The Actual Reasons Why Military Coups Historically Happen

The 2021 military coup in Myanmar is just the tip of the iceberg when it to comes to examples of armed forces seizing power in countries around the world. From the French for "stroke of state," coup d'etats are much more prevalent than residents of stable nations may realize. Unlike democratic coups, military coups usually result in dictatorships or tyrannical, repressive autocracies.

Why do these military coups continue to happen with some frequency? Why are they most common in Africa, the Americas, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East? The reasons are complex and myriad, but countries that experience coup d'états tend to share common conditions. Whether it's economic strife, destabilizing outside influences, a legacy of colonialism, or ethnic tensions, the factors that spawn military coups perpetuate cycles of violence, war, and hardship for citizens.

  • Many Nations Retain Colonial-Era Systems After Achieving Independence
    Photo: Staff Sergeant Samuel Bendet, U.S. Africa Command / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Many Nations Retain Colonial-Era Systems After Achieving Independence

    The Problem: The lingering influence of colonial rule in decolonized nations fuels tension between civilians and the military.

    The Story: Simply put, the legacy of colonialism continues to create obstacles for politicians and citizens pushing for democratic rule in their respective countries. This is especially true for countries across Africa, whose well-documented history of brutal colonial rule from European nations and the UK empowered extant military forces to grab and retain control after becoming independent. Not only did these colonial forces create stratified societies that limited the rights of indigenous Africans, but they also trained local militaries to serve their geopolitical interests instead of protecting the people.

    Once these colonial forces began to leave Africa in the 20th century, newly independent countries established militaries from the remnants of colonial armies. These soldiers were trained to mobilize quickly against resistance movements and maintain antagonistic attitudes toward democratizers. This gave way to a period of widespread military coups between the 1960s and 1980s. While most occurred in West Africa, they were prevalent across the continent.

    Coup attempts declined in subsequent decades, but recent topplings in Mali prove they are far from over. In 2012, the Malian Armed Forces, formed by veterans of the colonial French Armed Forces, overthrew the democratically elected government of President Amadou Toumani Touré over frustrations with how he was handling the ongoing Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. This led to years of turmoil that resulted in yet another military coup in 2020, which saw President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita resign on live TV before his government was dissolved.

  • Military Professionals Often Dominate Electoral And Political Systems

    The Problem: In countries where military forces assert widespread dominance, democratic elections are regularly undermined, leading to political turbulence.

    The Story: Look no further than Myanmar to see what happens when the military maintains a stronghold on all political processes. For decades, the country formerly known as Burma was ruled by one military regime after another following General Ne Win's 1962 coup. Myanmar's army, known as the Tatmadaw, governed by fear and intimidation. Ne Win and his successors quelled uprisings with violence, butchery, and disinformation campaigns.

    Decades later, military leaders put a plan in place to allow for elections and economic reforms. This led to General Min Aung Hlaing forming the country's first transitional government in 2011, giving way to Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government in 2015. The Tatmadaw still controlled vital aspects of Myanmar's government, holding a quarter of the seats in parliament while commanding the country's borders, defense, and domestic affairs. These semi-democratic changes imploded in early 2021, when the Tatmadaw staged a coup against Suu Kyi and alleged voter fraud in the 2020 election.

    Both Aung Hlaing and Suu Kyi have received international condemnation for overseeing the genocide against the Rohingya ethnic minority in western Myanmar. That being said, Suu Kyi won 83% of the vote in 2020, and experts contend there is no proof of any fraud. Instead, the voting population's rejection of the Tatmadaw and support for Suu Kyi's far more democratic administration may have led to Aung Hlaing instigating the coup. Suu Kyi remains on house arrest, thousands of residents are protesting in the streets, and the Tatmadaw claims it will hold another election early in 2022.

  • New Political Leaders Exploit Or Mismanage Established Military Groups
    Photo: Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    New Political Leaders Exploit Or Mismanage Established Military Groups

    The Problem: Some military leaders in newly independent countries argue they aren't given the guidance or training they need to transition alongside emerging governments.

    The Story: In his 1985 publication "Military Coups In Africa - The African 'Neo-Colonialism' That Is Self-Inflicted," Kenyan Army Major Jimmi Wangome places much of the blame for military coups on corrupt political leaders who fail to bring militaries developed under colonial rule into the fold. According to Wangome:

    This initial failure to Africanize the command hierarchy in the Armed Forces was later to become a major area for concern and a source of military grievances that were to turn catastrophic in most newly independent African nations.

