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Soldiers in fatigues ride atop a jeep, with a Malian flag and large building in the background
The scene in Mali’s capital on Aug. 18, 2020, after Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his prime minister were overthrown by the military. John Kalapo/Getty Images

Mali celebrates after president’s ouster – but there are few ‘good coups’

Immediately after Mali’s unpopular president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was removed on Aug. 18 by the military in a swift and bloodless coup, many Malians celebrated.

Keita’s ouster came after years of corruption, mismanagement and failed promises. Credible allegations of fraud and election-related violence further fueled popular anger after a contested parliamentary vote in March.

After his ouster, there was a veritable jubilee among the citizen protesters who had demonstrated since June to demand Keita’s resignation. They flocked to the streets holding signs reading “This isn’t a coup, it’s a revolution” and “mission accomplished.”

Some countries have seen democracy take root after an autocratic regime was ended by a coup, including Nigeria in 2010 and even Mali itself, back in 1991.

But there are very few “good coups.” Overthrowing a corrupt leader is an easy fix for the moment, but history shows the price is almost always political and economic instability – and, usually, another military coup.

Coup risk

I am a quantitative political analyst who uses coup data and a machine learning system called CoupCast to examine why coups happen and predict where they are likely to occur.

According to data collected by the research network I work with, there have been 466 coup attempts in 95 countries since Jan. 1, 1950. This data clearly shows that so-called “coup events” – that is, both failed and successful coups – substantially increase the risk of another coup event in the future.

Once a country has had a single coup event, it will have, on average, five such events over 70 years. Between 1950 and 2020 we find only 19 examples of countries that experienced just one coup, among them South Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe. Thirteen countries have had at least 10 coup attempts since 1950, with Bolivia topping the list at 22.

Research suggests a new authoritarian regime is most likely to emerge after a coup – and it may well use violent repression to assert its power in an unstable era.

Mali follows this pattern. Until President Amadou Touré was overthrown in a 2012 coup, its government was relatively stable. The post-coup period was characterized by popular anger, lack of political progress and economic troubles. By April of this year, Coupcast placed Mali among the countries most likely to see a coup event in 2020.

Crowd of supporters raising their fists and snapping photos of soldiers in fatigues
People cheer on the army in Bamako, Mali, on Aug. 21, 2020, three days after the military overthrew Mali’s president. Annie Risemberg/AFP via Getty Images

Why coups beget coups

Just one coup attempt can increase a country’s coup risk for up to 25 years, CoupCast’s data analysis shows. Most countries will have another coup before their quarter-century of consequences ends. When that happens, it adds another 25 years of risk. Countries can become trapped in cycles of coups and post-coup crises.

At that point, coup risk can be diminished only by a long period of political stability. Both South Korea and Uruguay, for example, long ago surpassed the risk phase to become stable democracies.

Even after the restoration of civilian rule, though, coups can leave a precedent for military involvement in politics. Once generals have had a taste of political influence, it becomes increasingly difficult to stop further interference.

Coup events also negatively affect a country’s economy by decreasing foreign economic investment and diminishing domestic productivity. Such economic downturns feed into the coup cycle. As the economy crumbles, popular discontent rises and additional military interventions become more likely.

Mali was only eight years into its 25-year coup risk window when Pres. Keita was overthrown. Now the clock starts again. Hopes on the ground are high that the country will see a better future under a new leader. But history gives much reason to be cautious.

This article has been corrected to accurately characterize Mali’s March 2020 contested election.

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