What is a coup? These 40 African countries could help explain

“We’re in charge now.”
“We’re in charge now.”
Image: AP Photo/Theo Renaut
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On Wednesday (Nov. 15), Zimbabweans woke up to a reality that may have been new to them but is familiar in many other African countries: a military takeover of the government.

The Zimbabwean Defence Force (ZDF) took over the state broadcaster and reportedly put longtime leader Robert Mugabe and his family under house arrest. In a televised address, complete with martial music, ZDF took pains to stress that it had not carried out a coup but instead was acting to quell tensions following the sacking of vice president. But military trucks stationed menacingly on the streets of Harare suggested otherwise.

That sequence of events has played out several times in different countries across the continent. Since the 1960s, Africa has seen at least 200 successful and failed coups. The coups have inspired Hollywood flicks such as Tears of the Sun which starred Bruce Willis and depicted a bloody overthrow of a Nigerian president.

In many ways, a lot of African countries possess a cocktail of ingredients that stir coups with long-term leaders who invest power in themselves at the expense of weakened institutions. Agitated citizens that are often victims of injustice and social inequality are also likely more welcoming to  regime change and willing to believe the military’s promises of fixing things and making way for a civilian government in no time.

However, history has shown that coup leaders don’t always live up to that promise: Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and most populous country, has spent more of its 57 years of independence under military rule than it has under a civilian president.

Beyond the likely upturn in human and constitutional rights abuses, coups also tend to be anathema to economic growth. Given the uncertainty military interventions in government come with, investors tend to be reticent to put money into economies that are run by the whims of a dictator rather than market forces. The likely effect is often a lack of economic growth, increased inflation and unemployment—some of the things the military often cite as the reason they took power in the first place.

Unlike in other parts of Africa, military coups have been extremely rare in southern Africa’s post-independence history. In fact, only Lesotho has had two. Coups have generally become rarity across Africa as democracy has taken hold.

Burkina Faso, land of Thomas Sankara, is the coup capital of Africa after witnessing 10 attempts—the most on the continent. Six of those happened in the 1980s alone with two of those attempts led by Blaise Compaoré who, having taken power in 1987, ruled for 27 years until Oct. 2014 when he was overthrown by, yep, another coup.

The frequency of the coups means Burkina Faso hasn’t witnessed a peaceful transfer of power through elections. Similarly, in Guinea-Bissau, no thanks to coups, no president has completed a full term since the country’s independence in 1974. These coups are often bloody affairs with more than thirty prime ministers and presidents in Africa killed in power grabs and coups.

Of the 40 African countries that have seen coups, Morocco, Kenya, Cameroon are the three countries where none have been successful. In 12 of those 40 countries, coups occurred within five years of gaining independence. In total, 23 African countries have seen at least three coups. Indeed, only 14—around a quarter—of Africa’s 54 countries are yet to experience a military coup.

The absence of successful coups doesn’t always guarantee peace though. For instance, South Sudan, one of the world’s youngest countries, been mired in violence for much of its existence with rebel groups seeking a larger share of power.