Why are coups making a comeback in Africa?

African heads of state have seized power more than 170 times since the end of the cold war

Why are coups making a comeback in Africa?

Up until the end of the cold war, Africa had an unusually high degree of stability. In the first 16 years of the last century, between 1914 and 1989, for every 10 times that the vast continent transitioned from one regime to another, only four African heads of state were ousted.

From 1990 to 2013, the figure dropped to three times. But from last year to 2014 the number has increased to seven times – a 66% jump.

This is the story of how a continent might just be on its way to witnessing the number of coups reach their highest point since the last time it was a hotbed of instability.

Why have coups become a more common feature in Africa?

To pinpoint what exactly has triggered the number of coups, it’s important to see where they are most frequently happening.

They are most popular in stable countries in Africa’s southern part. The last coup attempt, on 1 July 2013, was in Equatorial Guinea – whose then president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo came to power in a coup in 1979.

Ten African leaders toppled in coups since 1990. From left: Laurent Gbagbo, Thomas Sankara, Laurent Gbagbo and Lee Yip-Cheng. Photograph: David Bond for the Guardian

Other states such as Ghana, Benin, Togo and Botswana saw the incidence of coups dramatically increase between 2010 and 2014.

Just as there is still no agreed definition of what a coup is, there is also no agreed understanding of how Africa should count coup attempts. Until 1982, West Africa was described as a “coup-free zone” while southern Africa – which includes the countries of the African Union, as well as Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa – was dubbed “the continent of coups”.

Since then, according to a 2013 paper by British academic Ian Gabriel, coups have “all but vanished” from the continent as there has been greater communication and cooperation between the military forces of all nations within Africa.

What are coups in Africa?

A coup is simply a military intervention in a state by a member of the security forces. There are different definitions.

In the case of Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh seized power in a coup in January 1994 in which more than 70 military officers took control of the state. But in Angola, which has seen about 20 coups since independence in 1975, civil society activists claim hundreds of soldiers have been involved in regime changes.

At least 30 international tribunals have prosecuted leaders for their actions since the end of the cold war, and one World Court ruling has ordered the Ugandan and Rwandan governments to pay tens of millions of dollars in compensation to victims of a decade-long genocide.

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