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

Supporters of the army celebrate in Mali.

Supporters of the army takeover in Mali on the streets in celebration

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 neighbouring 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’s a coup.

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

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

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.

Zimbabwean soldier

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 coup 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.

“African countries have had the conditions common for coups, like poverty and poor economic performance. When a country has one coup, that’s often a harbinger of more coups.”

Ndubuisi Christian Ani from the University of KwaZulu-Natal says popular uprisings against long-serving dictators have provided opportunity for the return of coups in Africa.

“While popular uprisings are legitimate and people-led, its success is often determined by the decision taken by the military,” he says.

Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno

Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, who succeeded his father as Chadian leader, is a four-star general

Which African countries have had the most coups?

Sudan has had the most with 15 – five of them successful. The most recent was in 2019 with the removal of Omar al-Bashir as head of state following months of popular protest.

Bashir had himself taken over power in a military coup in 1989.

Map of Africa with coups by country (May 2021)

Map of Africa with coups by country (May 2021)

Since 2015, of the nine coups reported around the world, all but two took place in Africa – Turkey (2016) and Myanmar (2021).

Overall, Africa has experienced more coups than any other continent.

It’s followed by South America, with 95 attempted coups, 40 of which were successful.

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