Men in military uniforms on stage, raising their hands in the air.
August 6, 2023: General Abdourahmane Tchiani, Commander of the Presidential Guard Regiment, who headed the transitional government, attends the demonstration of coup supporters at a stadium in the capital city of Niger, Niamey. Photo: © picture alliance / AA | Balima Boureima.

Back in Business or Never Out? Military Coups and Political Militarization in Sub-Sahara Africa

This Spotlight discusses the resurgence of military coups in Sub-Saharan Africa. We argue that an analytical and political focus on coup events misses out on the bigger picture of military influence in politics. Introducing the new Multidimensional Measures of Militarization (M3) dataset, we demonstrate that African countries that were part of the recent wave of coups, previously showed signs of political militarization such as military veto powers and impunity. We conclude that these subtle forms of military influence can serve as early warning indicators for military coups.

On July 26, 2023, the military of Niger announced that they had ousted the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. Bazoum resumed office only two years earlier in 2021 and survived a coup attempt in the same year. One month later, on August 30, General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema of Gabon’s presidential guard unseated Gabon’s President Ali Bongo and established the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions as ruling junta. These are just two examples of a longer list of successful and unsuccessful attempts by African militaries in recent years to take over government by force. Particularly relevant for German foreign policy was the coup in Mali in 2021, which ultimately led to the end of the UN and EU missions intended to stabilize the country and the withdrawal of German troops by the end of 2023.

While having been a frequent and global phenomenon between the late 1950s and the early 1990s, military coups have seemed to be out of date since the new millennium. As depicted by Figure 1 below, the number of (attempted) military coups peaked at 18 per year in 1966 and fell to an average of only two per year in the period between 2001 and 2018.

It is notable that apart from the coup in Myanmar in 2021, all 15 coups within the recent three years occurred in Africa. The coups in Mali (2020; 2021), Niger (2021; 2023), Sudan (2021; 2021; 2023), Guinea (2021), Burkina Faso (2022; 2022), Guinea-Bissau (2022; 2022), Sao Tome and Principe (2022), and Gabon (2023) illustrate plainly that the military seems to be back in the business of politics in Africa. Or isn’t it more likely that it has never been out of business, instead asserting political influence via more subtle means from behind the scenes?

Beyond Coup-ism: Assessing More Subtle Ways of Military Influence

Military coups are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to military influence on political decision making. Focusing on the most extreme form of military interference in politics can lead to the so-called “fallacy of coup-ism” – a systematic underestimation of the real political influence of the military.1 To stay in the picture: Neglecting these more subtle forms of direct or indirect political influence by the military means “sailing on sight” and risking to hit the iceberg, instead of using the sonar and taking a look beneath the surface. Accordingly, it is important to study processes of political militarization, understood as an increase in key decision-making power of the military and influence in the inner workings of the ruling coalition, – since these have serious consequences for the persistence of democracy and authoritarian regimes:

If soldiers, for example, occupy important government positions, enjoy legal impunity, or wield a de-facto veto-power within the ruling regime, they can prevent effective civilian control over the military. Further, if the armed forces are engaged in repression against political opponents, elections become a farce or even impossible.

Figure shows global incidences of coups and coup-attempts between 1950 and 2022. The frequency ranges from 0 to 20. The figure starts out with below 5 in 1950 and showing an upward trend to more than 15 coup events per year in the 1960s. After some spikes in the mid 1960s, the figure shows a downward-trend, with recent spikes in the early 2010s and 2020s.
Figure 1: Global incidences of coups and coup-attempts between 1950 and 2022.2

An increasing political influence of the military also might “spill over” to other areas and translate into higher military expenditure or a bigger army. This, in turn, results in a higher degree of material militarization. Alike, increasing the size of the armed forces and/or handing over new missions – like law-enforcement – to the military will also expand its social influence and contribute to societal militarization.

Accordingly, the degree of militarization can be interpreted as a warning against the risk of military coups.

