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Anyone planning a coup should read this first

For every failed coup attempt I see from here on out, I will shake my head and wonder why the coup-makers did not read political scientist Naunihal Singh’s book, “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups.” Though certainly not meant to be a recipe book for launching a successful coup, Singh’s study offers insights that would save potential coup-makers a lot of trouble.

Tomorrow marks the end of the second annual African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, when we review Morten Jerven’s new book, “Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong.” But as a bonus to this summer’s series, I’m adding a brief review of Singh’s book. “Seizing Power” is not strictly a book about African politics, as it studies coups from all around the world. However, in addition to analyzing coups and failed coup attempts worldwide from 1950 to 2000, Singh’s book draws on hundreds of hours of interviews to examine closely seven coup attempts in Ghana that occurred between 1967 and 1981.

I first came across Singh’s book via a post he wrote for The Monkey Cage last summer. He penned a response to a post of mine about a failed coup attempt in Lesotho. In my original post, I asserted a future coup in Lesotho would be unlikely, drawing largely from public opinion data showing that an overwhelming majority of Lesotho’s citizens strongly rejected military rule and instead supported democracy. Singh’s polite response notwithstanding, I was totally wrong to think that public opinion about military rule in some earlier period should predict later public support for a military coup (the example he gave of Mali is particularly illustrative).

The argument Singh makes in his book is simple and compelling: Coup attempts are best understood as coordination games, or “situations in which each individual has an incentive to do what others are doing, and therefore each individual’s choices are based on his or her beliefs about the likely actions of others.” Instead of thinking about coups as battles (e.g., the side with the greatest military power will win) or coups as elections (e.g., the side with the most public support will win), Singh pushes us to think of coup success as being driven by coup-makers’ ability to get others to believe that their coup attempt will be successful.

How do coup-makers convince others their coup attempt will be successful? They convince military actors that the success of the coup has the support of almost everybody in the military and that any possible resistance is minor. One way coup makers have done this is by seizing the main radio broadcast facility.

Singh’s book is an informative read – even if you’re not planning a coup. Singh points out how important it is to understand coups given “coup attempts are the basic mechanism for most of the regime change and irregular leadership removal in the world.” According to Singh’s research, 80 percent of sub-Saharan African countries, 67 percent of Latin American countries, and 50 percent of Asian countries experienced at least one coup attempt between 1950 and 2000. Coups are not just a threat to democracy but also a prevalent form of removing dictators from office.

My favorite part of Singh’s book is his beautifully narrated accounts of coups in Ghana. I could actually imagine Ghanaian Major Abubakar Sulemana in a sleeveless T-shirt and shorts jumping out his window and spraining his ankle to escape being shot by coup-plotter — and later president — Jerry Rawlings. I learned a great deal about Ghana’s military and political history from the book. Although he doesn’t go into as great detail about the 1991 coup in the USSR, his chapter on that coup was also fascinating and richly sourced. Put another way, the book may be published by an academic press and start off talking about theories and cross-national data analysis, but it’s also a fun read for the non-specialist who might be interested in knowing more about coups and the conditions under which they are successful.

“Seizing Power” should also appeal to those interested in game theory. For example, if you liked Michael Chwe’s post about his book “Rational Ritual,” Singh’s book draws a good deal from Chwe’s work on common knowledge to make his argument about coups as coordination games.


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