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Confused reports of shooting in the capital, sudden troop movements in the streets, men in fatigues looming on television: such is the rhythm of coups. That beat was less frequently heard in Africa in the early 2010s as the clamour of nascent democracy drowned it out. Now armies are marching to the old drums again. In the past three years coup-mongers have struck successfully nine times on the continent (see chart).
The consequences of this are grim. In Sudan a putsch soon precipitated civil war between the army and a paramilitary group. That has in turn triggered a return to genocide in Darfur. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger the putschists claimed they would restore security, but the countries’ war with jihadists has steadily worsened. There were 4,820 deaths from conflict in the region in 2019, before the coups. After the overthrow of governments in Mali in 2020 and 2021, in Burkina Faso in both early and late 2022, and in Niger in 2023, deaths this year will surge past 10,000. To add to the woe, in Mali separatists have once again started fighting the army. The coups have also left much Western, and especially French, policy in Africa in disarray. French soldiers have been forced to leave three countries.
After the putschists struck Gabon, another French ally, in August many are asking: where will be next? Recent coups in Africa have tended to fit one of two archetypes. The first occur in places with little security, such as much of the Sahel, where generals claim that only they can save the country. The second sort unseat unpopular leaders who have outstayed their welcome, as was the case in Guinea and Gabon.
bmi>, a research firm owned by Fitch, a credit-ratings agency, has studied metrics of security, institutional strength, economic development and societal cohesion to suggest which African country might be next in line for a coup. It thinks that South Sudan is at highest risk (see map). Africa’s newest country scores just four out of 100 on the strength of its institutions. Next comes rebel-riddled Central African Republic where the president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who is guarded by mercenaries from the Wagner Group, recently pushed through a change to the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.
sbm Intelligence, a Nigerian consultancy, has developed a rival index. It also focuses on governance and the economy but explicitly considers meddling foreign powers and a country’s history. Worryingly, their top pick for a coup or upheaval is the vast Democratic Republic of Congo (drc) which is beset by conflict and interfering neighbours, and which faces a presidential election in December. Strikingly, they also rank Angola, one of Africa’s biggest economies and a big oil producer, as being equally at risk of a coup as Mali, which is already run by a junta. Angola’s risk is based in part on its history of conflict and long record of one-party rule.
Coups can turn on invisible factors as much as on measurable ones. Relationships within the armed forces are crucial but opaque. It is probably no coincidence that within hours of the coup in Gabon the authoritarian presidents of Rwanda and Cameroon reshuffled their generals and ministry of defence respectively.
A simpler rule of thumb may therefore still be the most informative: coups often beget more coups in the same country. That’s why Mali and Burkina Faso have both had two putsches since 2020 and why the junta in the latter announced in late September that it had thwarted another attempt. With Mali now battling resurgent separatists as well as the jihadists that also beset Burkina and Niger, anyone on coup watch should keep a close eye on the Sahel.■
Correction (October 10th 2023): An earlier version of our map incorrectly labelled Botswana. Sorry.