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The president of the Central African Republic was recently ousted by rebel forces. According to atlanticwire there have been over 40 coups in the past 60 years. Do African nations have a higher propensity for coups?

  • As written, you are asking whether the media are creating a perception of instability in Africa. Is that what you intended to ask? As to why West Africa has seen so many coups, the linked article goes into the main theories. – choster Mar 28 '13 at 2:23
  • For an upbeat account of recent developments in the continent as a whole, look here. To his credit, the author traveled 15,800 miles to gather impressions for his report. – Drux Mar 28 '13 at 6:21
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    This wasn't my question. I only edited the title to make it fit the question better. – Steven Drennon Jul 21 '13 at 21:58
  • @wonton Do you mean to use the geographic definition of "continent" as your criterion for comparison? Is this a valid method of examining the issue? Perhaps measuring by ethnicities or colonial masters would be more revealing and significant than a simple geographical analysis? – user2590 Jul 22 '13 at 7:27
  • @StevenDrennon - corrected. – user2590 Jul 22 '13 at 7:27
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I would say yes, that is a very unstable continent and coups very common:

Coups d'état are common in Africa; between 1952 and 2000, thirty-three countries experienced 85 such depositions. from Wikipedia

Just for example the Guine Bissau experiences 3 coups in the last 10 years:2003,2009,2012: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13443186

Coups are like business as usual in West Africa.

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    Perhaps some comparative statistics would make your answer stronger - i.e number of states vs number of coups over a given period of time for various continents. Africa has a larger number of states than South America for example, so it follows it would have a larger number of coups. A simple counting of the number of coups in Africa is not really sufficient to establish that it is 'less stable' than other continents. – user2590 Jul 21 '13 at 21:24
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SHORT ANSWER

Historically, South American countries have been more likely to experience coups and coup attempts than African ones.

This conclusion takes into account the different number of countries for each continent and their various independence dates. Only by restricting the data to exclude all coups before the early 1970s can one say that African countries, on average, have experienced more coups.

If the media has created the impression that African countries have been more prone to coups, this is understandable in that news organizations' main focus tends to be the recent past.


DETAILS

Problems in arriving at estimates

Making a direct comparison between continents and countries is problematic for a number of reasons, foremost amongst which are:

  1. some countries have existed far longer than others
  2. continents do not have the same number of countries (and definitions of continents vary)(1)
  3. different data sets cover different periods (unsurprising to given point 1 above)
  4. the definition of what a coup is may vary according to the source, and sources don’t always give a definition
  5. data sets / sources mostly cover one continent or region.(2) Given point 4 above, this makes comparisons problematic.

Creating a basis for comparison

As South American countries have existed, on average, much longer than African ones, simply counting the number of coups per continent does not make for a fair comparison. Most of the coups in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay (among others) occurred before most African countries had achieved independence.

On the second point, as there are currently 54 African countries (this number has changed radically over the past 50 years) but only 12 South American ones, totaling the number of coups also doesn’t really tell us anything.

To counteract these differences, I have looked at the average number of coups per country per year (or per 10 years to reduce the number of decimal points).

It is also necessary to use a source which covers both continents using the same criteria. The calculations which follow are thus mostly based on data compiled for the article Global instances of coups from 1950 to 2010: A new dataset by Jonathan M Powell & Clayton L Thyne.(3) This data set has since been updated to 2015 and has the most up-to-date comprehensive data readily available.


Propensity for Coups in South America and Africa

Starting with the big picture for 1950 to 2010, Powell and Thyne state:

Coups have been most common in Africa and the Americas (36.5% and 31.9%, respectively). Asia and the Middle East have experienced 13.1% and 15.8% of total global coups, respectively. Europe has experienced by far the fewest number of coup attempts: 2.6%.

