- Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France through a military coup on November 9/10, 1799
- In 1977, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq seized power and in 1999 Gen. Pervez Musharraf did in Pakistan
Writing in www.conversations.com two US scholars, Clayton Beswa and Mathew Frank, reported that there were 463 coup attempts worldwide between 1950 and 2017, of which, 233 were successful. Military coups had also been a hardy annual they say, though for reasons yet unknown, the years 2007 and 2018, were free from military take-overs.
According to the Center for Systemic Peace (CSP), most coups occurred during the height of the Cold War, that is, from the 1960s through the 1980s. 77 countries (including a few which no longer exist like Czechoslovakia, North and South Yemen, and South Vietnam) had experienced at least one successful coup since World War II.Thailand has had the most coups, numbering 10. Bolivia and Syria each have had eight coups, while Argentina has had seven.
Military coups are by no means a modern phenomenon. They had occurred even before the birth of Jesus Christ. Julius Caesar crossed the river Rubicon in 49 BC, triggering the Roman Civil War which resulted in his becoming a military dictator of Rome. But Caesar himself faced a counter-coup on the Ides of March (March15, 44 BC) which proved to be a turning point in Roman history. Much later, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France through a military coup on November 9/10, 1799.
Nearer our times, in the late 20th century, there was a 99% chance that at least one coup would happen each year, according to Coup Cast which keeps a tab on coups and attempts at coups and tries to make sense of them.
Latin America was the “epicenter” of coup activity in the 20th Century. Argentina, Venezuela, Honduras and Bolivia saw numerous democratically elected leaders being overthrown by the military. Of these countries, Argentina takes the cake. According to Wikipedia, there were six coups d’état in Argentina in the 20th century, in 1930, 1943, 1955, 1962, 1966 and 1976. In the 53 years since the first military coup in 1930, until the last dictatorship fell in 1983, the military ruled Argentina for 25 years, imposing 14 dictators designated as “President”, one every 1.7 years on an average. Sometimes military dictators had themselves been deposed through a military coup.
Coups were common in Asia, too. India, China and Nepal did not experience coups. Sri Lanka narrowly escaped from one in 1962. But Pakistan and Bangladesh had been fertile grounds for coups, until recently. In Thailand coups were an important part of its political life. Myanmar was under military rule since the 1960s till recently.
In Africa, there had been 35 coup attempts in the past 18 years – an average of two per year, according to CoupCast. Of the 12 African nations that have seen coup attempts since 2007, half – including Guinea Bissau and Burkina Faso – have had multiple coup attempts.
Unsuccessful Coup attempts
Not all coups have succeeded. 328 attempted coups had failed in the 177 countries tracked by the Centre for Systemic Peace. In fact, the success rate of coup attempts has fallen drastically over time, compared to the period between 1946 and 1969 when over 50% had succeeded. The most recent coup to fail was in Turkey in July 2016 against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
However, out of the 142 recorded coup attempts in Latin America since 1950, only five occurred since 2000. This is in line with a general decline in coup attempts since 2000.
Why do coup attempts take place?
Coups occur for a variety of reasons. The main reason is the breakdown of civilian governance because of corruption, lack of standards, economic decline, and the existing regimes’ alienation from the people. But in some cases, alienation from the armed forces could be a cause. In developing countries still struggling to build post-colonial civil institutions, the armed forces see themselves as the most organized, disciplined and morally superior establishment deserving special respect. They feel slighted when weakened, over-ruled or disregarded.
Bangladesh and Pakistan could be cited as examples for illustrating reasons for coups. In both Bangladesh and Pakistan, there had been a total breakdown of the governance system from the very beginning of their establishment as independent countries. In Bangladesh, the initial mass enthusiasm for its inspiring founder-President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman waned within three years because of his dictatorial rule and the country’s unsolved communal and economic problems.
Mujib was assassinated in August 1975 by a group of junior army officers. This was followed, not by a military takeover, but by political confusion, which, in turn led to a military takeover by Gen.Ziaur Rahman. Later, after the assassination of Ziaur Rahman in 1981, there was political instability which led to Gen.H.M.Ershad seizing power in 1983.
Muhammad Daim Fazil, explains the situation in Pakistan in an article in The Diplomat in 2016. Immediately after its establishment in 1947, Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, died. And his second in command, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated shortly thereafter. Without a guiding light, petty politicians and bureaucrats indulged in an unseemly power struggle, with the result, Pakistan was unable to draft a constitution for nine years. In these years, Pakistan went through four Prime Ministers, four Governors General, and
“With no constitution and no political stability, the country was being governed on an ad hoc basis. Decision-making was in limbo, government machinery was static, and activists of the freedom movement were disappointed with the shaky progress of political affairs. The masses were waiting for a messiah who could put the country on the right track,”Fazil recalled.
And the messiah was Army Chief, Gen. Ayub Khan. Already indicted into the government by failing civilian authorities, Gen. Khan seized full power October 7, 1958. Since then, the Pakistan army has seized power whenever civilian governance went awry and people were losing faith in it. However, according to human rights worker, (the Late) Asma Jahangir, the Pakistan army never gave democracy a fair chance to learn by trial and error. In 1977, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq seized power and in 1999 Gen. Pervez Musharraf did.
When Gen. Zia-ul-Haq overthrew civilian Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the people did not resist. Likewise, when Gen.Musharraf seized power from civilian Nawaz Sharif, there was not a whimper from the people. This was because of bad governance and instability. Between 1988 (when Zia died in an air accident ) and 1999, when Nawaz Sharif was overthrown, there had been four governments, none of them completing the constitutional term.
Coups were common in Asia, too. India, China and Nepal did not experience coups. Sri Lanka narrowly escaped from one in 1962. But Pakistan and Bangladesh had been fertile grounds for coup, until recently
Coup helps transit to democracy
However, experts on coups point out that successful coup leaders often initiate a transition to democracy. In fact, they give themselves a time period to effect a transition. This is done partly to correct a governance system gone awry, and partly to gain legitimacy for their rule. They take off their uniforms and don civilian attire while running a dictatorship. Democratization has increasingly become an essential part of the coup maker’s baggage. Ayub set up “Basic Democracy” and Musharraf instituted the National Accountability Bureau, within a month of
In some cases, as in Pakistan now, the military remains out of de jure power but exercises very effective de facto power. The people approve the military’ shadow presence as they feel assured that if civilian rule becomes unbearable, the armed forces, the only functioning State institution, will step in to restore order.
In some countries, coups have put floundering national economies on a firm track. Beswa and Frank cite South Korea’s 1961 coup, an a example. The coup firmly put the East Asian country on the path to becoming an Asian Tiger. Pakistan under Gen.Ayub improved its agriculture. Gen. Musharraf increased its growth rate from 4.7% to 6.3%. In Bangladesh, the credit for putting the economy on the path of progress went to Gen.Ershad.
Post-Cold War Coups
In their paper, Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans, post-Cold War coup attempts were a different kettle of fish because of Western economic and political pressure on them to observe human rights and democratic norms. Western threats of international isolation and economic sanctions have made coups restore or build democracies.