When Sen. Lamar Alexander spoke Monday at President Obama's inauguration, he threw some healthy context into his praise of the U.S. practice of peacefully transferring power between leaders. "There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection," he said. It's a point so obvious, so taken for granted, that it's almost an anachronism.
But a number of the world's governments are still at risk of a coup. A few hours before the inauguration, it looked like one of them could be Eritrea, an East African country whose government is so authoritarian and cruel that it's often compared to North Korea's. Dissident soldiers seized the country's state-run TV station, often a first step in a coup, forcing anchors to call for the release of all political prisoners (there are several thousand) before the broadcast abruptly ended. It turns out that, according to Reuters, the soldiers were likely just "low- to mid-ranking soldiers who sought a change in the constitution rather than a coup."
In those first hours of uncertainty, Eritrea's maybe-coup wasn't exactly shaking the U.S. foreign policy community to its core – a military coup in an impoverished military dictatorship is not the most shocking stuff – but it was surprising. One reason for that is that a political scientist named Jay Ulfelder, who also blogs, has for two years maintained a mathematical model that seeks to gauge a country's susceptibility to coups. Last year, there were two coups: in Mali and in Guinea-Bissau, two West African countries that Ulfelder had rated as particularly high-risk. But his model for 2013 hadn't even included Eritrea in the top 30 most endangered.
Monday's events in Eritrea were not, it appears at the moment, actually a coup; Ulfelder's model still seems to be working, his progress toward becoming the Nate Silver of coups still ongoing. So it's worth visualizing his data.
At the top of this page, I've posted a map of the 30 countries that Ulfelder's model ranks as the most at-risk for a coup. The five highest-risk nations are marked red, the next five are orange, and the rest yellow. Countries not highlighted on this map are, according to Ulfelder's description of his statistical model, "highly unlikely to suffer a coup attempt in the coming year."
How does Ulfelder calculate the risk of a coup? The short answer is math. The long answer is more complicated than I am able to competently explain. So I'll point you to his January 2012 post introducing the model, his December 2012 post appraising its performance and releasing new findings, and a piece he wrote on it for Foreign Policy.
The most striking inference we can make from Ulfelder's data is the remarkable fragility of Africa's Sahel region, an enormous band of drought-prone land that runs East-West across the continent. The Sahel includes, sure enough, northern Mali. It also includes much of the areas where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algeria-born group that is active in Mali's rebellion and has been indirectly linked to last week's hostage crisis, increasingly operates. Three of the five most at-risk governments are here.
In all, 22 of the 30 most at-risk countries are in sub-Saharan Africa. That includes the massively populous oil exporter Nigeria, where a coup could worsen the already deadly tension between the country's Christian and Muslim communities. Traditionally, the Nigerian presidency rotates between a Christian and a Muslim; anything seen as upsetting that order could inflame half the country.
Ulfelder's model finds eight non-African countries that it says are at risk of a coup. Those include three countries with major ongoing violence: Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan. In another, Haiti, economic and humanitarian catastrophes could exacerbate the country's already worrying record of coups. The others are Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ecuador and East Timor. If you're reading this and you happen to lead any of those countries, you might want to consider buying a helmet.
Update: Ulfelder contacted me to, in his polite wording, quibble with the that way I've color-coded the above map into difference categories of risk. I asked him to put his thoughts down in an email. He did, explaining that, "the statistical models we can build with available data just aren't precise enough to sort countries that finely, at least not in a reliable way." Ulfelder explains why he decided to pick out 30 countries to include in his "at-risk" list and how we should think about the range within those states:
I chose to plot and post the Top 30 because that's approximately the top one-fifth of the world on a rank-ordered list, and experience modeling these kinds of events tells me that most of the events I'm looking for will come from that top fifth. Specifically, I think we can expect 80-90 percent of all coups to come from that top tier, or 8-9 of the 10 events we'd typically see over a two-year period. What we can't do is say where in that Top 30 those 8-9 events will hit. In principle, those events are more likely to come from the countries closer to the top than the bottom of that set, but the forecasts are just too noisy to say much that with great confidence.