The number of attempted and successful coups in Africa have hit levels not seen on the continent in over three decades.
The inconsistency in responding to coups, both by the United States and international institutions, has contributed to the erosion of the norm against such events. This has only increased the likelihood that they continue and creates future challenges in developing a robust post-coup playbook.
Though coup contagion is an alluring theory, its real value is in forcing policymakers to think about the underlying factors and proximate causes leading to coups. These factors may be better categorized as endemic, particularly in the Sahel and Central Africa. Policymakers need to consider ways to address the underlying conditions of coups like economic insecurity and consistently condemn efforts aimed at eroding democracy. And importantly, if the U.S. is serious about defending norms, events such as coups should be labeled as such when they occur.
Between 2015 and 2018, coups in Africa had reached historic lows. This period saw only failed coup attempts in Burundi and Burkina Faso and the successful coup against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Much like Mugabe, the 2019 ouster of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir did little to raise concerns about the return of the man on horseback. Both cases saw long-tenured dictators removed from power, leading to considerable optimism about each country’s political future. Coups, however, have now returned to numbers not seen in decades and the trajectory is concerning.
The influx of coup activity in Africa over the past several years, ten successful since 2019, has renewed debate over whether coups, like transmissible diseases, are contagious. The pace and proximity at which such events have occurred would certainly seem to suggest they are, or, at the very least, would lead one to believe they might be. Niger’s coup in late July 2023 came just ten months after a successful coup in Burkina Faso. Then, less than a month after Nigerien officers ousted Mohamaed Bazoum, the country’s democratically elected president, Gabon became the latest coup victim.
Any answer to the coup contagion question is complex. There is both anecdotal evidence to suggest that coups may indeed be contagious but also important reasons why scholars have been skeptical of the idea. Rather than thinking about coups as being “contagious” or not, we think it is worth thinking more broadly about how epidemics work in general to understand the prevalence of coups. Doing so might help in identifying effective treatments, or at least rule out ineffective ones.
Coups as an Epidemic
The recent resurgence of coups in Africa is surprising in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that coups seemed to be becoming a thing of the past. Before Gabon’s August putsch, Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, and Niger had each experienced at least one successful coup since 2021. The pace of coups in 2021 led the UN Secretary General to suggest that ineffective deterrence from the Security Council had contributed to “an epidemic of coup d’etats.” If an epidemic can be thought of as the increased prevalence of disease at a particular point in time and space, the recent run of coups in Africa has clearly reached epidemic proportions.
The African continent is no stranger to coups. Since 1960, there have been at least 214 coup attempts, with 106 of them successful. During the Cold War period coups were especially prevalent events. Strategic rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union essentially meant that “if you controlled the capital, you were recognized as legitimate.” That status quo changed after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the decline in coups became especially pronounced after 2000-a period many researchers refer to as the entrenchment of the anti-coup norm.
For Africa, the decline in the 2000s has also been attributed to the African Union’s (AU) efforts to consistently respond to unconstitutional interventions by soldiers who seek to seize power. The Lomé Declaration in 2000, adopted under the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), established the framework for responding to these illegal seizures of power. Consistent application of Lomé has been lauded as an important contributor to the decline in coups. However, the AU broke with the norm of immediate suspension following a November 2017 coup in Zimbabwe and an April 2019 coup in Sudan. In 2021, the AU did so again following Chad’s unconstitutional transition after the death of Idris Déby.
Coups Under the African Union
To put this all in perspective, the year 2021 alone saw as many coup attempts as had been seen on the continent in the preceding six years combined. The year’s four successful coups were the most seen on the continent since 1999, and one would have to go all the way back to 1980 for a year with more successful coups. The total coups attempted had not been seen since 1991.
Given this clustering of recent coups both geographically and temporally, it isn’t all that surprising that the concept of coup contagion has resurged in public and policy discourse. Simply put, coup contagion is the idea that coups in one country are transmissible, and like a communicable disease, they can spread. Whether potential plotters learn from putschists in another state and/or become emboldened from watching successful coups, the idea of coup contagion is an alluring theory. Whether the African continent is in a coup epidemic is not really a question at this point. The prevalence of coups over the past five years clearly underscores this reality. The question, rather, is how to end it.
Coup Attempts Since 1960 (Tracking 5-year Average)
Successful Coups Since 1960 (Tracking 3-year Average)
Treating the Coup Epidemic
We can think of epidemics in at least two ways. First, whatever disease that has increased in prevalence could be the product of shared environmental or behavioral conditions of the afflicted population. In other words, the disease does not have to be contagious in the ways we think about the common cold or respiratory infections that the world became intimately familiar with during the COVID-19 pandemic. Few forms of cancer, for example, are communicable, but prevalence rates can change dramatically over time and space depending on various factors. In the case of coups, we have largely seen a cluster of cases in a limited geographic region in which countries could be said to have similar environmental (poverty, low economic growth, other security challenges) or behavioral (third term-ism, election rigging, etc.) conditions that increase coup vulnerability.
Countries swept up in Africa’s recent wave of coups, such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Sudan share several environmental similarities that may predispose them to coups. They are among the world’s poorest countries and rank in the bottom quarter in various development indicators like infant mortality and life expectancy. States like Burkina Faso and Mali have been inflicted with growing levels of jihadist violence that has swelled in recent years. They also have a history of coup activity, and like family history, this record can serve as a useful predictor of propensity for certain diseases – or in these cases, the likelihood of future coups.
Several of these countries also have behavioral similarities. In Sudan, Guinea, and Gabon for instance, long-term autocrats were ousted following efforts to either revise term limits to extend their reign or after electoral irregularities.
