Sudan was on its way to evolving into a constitutional democracy, but another military coup took place in Sudan on 25th October 2021 with the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and a number of his cabinet ministers, making it the fifth successful attempt since Sudan’s independence in 1956. This is not the first coup the world has seen; this phenomenon has been present in society since BCE, with the first record of a military coup taking place in 876 BCE in the Kingdom of Israel. Zimri, a military commander of Israel, killed King Elah and became king himself. In 2021 itself, the world witnessed four successful military coups and three attempts.
WHAT IS A COUP?
A coup, befittingly called coup d’état, originates from the French language, which literally means stroke or blow of the state. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a coup as a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics, especially: the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group. A coup is typically an illegal, unconstitutional seizure of power by a political faction, military, or dictator. For a coup to be successful, the usurpers need to have control over all or part of the armed forces, police, and other military elements, and they need to hold power for at least seven days.
A coup, unlike a revolution, does not involve the general public or a large number of activists aiming for a change in the society, politics, or economy of the nation. It is merely an abrupt replacement of leadership. It rarely alters a nation’s fundamental social and economic policies— at least, that is hardly done immediately.
WHAT HAPPENS TO A COUNTRY UNDER A COUP?
Contrary to the negative perception it carries, coups do have a strong tendency to promote democratization, especially in the countries that are very unlikely to follow the gradual path of democratization on their own. This is because a coup is a sudden change in leadership that gives the new leader a chance to establish political legitimacy and economic growth without facing much opposition and have the power and authority to democratize quickly. Even if a coup fails, it serves as a token to the current leadership to refine their functioning and introduce meaningful forums that improve society if they want to remain in power.
Yes, in reality, we do see many instances where a coup can lead to a more authoritative form of government and the state experiences more repression the following years, but in recent times, coups that occurred post-Cold War were more likely to form democratic governments than coups that happened during the cold war.
Interestingly, how a coup is received by the public usually plays an important part in deciding whether a coup results in making the state more democratic or more authoritarian. When they are supported by external democratic actors, coup leaders possess an incentive to push for elections to retain external support & consolidate domestic legitimacy. When condemned, coup leaders are quick to trend toward authoritarianism in order to remain in power. In fact, some studies do suggest that if democracy is installed in previously authoritarian countries, they are less likely to end a democratic rule over time.
According to Ilya Somin, a legal scholar, a coup to forcibly overthrow a democratic government might sometimes be justified. He wrote:
“There should be a strong presumption against forcibly removing a democratic regime. However, that presumption may be overcome if the government in question is likely to destroy democracy itself by shutting down future political competition or poses a grave threat to human rights.”
What Do The Studies Show?
- A study has found that 50% of all the coups in dictatorships (both during and after the cold-war) install new autocratic regimes.
- A 2014 study discovered that 40% of post-Cold War coups were successful. The authors of the study argue that this may be due to the incentives created by international pressure.
- A 2016 study revealed that democracies were installed in 12% of Cold War coups and 40% of the post-Cold War coups.
Also, once a coup is successfully installed (especially in the case of a military coup), it becomes very difficult to remove the army from power. Naunihal Singh, the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups (2014), described this phenomenon to be ‘fairly rare’ for the prevailing existing government to violently purge the army after a coup has been foiled. It could result in a “counter-coup” by the soldiers if the Government tries to attack the army and kill its soldiers who were involved in a coup, and the results could be more devastating. To prevent such a desperate counter-coup that may be more successful than the initial one, governments usually resort to firing prominent officers & replacing them with loyalists instead.
The international response to a coup is usually negative, and they openly condemn such acts by reducing aid or imposing sanctions. Western nations usually react the strongest, especially to the coups that might serve as a threat to democracy or human rights. These kinds of reactions, especially from very powerful countries, affect the impact and duration of the coup, adversely shortening their stay in power.
Organizations such as the African Union (AU) & the Organization of American States (OAS) have adopted anti-coup frameworks. Through the threat of sanctions, these organizations actively try to curb coups. A 2016 study found that the AU has played a meaningful role in reducing African coups. According to the findings of a 2020 study, coups increase the cost of borrowing and increase the likelihood of sovereign default.
CASE STUDIES OF THREE NATIONS
To further understand the phenomenon of a coup and how it penetrates and sustains itself in a country, we will focus on 3 case studies of countries that have either suffered a state of coup or are suffering a state of coup now.
