Tuesday, February 23, 2010

African Coups and Colonels

. Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Over at FP Passport, Joshua Keating asks a really interesting question to fellow blogger Elizabeth Dickinson : "Why does it seem like African coups are always led by middle-ranking military officers?" He asked the question in light of the most recent African coup (the third coup in the last two years on the continent) in Niger led by Col. Salou Djibo, a "little known commander of a platoon based near the capital."

Elizabeth offers some pretty interesting insights as to why relatively obscure colonels are leadings coups rather than generals that have resources and clout:
At least in the countries I know in West Africa, this makes perfect sense. Generals are often close to the leadership; their appointments are usually somewhat political and come with the benefit of a bit of patronage and a lot of pomp and circumstance. I met Generals in Nigeria who led more comfortable lifestyles than some Lagos bankers. They're educated, often cosmopolitan, and know that they have more to lose through a coup than by simply staying put. They have no reason to upset the status quo. And at least in countries where there is a history of coups, politicians are also equally wary of annoying their military upper ranks for a similar reason.
An extension of this is that the chief executives in these countries are simply buying off the loyalty of the top military brass in order to ensure that they don't try to take power. So it's not just a function of military generals being satisfied, but that the government in power is buying off their satisfaction. By allowing them to live "more comfortable lifestyles than some Lagos bankers" they are able to ensure that the generals are comfortable enough to not want to overthrow the executive. However, when these payoffs are no longer sufficient, we should observe military coups coming from top military generals (which may explain differences in coup leaders between African and Latin American countries). Because the generals are relatively happy with the status quo, they will not seek to change the power structure as a change in power will probably hurt their privileged positions in society.
So why not the little guys? Well, because they could never do it. The usual ranking soldier is underpaid, if paid at all. They're often undertrained, and couldn't mobilize the resources or strategy to get the job done. (Having said this, the little guys do often go along with a coup once it's happening ... nothing like the sense that your paycheck or next meal is moving to make you want to follow it.)
Little guys calculate the probability of success of the military coup as well as the increase in position and prosperity of a successful new coup regime vis-a-vis their current position. If they can reasonably expect a nice bump in position or pay assuming that they expect the coup to work, they will typically go along with the coup. Their expected utility functions are relatively easily to calculate.
So the middle guy is the one left. They're paid better than some, but not good enough for most. Like the coup leader in Niger, they've often had foreign training. They control strategic components of the miltiary -- in Guinea's case, the petrol procurement, and in Niger's case, a platoon in the capital. They know enough people to mobilize the ranks, but they are not as politically tainted. They're well connected but not appointees; they've often just risen through the ranks.
These middle guys have the largest expected payoff if the coup works. They will not only observe a nice jump in military clout, but will also be awarded a pretty big financial reward (this is assuming that the coup works and that there isn't a backlash to the coup leaders once the military junta returns control of the country to civilian leadership). She also argues that because of the skimming off the top structure of pay in most West African militaries, these middle rank officers are managing forces and doing serious work,
but they're not getting paid. They have a taste of power but not enough fiscal incentives not to rock the boat. Lo and behold, you get a coup. A well trained, well connected, underpaid, and generally disgruntled middle man is your suspect -- guilty as charged.
These military colonels face a pretty simple cost-benefit analysis, wait for a nice opening, gauge the probability of success and go through with the coup if they're dealt a good hand. Dickinson provides a nice logical explanation for why coups are typically led by military colonels rather than generals. Although not in West Africa, this may be the reason why Libya's leader for the last forty years, Colonel Gaddafi hasn't promoted himself to general and still refers to himself as colonel. He's trying to signal that he's still a lowly military officer in the hopes that another colonel won't throw him out of power.


John Lovett said...

I'd also wonder about whether there's an effect from outside-of-state influences in the difference between Latin American and African coups, and the involvement of generals. At least one of the Latin American coups that involved generals were US-backed in some way (Chile is the immediate example off the top of my head).

Meanwhile, influence in Africa has/had been more muddled. There is no Monroe Doctrine there, hence no extra special effort to try and sway generals to act. The benefits generals receive from the state most likely outweigh the benefits that they'd receive from the US or other powers. Also having other actors that can influence things (ie the Soviet Union/Cuba in Angola, for one) muddles the playing field: the probability of success decreases.

Alex Parets said...

Good point, John. There is definitely an external influence on all of these events. And you bring up a good argument regarding American influence and support for certain coups in Latin America. This should definitely help explain differences between Latin American and African coups. US (or any other country's) support and aid both during and after a coup should dramatically affect the cost-benefit analysis of military officers when determining their course of action.

African Coups and Colonels
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