from Africa in Transition

Ethnicity, Control, and Coups d’État

November 16, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Burkina Faso

This is a guest post by Tyler Lycan. Tyler is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program, he recently obtained his Masters in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews, and is a former U.S. Marine.

Burkina Faso recently arrested several people accused of plotting a coup d’état planned for October 8. The country has a long history of coups, at one point having more coup attempts than any other on the continent. The last few years have seen a resurgence in Burkinabé coups, with these recent arrests being only the latest chapter.

The series of coups that plagued Burkina Faso in the early years of independence, ended, ironically, with a coup. Blaise Compaoré took power in 1987 and ruled as president until he himself was ousted in October 2014. The ousting followed his attempt to extend his term, an effort that was met with fierce resistance from the political class. One year later, Compaoré’s Regiment of Presidential Security (RPS) reacted to an attempt to disband it by staging a coup. This attempt failed and ended with the capture and imprisonment of several leaders. The coup earlier this month was the second attempt by segments of the RPS to put in place a leader more friendly towards them.

The coups in 2015 and 2016 are a consequence of measures taken to reduce the likelihood of coups: payoffs. Payoffs are usually done in two main ways: enormous budgets that benefited the entire military, or selecting or creating a “special” unit that received the best training, equipment, and promotions. In the case of Burkina Faso, it was the latter.

While payoffs typically insulate the president from coup attempts, as it did for most of Compaoré’s twenty-seven year rule, they also increase the chances of a coup following a change in the head of state. When a new leader comes to power, a unit once lauded with attention may feel threatened.

The best way for an entrenched unit to prevent the erosion of its privileged position is to displace the new executive with either an individual from inside the military, or a politician who will continue the favoritism. This is likely the reason for the two most recent coups in Burkina Faso.

Ethnicity appears to have played little role in these particular coups. Elsewhere, however, chiefs of state often used ethnicity as their criterion for membership in elite and privileged units. The payoff approach to coup prevention so often coincides with ethnicity that it has its own term: ethnic stacking. Ethnic stacking has been the cause of dozens of coups throughout the world.

Democracies throughout Africa have been interrupted and even displaced by coups for decades. Military intervention will likely continue until civilian administrations can exercise stronger control over the military.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Politics and Government

Elections and Voting

Wars and Conflict

Burkina Faso

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