    Wangome goes on to cite the Congo as an example, a country with a 24,000-man army when it achieved independence from the Belgians in 1960 - yet not one of these men was actually Congolese. In lieu of forming truly democratic governments, Wangome contends that many new African leaders chose greed, nepotism, and economic mismanagement. This creates the perfect environment for coups to unfold, which Wangome insists will continue to occur until socioeconomic problems in the continent are properly addressed.

  • The Sudden Exit Of Colonial Forces Leaves A Vacuum Of Power

    The Problem: Due to the ways colonial forces ruled their territories, their sudden exits after locals achieve independence sometimes creates political gulfs that opportunists are able to exploit.

    The Story: There's a reason post-colonial states are susceptible to civil wars and military coups. Colonizers treated these nations like commodities, giving natives no power to control their own affairs. This problem perpetuates itself past independence, where freshly autonomous peoples lack the infrastructure to forge sustainable governments.

    When the British created Nigeria in 1914, it was considered much more of a business enterprise than a nation. Nigerians were forced to work on Britain's behalf, where corporate-minded executives from the Royal Niger Company pillaged the land for profit. When Nigeria became an independent federation in 1960, the new country quickly entered a long period of civil war, military coups, and political unrest that didn't end until 1999.

    A very similar series of events transpired in Suriname, known as Dutch Guiana until it became independent from Dutch rule in 1975. After the Dutch, known for committing atrocities in the name of colonialism across the world, were kicked out, military leaders exploited the nation's weak nascent government. It wasn't until 1991 that Suriname developed a civilian government.

  • Economic Inequality And Extractive Institutions Make It Easy To Gain And Retain Power

    The Problem: Leaders with ties to imperialist powers assume control by capitalizing on systems of inequality and opportunistic practices put in place by Western influences.

    The Story: The vicious circle of poverty and violence that plagues many non-Western nations is directly correlated to international laws that are still deeply rooted in imperialist ideologies. D. Acemoglu and J.A. Robinson shine a light on this reality in their 2013 book Why Nations Fail. According to the authors, these laws erected by European nations create major disparities in countries that lack the resources or economic systems to minimize wealth inequality.

    Acemoglu and Robinson posit that countries with what they call extractive economic institutions are usually destined to fail. Extractive systems, as opposed to inclusive systems, involve those in control hoarding assets while limiting the rights of citizens to access them. These extractive institutions were established by colonial powers, and in many countries, they were made worse by corrupt post-colonial rulers like the Congo's Joseph Mobutu. Under Mobutu's rule, the country experienced sharp economic decline.

    These trends lead to civil war, coups, and never-ending imbalances of power. The notion of coup-proofing, or ensuring a new nation won't spiral into political turmoil, is thrown out the window. If these nations created more incentives for citizens to save, invest, and innovate, their economies could see long-term stability that would greatly decrease the likelihood of military-led uprisings.

  • Coups Are Provoked By Foreign Powers For Their Own Benefit
    Photo: William Arthur Cram / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Coups Are Provoked By Foreign Powers For Their Own Benefit

    The Problem: Outside countries organize the toppling of democratically elected leaders in order to further their own international agendas.

    The Story: All those tales about the United States' involvement in military coups around the world are true. Like their neighbors across the Atlantic, Great Britain, America has a long history of interjecting in foreign relations by instigating takeovers in vulnerable nations. Two of the most well-documented instances of this involve the US's participation in Latin American coups and the CIA's central role in overthrowing Iran's government in 1953.

    Since the 19th century, America has implicated itself in Latin American affairs. The US government backed multiple coups that officials believed would secure American interests in the region, from the construction of the Panama Canal to President Reagan's backing of anti-communist far-right regimes. In 1964, the CIA sponsored the coup of Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz. Over the next few decades, the US government sought the deposition of left-leaning leaders and supported the rise of autocratic, despotic rulers who brought turmoil and genocide to Latin America.

    Led by senior officer Kermit Roosevelt Jr., the CIA worked with British agents to unseat Iran's elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. After Mossadegh sought to nationalize Iran's oil supply, which had been controlled by Britain for decades, Roosevelt created enough instability in the region to reinstate the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This is the direct precursor to Iran's 1979 revolution, wherein Iran became an Islamic republic under Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - which it remains to this day.