Is There Ever Such a Thing as a Good Coup?

Updated at 2017-12-19 17:47:19 UTC

On Dec. 7, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government announced its first proposal to revive Zimbabwe’s economy.


The national budget on offer followed the Nov. 16 coup that ousted longtime dictator Robert Mugabe. The 93-year-old strongman assumed control of Zimbabwe in 1980 and had expected his wife, Grace Mugabe, who is 40 years his junior, to succeed him as the country’s leader.

He had recently fired Mnangagwa, who was his vice president, at the behest of his wife. This led to an alliance between Mnangagwa and the military, and triggered the recent coup.

Thus did Mugabe’s notorious reign dramatically end. The military went to great lengths to insist that what happened was not a coup. Since the end of the Cold War, there’s been increased international pressure to act democratically in order to qualify for foreign aid.

Mnangagwa appointed a new cabinet, complete with senior military figures in high profile positions. For some, the coup has been cause for optimism. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson calls it a “moment of hope” for Zimbabweans. And the new government’s proactive efforts to re-engage foreign investors certainly give rise to a sense of hope, which has left people wondering if other African nations will try to rid themselves of their strongmen in the same way.

This raises the question whether there is any such thing as a good coup -- a military intervention that ends an autocracy and leads to democratization. Data shows that while this outcome is possible, there is overwhelming evidence that it is rarely the case.

The number of coups against dictatorships that led to competitive elections has dramatically increased since the end of the Cold War, feeding the “good coup” hypothesis.

The argument goes that coups -- traditionally seen as a sign of democratic failure -- can shock the system and open up opportunities for free and fair elections, and therefore are a tool for fostering democracy. In 2010, Nigerien troops unseated the country’s president, and coup leaders oversaw free and fair elections in 2011. Mali (1991) and Portugal (1974) share similar good stories.

This has led to some scholars challenging the notion that coups are undemocratic and arguing that they can be weapons for good governance. However, empirically, while coups are not systematically correlated with democratization, they certainly are linked to higher repression against citizens.

In the case of successful coups in the past 30 years, regime change followed 90 percent of the time (the rest only saw a reshuffling of leadership within the same faction). Although some states have seen democratization, the more common outcome is one authoritarian government replacing another.

In short, coups overwhelmingly lead to adverse regime change, but the link between coups and democratization is statistically insignificant. Commentators have been optimistic about good coups before -- for instance, in 2006 Thailand and 2015 Burundi—only to be disappointed when countries with already-weak institutions fail to usher in democracy.

With brand new autocratic elites often come higher levels of repression -- an increased number of deaths and cases of violence caused by blatant disregard for human rights and stricter reporting standards. The majority of coups, whether successful or failed, lead to increased repression against citizens. A failed attempt to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016 saw the deaths of approximately 265 “coup plotters” and civilians.

Insurrections in Guinea (2008), Algeria (1991), and Cote d’Ivoire (1994) show some of the worst cases of repression, accompanied by a complete disintegration of civil society that resulted in deadly civil conflict and political violence. All but one post-Cold War coup against a despot was followed by either an increase or no change in civilian deaths in the year following the incident, owing to state-sanctioned atrocities and some cases of pro-government violence.

What does this mean for the average person living in such a country? Even if the coup itself was not bloody, the months following it will likely be.

Countries that have had coups are also significantly more likely to experience subsequent coups, a phenomenon known as the “coup trap.” The problem with fetishizing the dangerously idealistic and fallacious notion of a good coup is that it will probably create more chaos.

The very small chance for democratization is almost certainly not worth the high chance of social unrest, instability, and civil war, which invariably will not foster a foundation for democracy. A good coup is a bad bet.

Coups have less to do with democracy, and more to do with power. Zimbabwean generals claim that their actions were motivated by altruistic reasons like preserving democracy. However, their call to “return to normalcy” has little to do with democracy, and more to do with the fact that Mugabe was listening to his generals less and to his wife more. After all, they did not yearn for democracy when Mugabe lost the presidential election in 2008, but clung to power all the same.

Zimbabwe’s like most cases, shows that coups are simply the military’s way of protecting their own institutional interest, and not a sign of their genuine commitment to democracy.

Zimbabwe’s military is refusing to call this recent event a coup because it wishes to humor the international community -- but a coup nevertheless it is. Even when coups remove unpopular dictators like Mugabe, we must not forget recent history.

After all, it’s only been six years since Egyptians jubilantly celebrated the removal of two tyrants from power -- Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi -- only to see that the military, with General Abdel al-Sisi in command, still has Egypt in a chokehold.

Let’s hope that does not happen in Zimbabwe, but let’s also not romanticize undemocratic military takeovers that, if anything, make life harder for the average person.

Deshani is an advocate for Young Voices, residing in Washington, D.C. She can be found on Twitter @dd_gunners.