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule to an end.

One of the leaders of the action, Major General Sibusiso Moyo, appeared on television at the time flatly denying a military takeover.

Zimbabwe: How can you tell if a coup is happening?

In April this year, after the death of the Chadian leader Idriss Deby, the army installed his son as interim president leading a transitional military council. His opponents called it a “dynastic coup”.

“Coup leaders almost invariably deny their action was a coup in an effort to appear legitimate,” says Jonathan Powell.

There were celebrations after the Zimbabwe army intervened against President Mugabe in 2017

Are there fewer coups now in Africa?

In the four decades between 1960 and 2000, the overall number of coups attempts in Africa has remained remarkably consistent at an average of around four a year.

Since then, this has fallen – to around two each year in the two decades to 2019. Jonathan Powell says this is not surprising given the instability African countries experienced in the years after independence.

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