Analyzing Political Militarization in Sub-Sahara Africa

We analyze the development of political militarization in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last 20 years using two measures from M3-Dataset: (1) military veto-power and (2) military impunity. Our first measure examines, if the military possesses significant political veto-powers, which means that the political executive has to seek approval by the military for relevant decisions. This was most visible, for example, during leadership change in Togo in 2005. After the death of long-term incumbent President Gnassingbé Eyadéma, instead of following the rules in the constitution, his son Faure Gnassingbé took over. This illegal leadership change occurred because military leaders who were loyal to Faure’s father prevented the constitutionally assigned transfer of power to the leader of the National Assembly.

Our second measure refers to prerogatives for members of the armed forces in the form of legal impunity when they engage in illegal activities, such as violations of human rights, corruption, or severe cases of insubordination. For instance, the Nigerian Army has been accused of resorting to extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention in its fight against Boko Haram. Despite these serious allegations, impunity remained widespread at all levels according to the US Department of State.3

The figure consists of two panels: The left panel shows the share of political regimes with military veto power and the right panel shows the share of political regimes with military impunity. Both range from 2000 until 2020. In both panels, three lines can be seen, one line represents Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA), the second represents global and the third represents coup countries. Both panels show an upward trend setting in around 2015. The left panel shows a much higher increase in the percentage of regimes with military veto power for the group of coup countries, a notable increase for SSA and a smaler increase for global. The panel on the right shows a large increase in the share of political regimes with military impunity for coup countries and SSA and a smaller increase globally.
Figure 2: Trends in political militarization over time (2000–2020).

Figure 2 shows the proportion of countries that feature such conditions of military veto power (left-panel) and military impunity (right-panel) respectively between 2000 and 2020. For comparison, we analyze three different groups: First, the global share of countries, second, the share of countries in SSA, and third, the group of eight African countries that experienced a coup during the recent wave of coups (2020–2023).4

As shown in the left panel of figure 2, as a prelude to the renewed peak in coup events in the most recent years, we observe an increase in the share of political regimes where the military possesses veto-powers. This increase is only subtle at the global level, but quite strong in Sub-Saharan African countries. Here, the share of regimes with military veto-power increases from 11.6% in 2014 to more than 25% in 2020. In other words: The number of countries in which the military had political veto-power doubled in Sub-Sahara Africa prior to the recent coup wave. This trend is even more pronounced if we look only at those African countries that eventually experienced a coup. Here, the share of regimes with a military that already exercised a veto-power before they overthrew their respective government increased from 25 to a staggering 62.5%.

We observe a similar pattern, with even more extreme shifts, when looking at the development of military impunity. There appears to be a global push for an increase in military impunity between 2016 and 2020. However, this trend is substantially more pronounced in Sub-Saharan African countries and most extreme in countries that witnessed a coup between 2020 and 2023. By 2020 almost 80 percent of the region’s militaries de facto enjoyed impunity; a worrying trend in itself, which however becomes even more important when looking at the group of countries that witnessed a coup from 2020 onwards: every country in this group, by 2020, had a military that was not held accountable for crimes committed by its members.

Militarization as Early Warning Indicator

As we have seen – by analyzing the two factors of military veto-power and military impunity – the recent coup-wave is only the tip of the iceberg of militarization in Sub-Sahara Africa. Countries experiencing coups in this wave were affected by this trend in particular but they are not the only cases. Although the reasons for coups are manifold, both factors (veto-power and military impunity) together seem to be good indicators of coup risk: Militaries with impunity have little reason to fear punishment in the event of a coup, even if it fails, whereas the fact that the military already has substantial veto-power signals the vulnerability of civilian politics vis-à-vis the military. A weak civilian government unable to hold the military accountable and to wield effective control is further delegitimized by a lack of performance prompting the military to take over power completely. This was the case in many states of the current coup wave, where Islamist incursions proved to be a challenge for civilian governments. Studying militarization thus can help us see below the waterline and identify countries at risk of experiencing military coups. Following this line, which countries are currently at risk?

