In October 2016 coup rumors echoed through capital cities in Latin America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. Leaders in each of these regions accused their opponents of coup plotting or took credit for foiling coup plots before they could commence. But were these real coups or was this only political posturing? Here, we follow-up on our earlier “What is a Coup?” post with a close look at four October “coups” that were anything but. These cases show the many ways leaders weaponize the term coup d’état to justify repression or keep political rivals at bay.
Burkina Faso, often called the most coup-prone country in Africa, has faced one of the world’s greatest coup risks since the fall of longtime dictator Blaise Compaoré in October 2014. Though the country’s coup risk has dropped slightly since the free-and-fair election of President Kaboré late last year, Burkina Faso continues to appear among the top-ten at-risk countries each month. In October we projected Burkina Faso to have the world’s eighth highest coup risk at 1 in 231 (0.43%).
Photo Caption: Since former dictator Blaise Compaoré’s 2014 ouster, Burkina Faso has been among the world’s most coup-prone countries. Members of his disbanded presidential guard continue to threaten the new democratic government.
Our concerns about another Burkinabé coup were realized in September 2015 when members of the former dictator’s presidential guard attempted to overthrow the transitional government in advance of the country’s first democratic elections. This failed coup attempt, led by Colonel Mamadou Bamba, resulted in widespread arrests, the dismantling of the presidential guard, and further tension between the new government and Compaoré loyalists. That tension came to a head this month.
Just after the government announced the release of Colonel Bamba and several other participants in last September’s failed coup, the government claimed it had preemptively foiled yet another coup attempt from members of the former presidential guard. The government alleges these men planned to take control of the prison holding other participants in last September’s failed coup before reorganizing for a new attack on the government.
These kinds of accusations are common in sub-Saharan Africa; “foil claims” are usually unsubstantiated allegations that provide the government with a pretext for neutralizing potential threats. The government did not provide the public with evidence of a coup in progress and the timing of the announcement is curious. According to the government, the “coup” was thwarted on 8 October, the leaders of the September 2015 coup were released on bail on 18 October, and arrests related to the 8 October “coup” were announced on 21 October. Critics of the current government could suggest that this announcement was a preemptive move meant to weaken the opposition just after the early release of the country’s most recent coup plotter.
Coups are rare in states as war-torn as Libya, mainly because contests for political power are more likely to take the form of militia battles or more widespread rebellions. CoupCast estimated Libya to have less than a 0.1% chance of a coup attempt in October. However, this does not prevent some from using the word “coup” to simultaneously delegitimize a shift in power while also endorsing the losing side of a power struggle as the rightful government. This happened in mid-October when the United Nations and several western media outlets decried the latest power shift in post-Qaddahfi Libya as a “coup d’état.”
Since the downfall of Muammar Qaddahfi five years ago, political power in Libya has become increasingly divided among countless militias and regional authorities. By late 2015, most of Libya’s major players had coalesced around two regional blocs: the House of Representatives based in the eastern city of TOBRUK and the General National Congress/National Salvation Government from the western city of TRIPOLI. Neither of these rival governments maintained much real power, but instead relied on the endorsements of powerful regional militias. Increasingly, the Tobruk government earned the support of the United Nations and most of the international community while the Tripoli government included Islamists and jihadists.
Caption: Libyan factions, as of late 2015. The rising threat posed by the Islamic State (pink) compelled the international community to coerce the Tobruk (yellow) and Tripoli (blue) governments into a fragile unity government.
The international community became increasingly alarmed by the growing influence of the Islamic State, which held a large area of the central coast around the city of Sirte. To further its efforts to eradicate the Islamic State, the United Nations urged the Tripoli and Tobruk governments to form a united Government of National Accord (sometimes referred to as the Government of National Unity), which would consist of representatives from both factions. Members of the new GNA snuck into Tripoli from neighboring Tunisia last April and immediately earned international recognition, despite having no real power or authority.
Though the sides agreed to this arrangement in principle in December 2015, their supporting militias resisted it from the beginning. The primary military leader supporting the Tobruk government, Khalifa Haftar, quickly seized the country’s main oil ports and disavowed the GNA. In Tripoli, militias refused to cede control of the city and denied the Government of National Accord a secure presence in Libya. This month’s “coup” against the GNA was only the most recent challenge in the ongoing push to remove the GNA and restore the General National Congress in western Libya.