Though logically compelling, and certainly illustrative of the situation in Africa’s recent coups, the existence of these long-term challenges does not solely explain the extraordinary number of coups that have swept the region. Instead, observers have noted that coup activity clusters in time, occurring in “waves” that are unlikely to be explained solely through examining such environmental factors that are effectively constant through time.
Second, some epidemics are due to the communicable nature of the disease. In the context of politics, contagion has been described as “a process in which an event occurring in one place alters the probability of its occurrence in another.” With coup contagion, many point to the occurrence of a coup in one place acting as a catalyst for others elsewhere, either nearby or elsewhere in the world.
Such thinking is entrenched in recent history on Africa’s civil-military relations, but it is hardly new thinking. Writing on the 1966 Ghanaian coup which saw Kwame Nkrumah ousted, Ruth First noted that “if anything made the Ghanaian coup inevitable, it was the staging of the Nigerian coup a month before.” Others argued that Gen. Christophe Soglo’s successful putsch in Benin in 1966, “probably affirmed the resolution of Nigerian officers next door.” Yet, while coup contagion is commonly assumed to exist, and qualitative evidence offers some support, the quantitative evidence has been consistently underwhelming.
A lack of a statistical finding, however, does not mean that some form of coup contagion is not real. Rather, the missing link may be in recognizing that coups may spur action in other states that influence the probability that they “spread.” People, for instance, often take efforts to mitigate the spread of dangerous pathogens when they arise. Rabies is a communicable disease often found in animals. But spillover into humans is relatively rare and human-to-human transmission—while theoretically very much a risk—has not actually been documented beyond rare cases of infected organ transplants. The reason, of course, is due to the obvious symptoms and threat posed by rabies cases and deliberate efforts to avoid falling victim to it.
A range of recent commentary, and more systematic research, has suggested that efforts to contain coups have drastically weakened in recent years. Beginning with concerns about the widespread acceptance, if not outright approval, of Zimbabwe’s 2017 coup, concerns were raised that inaction would set a precedent that would likely embolden future coup plotters. Notably, such predictions were made in the immediate aftermath of Zimbabwe’s coup, long before the recent coup epidemic was apparent. A budding coup tolerance was even suspected of having played a role in Gabon’s short-lived 2019 coup attempt. Some have suggested that Gabon’s first coup-plotters launched their 1964 attempt under the assumption that they would receive the same acceptance as an earlier coup in the Republic of Congo. They were wrong, and the ensuing French intervention both reinstated Léon M’ba and—having demonstrated an “external guarantor” of stability—purportedly deterred future coups in Gabon and elsewhere in Francophone Africa.
The continent’s recent wave of coups might also be reflective of the changing international system—one which looks far more analogous to a system of great-power competition that dominated the Cold War period. Indeed, we suggested as much in March 2022 and many scholars have highlighted the degradation of the anti-coup norm as impactful in the return of coups. Yet unlike the Cold War, there are more players and more alternatives, which means that coordinated and consistent responses to coups may be more difficult to come by now and into the future.
Niger’s recent coup, for instance, was met by a diversity of international responses. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup and threatened military intervention to return the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, to power. Meanwhile, the US and French, often in alignment following coups, appeared to diverge in their initial responses. US military investment and assets in Niger tempered the Biden administration’s willingness to label the event a coup, echoing the tightrope the US walked following Chad’s unconstitutional transition in 2021. Only after months of waffling did the United States recently decide to label Bazoum’s ouster, a coup, invoking section 7008 of the State Department’s annual appropriations act which suspends several types of foreign and military aid.
France, on the other hand, was assertive and remained steadfast in its response to Niger’s putschists following the wave of anti-French sentiment sweeping the Sahel. Macron engaged the new junta in a protracted standoff, originally refusing to capitulate to the junta’s demands to withdraw French troops and recall the ambassador. It took nearly a month for Paris to bend, with Macron stating France would end “our military cooperation with the de facto authorities in Niger, because they no longer want to fight terrorism.”
For its part, Russia has not formally backed the coup, but its mercenary assets in the region, the Wagner Group, initially praised the coup leaders, echoing sentiments from earlier coups in Mali and Burkina Faso. Russia has attempted to capitalize on Niger’s civil-military crises as reports identified the Russian Foreign Ministry financing the distribution of the Russian flag in Niamey to spread Russian influence. Moscow also condemned ECOWAS’s threats, warning it against taking military action. Lastly, Mali and Burkina Faso’s coup regimes have pledged their support and assistance to the Sahel’s newest junta—forging a new security pact in mid September known as the Alliance of Sahel States. Such fragmentation in responding to Niger’s coup underscores the challenges associated with effective coalition building in responding to coups; challenges that are only likely to persist if not become more difficult given the state of international politics.
The underlying factors (i.e., economic insecurity, hollow democratic institutions, and/or low levels of development) and the proximate causes (i.e., increasing levels of violence, electoral irregularities, and/or civilian unrest) of coup activity remain present throughout the region. There are few indications that these environmental and behavioral triggers of coups are likely to recede in the near term. While the anti-coup norm held strong for nearly two decades, it has eroded in a much shorter period. Indeed, norms are hard to establish and quick to disintegrate. The increased presence of actors such as China and Russia only complicates matters as both have little incentive to condemn coups in Africa. Coupled with regional juntas looking to reinforce each others’ tenure, and a population with plenty of vulnerable states, we fear that coups will likely become the new normal, spoken of not as an epidemic, but as endemic to the region.
Only by understanding if and how coups might spread can policymakers develop a response playbook to deter future plotters—and with it—refortify the anti-coup norm. Given the multitude of norms spoilers across the international system, it is critical for norm backers—like the United States and AU—to be vigilant.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.