The COVID-19 pandemic is significantly endangering Sub-Saharan countries by increasing the rate of coup d’états in already fragile regimes. Within the past two years alone, Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso all experienced military takeovers after growing disapproval of their government’s mishandled virus response. This worrying trend reinvigorates attention toward the causes of military coups, domestic and international events that enable them, and more importantly, how they can be prevented. This article addresses these questions by introducing institutional coup-proofing—a set of measures that undermine a military’s predisposition to conduct a coup by establishing competing factions within the armed force. This article concludes with a case study of the unsuccessful coup attempt in Gabon in 2019 and describes lessons other Sub-Saharan countries can apply to potentially reduce instability and conflict in the region.
What is Institutional Coup Proofing?
Militaries serve an essential role in society by providing for the common defense, securing state monopoly on violence, and deterring foreign actors. In maintaining these armed servants, rulers encounter the delicate tradeoff when strengthening the military establishment; it must be strong enough to win wars but not strong enough to overthrow the government it serves. As the Greek philosopher Plato famously asked, “who shall guard the guardians?”
To lessen the likelihood of coups, governments can implement a set of deliberate, institutionalized measures that disincentivize military elites from attempting to betray their government. This can be done by distributing resources to key stakeholders and making the status quo preferable to a coup. One such method is counterbalancing the armed forces and creating additional players, such as paramilitary units and presidential guards. Acting outside the national armed forces, these organizations form independent interests distinct from the traditional military and serve as internal deterrence mechanisms that reduce the likelihood of any organization’s attempts to stage a coup. The more actors present, the less likely one actor will dissent and stage a coup.
A less preferred method is rulers weakening the armed forces by creating internal coordination challenges within their militaries. Purging senior military officers, reducing personnel in the armed forces, and decreasing the quality of training for recruits all hamper the military’s overall speed and effectiveness. These efforts dramatically limit the military’s prospects of successfully overthrowing the regime since soldiers are less capable of mobilizing. Rather than creating multiple organizations that compete, regime leaders can weaken the military at the expense of being vulnerable to external national security threats.
In some cases, however, counterbalancing measures can increase the likelihood of military coups, but not necessarily their success. This is what happened in the failed Gabon coup in 2019. There is a U-shaped relationship between coup-proofing techniques and coup probability. Initial actions of counterbalancing the military force reduce the risks of a military coup for the reasons discussed above. But too many organizations eventually strain resources and weaken their ability to deter each other since they compete for scarce resources. Similar missions also mean units will free-ride off each other, believing the other organizations are doing their job already. To safeguard against this, leaders must ensure they deploy ample monitoring techniques to ensure these units are doing their job.
The Failed 2019 Coup in Gabon
Counterbalancing military organizations against each other is a legitimate tactic to reduce the likelihood of coup occurrences and success. Gabon’s failed coup attempt in 2019 helps illustrate the various mechanisms that make coup-proofing effective, namely how it creates internal coordination challenges among competing organizations.
At the time of the attempted coup in 2019, Gabon maintained three military organizations: The Armed Forces of Gabon, the National Gendarmerie (national police), and a Republican Guard, which was directly under presidential control and served as his security detail. The presidential military guard, created in the 1960s, was explicitly designed to counter the national armed forces and, up until 2019, was largely successful. Before this coup attempt, Gabon was one of only a few post-colonial nations in the region to safeguard its democratic government successfully.
On January 7, 2019, a small group of soldiers from the Armed Forces of Gabon, led by Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, seized control of a radio station announcing a coup d’état, citing grievances with the current regime as their motivation. The soldiers argued President Ali Bongo, who was absent for two months and recovering from a stroke in nearby Morocco, failed to defend the nation’s interests and was an illegitimate leader. On the broadcast, Obiang issued calls for citizens to safeguard their country, announcing the creation of a “National Council for the Restoration of Democracy.” But due to the small number of soldiers participating, Obiang’s movement was quickly suppressed by competing military forces. The Gendarmerie (national police) swiftly ended the coup attempt by breaching the radio station, killing two and arresting the four other members.
The inability of Obiang and his supporters to launch a coordinated movement highlights the value of counterbalancing as a deterrent for coups. Subsequent reporting on the incident indicates the attempt was poorly planned and did not contain the critical mass required to succeed. Less than a dozen soldiers participated, and the highest-ranking member was a junior officer. These challenges stemmed from Obiang and his supporters being unable to mobilize the sufficient strength necessary to co-opt military elites from other organizations, meaning they had to act independently. This is mainly due to the division of military units intended to counterbalance each other. After capturing the local radio station and calling for the coup, the National police force arrested Obiang and his conspirators. From this isolated case, the case can be made that the internal structure and dividing of armed forces prevented a mass mobilization needed to topple the regime.
Conclusion and Prospects for Neighboring Countries
In the years following the Gabon coup, neighboring Sub-Saharan nations face higher military coups probabilities. Earlier this year, a group of soldiers ousted President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in Burkina Faso, citing governance-related grievances as their primary motive. This West African country joins Mali, Chad, and Guinea, who all experienced military coups in 2021 alone.
As Gabon’s case highlights, creating additional costs for the military by creating counterbalancing organizations may be a way to prevent this seemingly uncontrolled phenomenon in the region. By pitting various military units against each other, political leaders disincentivize one unit from deviating from the status quo and attempting to overthrow the regime. Additionally, multiple competing organizations inevitably compete for resources, decreasing their motivation to further instability. This is precisely what happened in Gabon since the two other organizations were uncertain a coup attempt would improve the situation. For other Sub-Saharan nations, institutional coup proofing should be considered a way to avert the seemingly inevitable coup-trap many countries are experiencing.
Ryan Johnson holds a BS in American Politics from the United States Military Academy at West Point. His senior thesis, "Watchdogs or Wardogs? The Changing Patterns of Congressional Oversight in Military Affairs" analyzed the changing frequency of congressional activity after military operations across changing strategic environments and military performance. Ryan also served as executive officer of the cadet honor committee and as a fellow in the West Point Writing Program.
Ryan currently lives in Washington DC and works as a research assistant. His portfolio covers civil-military relations, military concept development, manpower and labor assessments, and cyberspace operations.