African Studies Coups in Africa
Moses Khisa
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0235


The coup d’état has long been a key and defining feature of the post-independent African political landscape. The first successful military coup took place in Egypt in July 1952, followed by Sudan in 1958. But it was the 1966 overthrow of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the doyen of Pan-Africanism and de facto leader of a united Africa, that marked a major turning point and heralded the coup phenomenon that took center stage for the next half-century. From the 1960s through to the twenty-first century, coups became a routine phenomenon across the continent. During the first three decades of independence, from 1960 to 1990, there were at least twenty-two successful coups d’état per decade. By the 2010s, thirty-three African states had experienced a coup, and only one-third of states had avoided a military takeover—and the attendant destabilizations. While early scholarship on the military in post-independence Africa tended to focus on its modernizing role, viewing the military as a tool for development, the surge in coups soon shifted focus to making sense of the praetorian behavior of officer corps, the causes of coups, and the consequences for civil-military relations. The coup idiom then became the vector and analytical aperture for studying the role of African militaries in the politics of the continent. The earliest work situated the coup in the broader context of colonial legacies and the institutional peculiarities that predisposed civilian governments to military overthrows. Later, some scholars underscored the structural foundations of coup behavior, while others pointed to the individual idiosyncrasies of officer corps. A stream of quantitative work in the 1980s and 1990s broke ground in providing more precise measurements and predictions of the coup phenomenon. As coup incidents peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, coinciding with large-scale civil wars and interstate conflicts, the main question had become not why coups happen but why they didn’t occur in the countries that avoided them or that previously experienced them but no longer did. Coups declined precipitously starting around the mid-2000s and throughout the 2010s, only for a resurgence to emerge at the end of the 2010s. The recent recrudescence in both attempted and successful coups, with a notable concentration in the Sahel and West African subregions, reignited scholarly and policy debates on the enduring centrality of the coup d’état in African political development.

Counting Successful and Failed Coups

A lot of the influential work on military coups d’état in Africa put the focus on enumerating and explaining individual incidents of both failed and successful coups. Much of this work appeared in leading scientific journals by a small group of specialists. The drive toward counting coups appears to have gained momentum at the end of the 1990s, the decade with the most coups out of the six decades of independent Africa. Among the major articles that systematically analyzed and quantified coups were Decalo 1989, published in the Journal of Modern African Studies, and McGowan 2003 and McGowan 2006, in Armed Forces & Society. As coups subsided following the creation of the African Union (AU) and a shift in the African normative framework, Souaré 2014, in the Journal of Modern African Studies, provided an important update in both counting coup incidents and laying out systematically the role the AU had played in the dramatic decline of coups.

  • Decalo, Samuel. “Modalities of Civil-Military Stability in Africa.” Journal of Modern African Studies 27.4 (1989): 547–578.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X00020449

    Notes that the coup d’état emerged in the 1960s as the most visible and recurrent characteristic of the African political experience, and by the 1980s quasi-permanent military rule, of whatever ideological hue, had become the norm for much of the continent. Thus, at any moment in time, the author states that up to 65 percent of all Africa inhabitants and well over half of states were governed by militaries. This underscored the author’s notion of the “stable minority,” countries that avoided coups, and the focus of part of his work.

  • McGowan, Patrick J. “African Military Coups d’état, 1956–2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution.” Journal of Modern African Studies 41.3 (2003): 339–370.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X0300435X

    Provided a new data set for all successful coups d’état (80), failed coup attempts (108), and reported coup plots (139) for forty-eight sub-Saharan African states from 1956 to 2001. The article underscored that military interventions continued to be pervasive in Africa, despite democratization. Chances of success when launching a coup attempt averaged more than 40 percent. Moreover, once a successful coup occurred, military factionalism often led to more coup behavior.

  • McGowan, Patrick J. “Coups and Conflict in West Africa, 1955–2004: Part II, Empirical Findings.” Armed Forces & Society 32.2 (2006): 234–253.

    DOI: 10.1177/0095327X05277886

    Focusing on West Africa, McGowan counted 44 successful military coups, 43 often bloody failed coups, and at least 82 coup plots. In addition, the subregion had seven civil wars, and other forms of political conflict, from independence to 2004, making it the subregion of the continent with the most coups and conflicts. This article is the second in a two-part analysis by the author that presented a unique data set describing all coup-related events in West Africa since 1955 (for Part I, see McGowan 2005, cited under Causes of Coups).

  • Souaré, Issaka K. “The African Union as a Norm Entrepreneur on Military Coups d’État in Africa (1952–2012): An Empirical Assessment.” Journal of Modern African Studies 52.1 (2014): 69–94.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X13000785

    The article excellently appraises coup trends up to 2012, counting 88 successful military coups since 1952, 63 that occurred prior to 1990, and only 10 cases since the adoption of the Lomé Declaration of 2000 banning military coups and adopting sanctions against regimes born out of coups. The article’s core contribution is the focus on the role of the African Union in entrenching a norm that contributed to the precipitous decline in coups.

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