Following the news lately is enough to make one wonder if coups might be contagious.
Military leaders seized power in Gabon on Aug. 30, adding it to a list of at least seven African countries — including Niger just a few weeks earlier — that have experienced military takeovers in the last three years.
The recent surge is particularly surprising because coups, particularly successful ones, had been relatively rare in the decades following the end of the Cold War.
“If you told me a decade ago that would be happening today, I would not have thought that that was a reasonable expectation,” said Erica De Bruin, a Hamilton College political scientist who wrote a book in 2020 about coup prevention.
Coups are not actually “contagious” in the sense that one directly causes another, experts say.
“We are seeing more coups not because of a contagion, but because of a more permissive environment,” said Naunihal Singh, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval War College. “So countries that are already coup-prone are less restrained.”
Shifts in the international community’s responses have made coups marginally less risky for would-be plotters. And military leaders may also be learning from each others’ experiences, drawing lessons on how to evade sanctions and international condemnation, and hold on to power.
International condemnation used to make coups riskier. Now, not so much.
To understand why coups are on the increase, it helps to look at why their numbers had fallen after the Cold War ended. There were a lot of reasons for that, of course, but experts say the international community’s new willingness to impose sanctions on regimes that had taken power by force had a significant effect.
“Coups are going to happen when members of the military have some sort of grievance against a regime that they don’t feel they can get addressed, but also where they have the opportunity to see those grievances actually addressed by the coup itself,” De Bruin said.
International sanctions didn’t alter the underlying grievances. But they did change the calculus on the likelihood that a coup would successfully address them: Sanctions, particularly those imposed by regional organizations like the African Union and the Organization of American States, made it harder for military leaders to hang onto power, reducing the chances that they’d stay in office long enough to address the grievances that inspired them in the first place.
But then, a few years ago, those powerful anti-coup norms began to erode.
One reason is that enforcement has gotten spottier, Singh wrote in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy. The United States, for instance, has repeatedly carved out exceptions to laws requiring foreign aid to be cut off after coups, particularly in countries where national security interests make the US reluctant to jeopardize its relationship with military leaders.
“The U.S. cares more about security and competing with China and Russia than defending democracy,” he said in an interview.
And even when sanctions are imposed, the rise of China as a global power has cushioned their impact. In the decades after the end of the Cold War, most developing countries relied on the United States and other wealthy Western democracies for aid, making sanctions by those governments a particularly potent threat. “But today, the military junta in Burma, for example, can offset U.S., EU, U.K., and Canadian sanctions with Chinese financial and diplomatic support,” Singh writes.
The rise of private mercenaries like the Russia-affiliated Wagner group have allowed a similar kind of substitution. After France announced that it would withdraw its troops from Mali following coups there in 2020 and 2021, for instance, the government turned to Wagner for security assistance instead.
How to launder power
But there is something else going on too, De Bruin said: Coup leaders are learning from others’ examples, figuring out how to use elections to transform their coup-installed governments into something more palatable to the international community.
Think of it as ‘coup laundering’: just as criminals can launder dirty money by running it through legitimate transactions, coup leaders can launder political power by running it through elections.
That’s because there is something of a loophole in the international condemnation of coup-installed regimes: they aren’t considered coup-installed anymore if, after seizing power by force, they win an election.
That has led to a new playbook, De Bruin said: seize power, hang onto it long enough to hold elections, use electoral manipulation and other resources of leadership to win them, and then relax as sanctions on your no-longer-coup-installed regime are lifted.
“What I think we are seeing is some element of learning,” she said. “And so now we have coup leaders who have been able to win elections and then just remain in power. The sanctions disappear, the suspensions disappear.”
That doesn’t mean that coups are likely to return to the high levels seen during the Cold War, when many coups were proxies for the fight between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But coups can have a compounding effect: as more leaders hang on to power after seizing it by force, the more influence they will have within international organizations. Over time, that may make interest in policing coups fall even further.