Coups, norms, and the fates of leaders

Last week’s announcement of the release of Ali Bongo Ondimba was a welcome change of pace from the ongoing debacle in Niger. Mohamed Bazoum is effectively a hostage while Niger’s coupists try to navigate the entirely predictable turmoil they have caused.  

The difference in treatment reminded me of a recent data exploration that looked at the post-coup fates of Africa’s leaders. The data are limited to whether a leader was killed during or as a result of a coup, but the results are striking. Nearly one-in-five leaders were killed during successful coups during the Cold War (others were killed during failed coup attempts).

If we don’t consider the March 2009 killing of Guinea-Bissau’s João Bernardo Vieira to be a coup—as opposed to your run-of-the-mill event in which soldiers calmly return to the barracks after murdering a president—an African leader has not been killed in a coup since 1999. (Note: Various coup projects do not consider Vieira’s murder to be “a coup”).

Figure from Powell, Reynolds, and Chacha (2021). Conflict Trends. The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes.

If coups stubbornly refuse to become a relic of history, a streak of over two-dozen coups in which the leader was not killed is a welcome development. It is probably not a coincidence. We suggested that this shift is in part a product of international norms. Simply put, coupists are less likely to be viewed favorably and are more likely to face the wrath of the international community, if they killed their predecessor. This is speculative, of course. However, if recent years have indeed seen a shift away from an anti-coup norm, as some have suggested, this could be accompanied by increasingly brutal treatment of ousted leaders.

This is an understated aspect of the Niger crisis. While we can debate the pros or cons of a military intervention on Niger, and while many can perform high-level acrobatics in justifying the junta’s actions, the junta is—quite simply—holding a head of state hostage. A lack of meaningful international response to Niger’s junta represents a serious breach of international norms that goes beyond the issue of coups.

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