So why is this being called a coup by so many international organizations and media outlets? “Coup” is a politically charged term that is meant to delegitimize those who are taking power. In spite of the realities on the ground, the international community is vested in the GNA and will seek to delegitimize parallel governing frameworks that compete with the GNA for power. The truth is that the Tripoli and Tobruk factions have resisted the GNA since it was imposed by the United Nations last spring. This month’s attacks were the latest events in an ongoing war of factions, and not a coup conspiracy.
Earlier this month general elections in Montenegro were marred by accusations of a foreign-sponsored “coup attempt.” To understand the nature of these accusations, one must first appreciate the international context in which these elections occurred.
Incumbent Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic strongly favors Montenegrin membership in both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Both of these associations would further remove Montenegro from the Russian and Serbian spheres of influence. In recent weeks, Montenegro’s international alignment has become the key issue of the election. In fact, Djukanovic frequently discussed this election as a referendum on his West-leaning foreign policy and argued that a victory would provide him with a mandate to move Montenegro toward further integration with Europe.
The morning of the election (16 October), Montenegrin officials arrested around twenty Serbian nationals who allegedly crossed the border into Montenegro in order to overthrow the government and install the pro-Russian opposition party. The government claims the coup plotters planned to not only detain Prime Minister Djukanovic, but also to commit mass murder during an election rally at parliament. This would constitute a significant act of terror aimed at both lawmakers and the general public.
At the center of the conspiracy is Bratislav Dikic, a retired general and known Serbian nationalist. According to the government, Dikic had traveled from Serbia to Montenegro to organize the coup attempt. Dikic said he was set up by corrupt party officials and was only in Montenegro to visit a monastery. The Serbian government, which has also drifted toward European integration, denied involvement and also promised to work with Montenegro to investigate the alleged plot. Prime Minister Djukanovic quickly blamed Russia for sponsoring the alleged plot. Prime Minister Vucic of Serbia quickly followed suit, echoing Djukanovic’s concerns about Russian meddling.
Many details about these events have yet to emerge, but even if the government accounts are accurate this would be an overthrow by foreign forces, rather than a true coup d’état. The Montenegrin and Serbian governments agree that Serbian nationals were the primary instigators in the alleged plot and neither government is linking these foreign nationals to pro-Russian elites within the Montenegrin government.
Coup Risk in Europe, Ocotober 2016
The elections caused CoupCast to predict a much higher than usual coup risk for Montenegro, but the prediction remained very low (1 in approximately 1200 chance) relative to less stable states. In October, this was the highest prediction for all of Europe. Until more conclusive details emerge, we are not coding this as an attempted coup d’état.
Finally, the ongoing political and economic crisis in Venezuela continues to produce coup allegations aimed at both President Nicolas Maduro and the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Since the death of former President Hugo Chavez and the sharp decline in oil prices, President Maduro has struggled to maintain law and order. Maduro’s party suffered a major defeat in legislative elections last December, and since then the executive and legislative branches have vied to minimize the influence of the other. This political stalemate has contributed to Venezuela’s sharp recession, which some economists say will lead to a 10% decline in gross domestic product this year.
The two sides have exchanged coup accusations for months. In April President Maduro blamed Congress of an attempted coup when it passed reforms that facilitated a popular referendum on removing Maduro from power. This, of course, is no more a coup than a legal impeachment proceeding. Over the summer he again attempted to delegitimize the opposition by accusing it of using foreign allies in the United States government to orchestrate a coup attempt. Most recently, Maduro’s allies on the National Electoral Council suspended the recall referendum. The opposition is now calling this a self-coup designed to circumvent the law and keep President Maduro in power.
CoupCast continues to recognize the relatively high coup risk in Venezuela, though these kinds of autocratic power grabs do not qualify as true coup attempts. Party-dominated regimes like Venezuela tend to be less coup-prone than more personalized styles of dictatorship, especially in places like Venezuela where the party also enjoys strong military allegiances. Still, the crisis in Venezuela is pervasive and coup risk is rising. In November Venezuela’s predicted coup risk will reach 1 in 304, which is the highest it has been since Maduro’s first full month in office.
Each of these cases demonstrates the power of the term “coup d’état” when it is wielded as a weapon against political opponents. Leaders use it to suppress potential rivals (Burkina Faso) and opposition leaders use it to call attention to abuses of power (Venezuela). It is used to charge foreign powers with meddling (Montenegro), but it is also used by the international community to legitimize their preferred government (Libya).
The world continues to experience a 16% to 18% chance of a coup occurring somewhere on the planet each month, but the chances of an unfounded coup accusation are much closer to a sure thing.