In numbers (for the longer period 1950 to 2015), there were 198 coups in Africa against 105 for South America.(4) If we add on pre-1950 coups listed in Wikipedia(5) and the article Regimes, Competition, and Military Coups in Latin America, the numbers are much more even (it’s hard to tell exactly due to the different definitions used). However, as noted above, these figures take no account of continent size or dates of independence and thus do not answer the question "Do African nations have a higher propensity for coups?"

The calculations below show the frequency with which countries in South America and Africa experience coups.

1950 to 2015 (Historical period: 65 years)

  • South America: 1.3 coups & coup attempts per ten years
  • Africa: 0.79 coups & coup attempts per ten years

1960 to 2015 (Historical period: 55 years).

  • South America: 1.03 coups & coup attempts per ten years (0.48 successful)
  • Africa: 0.73 coups & coup attempts per ten years (0.36 successful)

1970 to 2015 (Historical period: 45 years).

  • South America: 0.8 coups & coup attempts per ten years
  • Africa: 0.79 coups & coup attempts per ten years

In short, the longer the time period under consideration, the worse it looks for South America (and the above data doesn't even include the 1930s, the worst decade for the continent). This is because South America experienced its worst decades for coups earlier than Africa, where the 1990s were especially bad.

There are, of course, a multitude of other factors which could be taken into consideration. For example, coups are more likely to occur in countries where political institutions are not yet deeply embedded; Africa is particularly disadvantaged in this respect, but this broaching on causes of coups, a complex question outside the scope of this post.


Countries experiencing the most coups and coup attempts

Despite the different definitions of a coup / coup attempt used by various researchers, there is a general consensus that Bolivia has had the most coups & coup attempts.

For the period 1950 to 2015, Powell & Thyne's data produces the following list of top coup countries:

  • 23 Bolvia (11 successful)
  • 20 Argentina (7 successful)
  • 14 Sudan (5 successful)
  • 13 Haiti (9 successful)
  • 13 Venezuela (0 successful)(6)
  • 12 Thailand (8 successful)
  • 12 Iraq (6 successful)

For the period 1900 to 2006, Fabrice Lehoucq and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán found the top Latin American successful coup countries to be:

  • 19 Bolivia
  • 16 Ecuador, Paraguay
  • 13 Honduras
  • 11 Argentina

Notes

(1) See Wikipedia, Continents

(2) Most data sets use Latin America rather than South America.

(3) Powell and Thyne go into some detail on how authors preceding them have defined coups and adopt what they call "a middle ground" for their own definition, which is "illegal and overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive." See Powell & Thyne for details.

(4) Of the 457 coup attempts recorded worldwide (1950 - 2010), 49.6% were successful while 50.4% failed. The percentages are almost the same for both the African and South American continents. There are significant variations between countries, though. Coup leaders in Burkina Faso (Africa) seem particularly adept at coups, succeeding on almost every occasion. Their Zambian counterparts, on the other hand, clearly haven’t got the hang of it – all three attempts have failed.

(5) Wikipedia's criteria seem very inconsistent, probably a reflection of multiple editors.

(6) Powell & Thyne, without specifically saying why, classify the events in Venezuela in January 1958 as an attempt, possibly because the President fled despite "having the support of an important sector of the armed forces."


Other sources

Burkina Faso profile - Timeline

The World's capital of Coups?

Everything you should know about the 200 coups that have taken place in Africa

Chronological List of African Independence

Fabrice Lehoucq and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, Breaking Out of the Coup Trap: Political Competition and Military Coups in Latin America

Are Military Coups Going Out of Style?

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No, that varies per country.

I live in Thailand, where coups are pretty much the standard way to change governments. Since 1932 when Thailand became a democracy the country has had 25 general elections and 19 military coups.

I've lived in the country since 1994. We've had 3 military coups and 2 civilian coup attempts since I arrived in 1994.

In other nations children watch the weather forecast and hope the school will be closed due to severe winter weather. In Thailand children watch the news and hope the school is closed because of a coup.

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