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The events in Ivory Coast last week were a textbook case of mutiny

Soldiers involved in a mutiny on a street in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Jan 7. The mutiny of soldiers began a day earlier in the interior city of Bouake. (Legnan Koula/EPA)

Over the weekend, Ivory Coast saw a standoff between soldiers and the Ministry of Defense. On Jan. 6, disgruntled soldiers took control of the country’s second largest city, Bouaké. They demanded payment of bonuses, promotions and better living conditions. Many of the mutineers were former rebel fighters, from Ivory Coast’s civil war, which ended in 2011.

Tensions escalated as the mutiny spread to five other locations, including Ivory Coast’s commercial center, Abidjan. The defense minister, Alain-Richard Donwahi, negotiated with the soldiers on the evening of Jan. 7 and reached a deal to end the mutiny.

But confusion ensued when soldiers opened fire outside the house where Donwahi, local officials and journalists had conducted the negotiations. The delegation was trapped inside until the situation was eventually mediated. It remains unclear if these soldiers made additional demands, but the mutiny was eventually resolved, and the soldiers have returned to their barracks.

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The agreement between the government and mutineers stipulated that the soldiers would be paid by Jan. 9, although the exact figure has not been made public.

While the events in Ivory Coast were dramatic, they were not unique. This revolt was a textbook case of mutiny.

Scholarly attention on African military indiscipline has often focused on coups d’etat. As a result, we have impressive studies of coups as a phenomenon. Yet, mutinies have remained a blind spot. The recent events in Ivory Coast provide an opportunity to examine what we know about mutinies in Africa.

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In my forthcoming book, “Soldiers in Revolt,” I have documented mutinies in West and Central Africa from 1960 to the present. The tactics used by mutineers during a revolt have remained remarkably consistent over the past 50 years.

A typical mutiny in Africa involves breaking into an armory, taking control of strategic points in a city (usually traffic intersections and transport infrastructure, such as airports), holding hostages, and approaching the media. These tactics all aim to bring attention to the mutineers’ cause. Unlike most coups, mutinies are not secretive events. Mutineers want their grievances to be known.

My research shows that most mutinies do not result in direct acts of violence, but the threat of violence is key to their success. Soldiers en masse on the streets immediately invoke fears of further destabilization. As a result, political and military leaders are usually quick to respond.

Within the coup literature, there are theories of “coup contagion,” in which a military overthrow in one state could inspire another in a nearby country. Mutinies tend to be internally contagious. The grievances expressed by mutineers often resonate with others in the military. As one unit revolts, it is common to see other units at different bases also mutiny, as happened in Ivory Coast.

In some ways, mutinies gain strength as more soldiers join because leadership faces more pressure to respond. Yet, as the group grows, new demands are often added. Negotiations become more difficult, especially as there is usually not a clear leader among mutineers.

Additional mutinies regularly occur, even after a deal is reached, when other units in the military see it as a successful way to improve their conditions. This scenario led to months of sporadic mutinies throughout Burkina Faso in 2011.

The vast majority of mutinies involve demands for pay. Therefore, mutinies are commonly referred to as “pay revolts.” But the emphasis on pay often paints a deceptively simple picture of mutinies.

Underlying calls for pay is a sense of injustice. Mutineers are typically rank-and-file soldiers, and their grievances usually target the senior ranks. In my interviews with mutineers across West Africa, they speculate that delays in payment were a result of corruption among senior officers. Mutineers also commonly vocalize anger toward the extreme disparity in pay, accommodations and privileges between the ranks in many West African states. The suspicions are often ignited following additional pay incentives and hardships that come with deployments.

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Rather than simple pay revolts, mutinies should be viewed as representing deep distrust between the ranks, which usually has historic roots. While mutineers regularly note in media statements that their goals are apolitical, their grievances are often linked to political deals or decisions. Additionally, others in the military or outside can at times use the momentum of a mutiny for goals beyond the soldiers’ demands.

In the case of Ivory Coast, the tensions are entangled in the country’s past civil conflicts. Many of the mutineers were former rebels who have now been integrated into the national army. This integration process has not gone smoothly, and divisions plague the armed forces. Many of the monetary demands, in this mutiny and similar revolts in 2014, relate to promises made years back, under different leadership.

During the Jan. 7 negotiations, the defense minister brought along Lt. Col Issiaka Ouattara, a powerful former rebel commander. His presence was likely meant to bring legitimacy to the deal in the eyes of the mutineers, as many former rebels would see Ouattara (known locally as Wattao) as an authoritative figure. The move highlights that loyalty in armed forces is often not in sync with the chain of command, particularly in post-conflict settings.

Political and military leadership often acquiesces to mutineers and provides payments. But mutinies rarely lead to significant changes within an army. Payments are easier than addressing underlying dissatisfaction among rank-and-file soldiers, especially if their grievances upset or expose military elite. Many of the deeper tensions and aspects of distrust go unresolved, making repeat occurrences common.

Ivory Coast is the epitome of this trend. Soldiers in Ivory Coast have mutinied in 1990 (twice), 1993, 1999, 2000 (twice), 2002, 2003, 2008, 2014 and now 2017. They are the most mutinous military in the region, and likely the continent. Their history of revolts precedes the country’s civil war. Resolutions that go far beyond payments will be needed for Ivory Coast to break this cycle.

Maggie Dwyer is a Research Fellow at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She focuses on politics and security in Africa, with a particular interest in militaries. Find her on twitter at @MagDwyer.