2010 Niger coup d’état
While Tandja, the former President of Niger, was summoning a meeting at the presidential palace on 18th February 2010, a group of soldiers from Tondibia (near Niamey) entered the city in armored vehicles and opened fire on the place, killing at least ten people including four soldiers. The initial violence resulted in the victory of Major Adamou Harouna, who had led the coup while Tandja and other Government ministers were held in detention at a point near the palace.
According to Reuters, life in Niamey had mostly returned to normal just a day after, and there was “a sense of hope and relief for change” after an extended political crisis and semi-isolation.
The coup participants had formed a military junta called the Supreme Council for The Restoration of Democracy and named Mahamadou Danda and appointed a former cabinet minister as Prime Minister. Despite the coup and violence, the work of the Government continued to normalcy with ministers being managed by their secretaries-general.
The opposition party, Coordination of Democratic Forces for the Republic (CFDR) coalition, supported the coup and notified their interest “to make its contribution for the creation of a new constitution and the organization of free, honest and transparent elections.” The CFDR, in fact, thanked the junta for ousting Tandja in a rally they held in Niamey on 20th February. Over 10,000 attended the rally, where CFDR even expressed their solidarity with the army and thanked the junta for ousting Tandja.
The coup in Nigeria is one of the most well-known examples where the coup though violent, was led with an intention to democratize the nation. Niger held its first presidential elections after the coup on 31st January 2011, and the country slowly started transforming into a civilian rule.
2020 Salvadoran Political Crisis
An incident in a Central American country, El Salvador, on 9th February 2020 within which the Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele sent forty of the Salvadoran Army soldiers into the Legislative Assembly building in an attempt to coerce politicians to approve a loan request of 109 million dollars from the US for Bukele’s security plan for the country.
The incident was condemned by many foreign governments, the political opposition, and human rights organizations and is taken into account as the primary major political crisis within the country since the Salvadoran war in 1992.
On 6th February, Bukele invoked article 167 of the Constitution, calling on the Council of Ministers to convene within the legislature on 9th February to vote on the loan. Hours prior to when the meeting in the Legislative Assembly was to occur, Bukele met up with fifty top military officials & discussed sending soldiers into the Legislative Assembly during the meeting. The military officers were already aware of what Bukele had intended to do since the day prior.
Small demonstrations protesting Bukele’s group action were reported, mainly grouped at the University of El Salvador at the national capital. Contrastingly, numerous Salvadorans spoke out on social media in support of Bukele, praising him for his hard stance on crime and gang violence. On 16th February, a crowd of supporters protested outside the general assembly demanding the approval of the loan.
The day following the incident, lawmakers condemned Bukele’s action. That day, no murders were reported within the country, and Bukele cited that as evidence that his policies were effective.
The crisis has been cited as an instance of democratic backsliding by numerous organizations & political scientists, which state that it endangered the long run of democracy in the country.
2021 Myanmar Coup
The Myanmar coup was perhaps the most internationally covered event of 2021 by the media. Myanmar’s military, Tatmadaw, deposed the members of the ruling party National League of Democracy (NDL) on 1st February 2021, just a day before the Parliament of Myanmar was due to swear in members elected in the 2020 elections. A year-long state of emergency was declared, invalidating the November 2020 elections, and powers were transferred to the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services Min Aung Hlaing.
President Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi were detained, along with ministers, their deputies, and members of Parliament. On 3rd February 2021, Win Myint was charged with breaching campaign guidelines & COVID-19 pandemic restrictions under section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law. Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with breaching emergency COVID-19 laws & for illegally importing and using radio and communication devices. Both were detained in custody for two weeks.
It turned out to be a very violent coup, and unrest and protest from the citizens prevailed for a long time. As of 12th April 2021, at least 707 civilians, including children, have been killed by military or police forces, and nearly 3,070 people have been detained.
The military is still struggling to normalize the situation and break the political deadlock in the nation and failed to improve the economic situation or the health crisis of the country.
“They are a failed coup and a failed regime,” said Sasa, the National Unity Government’s international cooperation minister and spokesperson. “They cannot perform any functions of a government… in healthcare, in education, in the economy.”
Is a coup a good thing? It might be difficult to get a concrete answer— it depends on a few factors like the situation of the nation, the type of government running the nation, the intentions of the coup, etc. Many coups do lead to the formation of a democratic government but are usually violent and create a lot of unrest and human rights abuse in the nation. Coups are not systematically correlated with democratization. In fact, many scholars look at coups as a replacement of one dictator by the other. Though a coup has the potential to democratize the nation, the world has seen very few examples, and moreover, even countries that have transformed into a democracy show signs of struggle and slow development.
Written by: Aashna