As shown by the map (Map 1) below, out of the 43 Sub-Saharan countries covered by the M3-Dataset only ten5 did not show signs of either a military veto-power or impunity in 2020. In these countries a military coup seems currently unlikely. In all other 33 countries the military enjoys a de facto impunity, which we consider a risk factor. In 11 of them6, the military also exercises substantial de facto veto-power. Given that previous coups are also known as a structural factor that increases the likelihood of future coups7, we – besides those countries that already witnessed coups in the recent waves – regard Zimbabwe (which witnessed a coup in 2017), and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (with a coup attempt in 2022), as the most likely cases for a future coup. Of course, our analysis showed that coups also occurred in countries where the military did not wield veto-power but enjoyed impunity. This group includes several cases with a strong tradition of military takeovers (like Burundi and Benin) or current threats of violent conflict (such as Cameroon and Mozambique), both of which often trigger military coups. Those cases are also located in the danger zone of militarization and coup-plotting.

Map of Africa showing which Sub-Saharan countries have military veto-power AND impunity (Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea, Angola, Zambia, Gabon, Uganda, Sudan, Chad, Mali, Mauritania), wihch countries have military impunity (Burundi, Madagascar, Gambia, Togo, Liberia, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Tanzania, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Cameroon, Niger, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Nigeria, Senegal), and which countries have none of both (Congo, Lesotho, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi, Benin).
Map 1: Prevalence of the risk factors military veto-power or impunity in Sub-Saharan African countries in 2020 (map source: https://d-maps.com/m/africa/afrique/afrique10.svg, personal editing).

In sum, it is evident that the recent surge in military coups in Sub-Saharan Africa is accompanied by a broader trend of political militarization. To address this concerning issue, we propose the following policy recommendations. Strengthening institutions for effective civilian control over the military is crucial, which foremost entails reforms to limit military veto powers, ensuring that key political decisions remain under civilian authority. This is a delicate matter because, as described above, a change in the status quo can trigger a coup. Increasing civilian control of the military is therefore a long-term project. However, this process can be supported from outside, for example by attaching conditions to collaborations such as international peacekeeping missions, which – due to the overseas and risk allowances – often provide financial gains for military personnel. Cutting off such sources of income can also help to reduce the willingness to support coups within such militaries. Additionally, legal frameworks must be reinforced to hold members of the armed forces accountable for illegal activities, such as human rights violations and corruption. In this regard, the international community, including regional organizations, should collaborate to monitor and address political militarization in Sub-Saharan Africa. Establishing mechanisms for early warning can help identify and respond to countries at risk of military coups. Though our analysis above cannot be considered as a sophisticated forecasting model, it illustrates the potential to integrate indicators of militarization into established frameworks such as the PREVIEW data tool of the German foreign office. However, it is essential to recognize that addressing political militarization requires a multifaceted and collaborative approach involving regional and domestic stakeholders.


Cover PRIF Spotlight 13/2023 Download (pdf): Bayer, Markus / Bethke, Felix S. / Croissant, Aurel / Scheeder, Nikitas (2023): Back in Business or Never Out? Military Coups and Political Militarization in Sub-Sahara Africa, PRIF Spotlight 13/2023, Frankfurt/M.

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Markus Bayer

Markus Bayer

Dr. Markus Bayer ist Senior Researcher am Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC). // Dr Markus Bayer is a Senior Researcher at Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC).
Felix Bethke

Felix Bethke

Dr. Felix S. Bethke ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“ am PRIF. Seine Forschungsschwerpunkte sind Bürgerkriege, Demokratisierung und politischer Protest. Sein regionaler Fokus liegt auf Afrika, insbesondere Äthiopien. // Dr Felix S. Bethke is a Senior Researcher in PRIF‘s research department “Intrastate Conflict”. His research focuses on civil wars, democratization, and political protest. His regional focus is Africa, Ethiopia in particular. | Twitter: @f_bethke
Aurel Croissant

Aurel Croissant

Prof. Dr. Aurel Croissant ist Professor für Politische Wissenschaft am Institut für Politische Wissenschaft (IPW) der Universität Heidelberg. // Prof. Dr Aurel Croissant is Professor of Political Science at Heidelberg University.
Nikitas Scheeder

Nikitas Scheeder

Nikitas Scheeder ist akademischer Mitarbeiter am Institut für Politische Wissenschaft (IPW) der Universität Heidelberg. // Nikitas Scheeder is a researcher at Heidelberg University.

Markus Bayer

Dr. Markus Bayer ist Senior Researcher am Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC). // Dr Markus Bayer is a Senior Researcher at Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies (BICC).

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