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African military coups d'état, 1956–2001: frequency, trends and distribution

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 August 2003

Patrick J. McGowan
Arizona State University, USA, and University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2002/3.


Described here is a new data set including all successful coups d'état (80), failed coup attempts (108) and reported coup plots (139) for all 48 independent sub-Saharan African (SSA) states for the 46-year period from January 1956 until December 2001. Elite political instability (PI) in this form remains widespread in SSA, in contrast to other regions of the global South. Military-led PI has been shown to adversely affect economic growth and human development in SSA, and is a major cause of the current African ‘crisis’. The frequency of these instability events is given for each state for all 46 years and for the two periods 1956–79 and 1980–2001. A Total Military Intervention Score (TMIS) for each state is calculated and examined over time to explore trends in coup behaviour. The distribution of these events among major African regions is presented. Appendix A lists all coups and failed coups by state and date. Major findings are that military interventions have continued to be pervasive in Africa, despite democratisation trends since 1990; that coups, failed coups and coup plots form a syndrome of military-led PI; that colonial heritage is unrelated to coup activity; that the chance of success when launching a coup attempt has averaged more than 40% since 1958; that once a successful coup has occurred, military factionalism often leads to more coup behaviour; that except for a declining rate of success once a coup is undertaken, there is no major difference between 1956–79 and 1980–2001; that no trends of increasing or decreasing coup behaviour are evident, except that up to around 1975 as decolonisation progressed, TMIS also increased; and that West Africa is the predominant centre of coup activity in SSA, although all African regions have experienced coups. States that have been free of significant PI since 1990 are examined and those with institutionalised democratic traditions appear less prone to coups.

Research Article
© 2003 Cambridge University Press

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