Jan 30, 2022 - World

Coups are making a comeback

Coups, which had seemed almost on course for extinction, are making a comeback.

By the numbers: Between 2015 and 2020, the world never saw more than two successful coup attempts in a year. But there have now been eight coups in the past 12 months — most recently in Burkina Faso, where soldiers seized power last Monday.

  • There were five successful coups in 2021, the most in any year since 1999, according to research from Clayton Thyne of the University of Kentucky and Jonathan Powell of the University of Central Florida.

The big picture: Coups are now for the most part "limited to the poorest countries in the world" and tend to happen where there are severe security threats or civil wars, as well as a past history of coups, Powell tells Axios.

  • While there's clearly a regional dynamic to the recent coup surge, Powell thinks the pandemic has also played a role by straining the resources of vulnerable countries and soaking up the attention of international actors.
  • In 2015, he notes, a coup attempt in Burkina Faso collapsed after a week due to domestic pushback and a threat of international intervention.

Between the lines: The fact that just one successful coup (in Zimbabwe) took place between 2015 and 2019 may have convinced some would-be plotters they had little chance of success. But that appears to have changed.

  • "The lesson being taken from the coups that occurred over the last year is that the international community is ineffectual in dealing with them, and there seems to be increasing evidence that people are more likely to tolerate them domestically," Powell says.

Most of the recent coups have been concentrated in West Africa or elsewhere in Africa's Sahel region, where governments have struggled to combat Islamist insurgencies over the past decade.

  • Mali has experienced two coups since 2020. Chadian President Idriss Déby was killed last year while commanding a counter-insurgency campaign; his son, an army general, was installed as his successor.
  • Myanmar's military overthrow last February was the only coup attempted outside of Africa since 2016, according to Thyne and Powell's data. Coups used to occur frequently in Latin America, but there has been just one successful coup in the Americas since 1991.

Details: It's not always clear cut as to what does and doesn't constitute a coup attempt. In Kazakhstan, for example, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed to have survived a coup earlier this month, but the facts remain murky.

  • "We’re looking at who did what to whom," Thyne says of determining what is and isn't a coup. "The 'who' has to be an elite member of the state apparatus, oftentimes a general. The 'what' has to be an overt attempt to seize power illegally."
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