Thursday, August 4, 2005

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The quaint old coup

Mauritania is a not-so-pleasant reminder of a relatively pleasant fact: military coup d'etats are a post-Cold War rarity. According to Patrick McGowan (‘African Military Coups d’Etat, 1956–2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution’, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 41, issue 3, 2003.):

[T]he military coup is today almost exclusively an African phenomenon. Once frequent and widespread in the global South, since the mid-1980s successful military coups d’e´tat have become relatively rare in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and Asia; whereas between 1985 and 2001 SSA [sub-Saharan Africa] experienced 21 successful coups and 41 failed coup attempts.

Outside of Africa, the only successful coups in the past decade have been in Haiti and Pakistan. Interestingly, the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been independent for 25 years and have avoided coups are Botswana, Cape Verde and Mauritius -- all of which are multiparty democracies. [UPDATE: Hmmm..... this previous sentence came straight from the McGowan article, but Jacob Levy is right to wonder why South Africa isn't on this list. One possibility is that McGowan includes attempted coups, and there might have been one in the late eighties/early nineties that escapes our collective memory.]

Even inside Africa, there is relatively good news -- although the pace of coup activity has not abated, according to McGowan the relative success of coup attempts has declined. In other words, there are as many coup attempts as in the past, but fewer of them succeed.

Why? One obvious reason for the decline in coups is the absence of great power support for them. Another reason might be contained in this London Times story by Jenny Booth:

The African Union today suspended the membership of Mauritania after yesterday's bloodless military coup deposed President Maaouiya Ould Taya.

The AU Peace and Security Council said that the suspension would remain in place until "constitutional order" is returned to the west African state.

"In light of the coup d’etat that took place on August 3... Mauritania’s participation in all AU activities should be suspended until the restoration of constitutional order in the country," the council said in a statement.

Here's a link to an earlier AU condemnation of the coup.

Whether this will actually alter the behavior of the coup plotters is doubtful at this point, but it's worth remembering that even this gesture would never have taken place ten years ago. And such gestures in the past have helped to thwart coups in Latin America.

The rest of the world's response has been along similar lines to what's happened in Mauritania.

Alas, focusing on Mauritania itself, it seems pretty clear that the coup does not do wonders for U.S. foreign policy, according to Booth's report:

The quick return to calm appeared to suggest there was widespread acceptance of President Taya’s overthrow. Islamic opposition parties celebrated the deposition of a ruler who had looked increasingly to the West, in response to alleged threats from al-Qaeda linked militants with ties to radical groups in Algeria.

On the other hand, this International Crisis Group report from March 2005 suggests that fears of radical Islamic activity are overblown. See also Princeton Lyman's CFR briefing on the coup.


posted by Dan on 08.04.05 at 02:42 PM


"the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been independent for 25 years and have avoided coups are Botswana, Cape Verde and Mauritius"

Is South Africa being defined out of SSA? Or is it being defined as not having been "independent" before the end of apartheid?

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 08.04.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Professor Levy's question is indeed an interesting one; one wonders whether Kenya has also been excluded from SSA. Still, the burning question is whether the proper plural is "coup d'etats," as Dan uses the phrase, or "coups d'etat," as McGowan says in the quoted excerpt. suggests coups d'etat, but perhaps it has been sufficiently anglicized that coup d'etats is also proper.

posted by: Tom on 08.04.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Ahem, Dan, fact checking in order. Senegal, independent since 1960 has never experienced a military coup (or other sort of coup), and had a reasonable fascimile of domestic democratic process from the early 20th century forward (although 60-00 a single party dominated [monopolised] national level politics).

Not sure where you got your only Mauretius, etc., fact from but whatever the source, it was wrong.

In re Mauretania, have to say Ould Si Ahmed Taya was a slimey bastid (himself the product of a military coup mind you) whose 'pro Western' leaning of late was all about shoring himself up, not any philosophical trend.

Nothing to really fear from Mauretania, bloody awful country I have to say having actually been there.

posted by: collounsbury on 08.04.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

I would note that Lyman's interview/backgrounder on the coup seems solid to me, esp. in re the Opposition getting backed into the Islamists. Taya's policy really, quite evident.

posted by: collounsbury on 08.04.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Absence of great power support is a polite way of saying that the Soviets are no longer around to support people like Nasser and that we are no longer invested in supporting people like Pinochet.

posted by: Roger Albin on 08.04.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

Yeah, Senegal has been coup-free, and even had the first post-independance leader step down. Though in '62-'63 there was an interesting power struggle...

Based on talk with the son of the new leader of Mauritania (if his views reflect his fathers...), you can expect a turn away from the U.S. and a turn towards the arab world, all that pan-Arab nationalism stuff. This is bad only insofar as American companies won't get the natural gas and oil contracts...

posted by: Isaac on 08.04.05 at 02:42 PM [permalink]

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