In praise of the military coup
Why, sometimes, military coups can be a force for good
The army in the African state of Mali seized control of the strife-torn country this week in a classic military coup – arresting and deposing the unpopular President and Prime Minister, and proclaiming a junta calling itself the “National Committee for the Salvation of the People”. It was a nostalgic moment for students of coups, putsches and golpes; a form of regime change once common across the world, but which has become a twenty-first century rarity.
Military seizures of the state can have long-term positive outcomes for the countries concerned
I am one such student and have conducted considerable research for an as yet unpublished book on the phenomenon. The standard knee jerk response of the “global community” to coups is outright condemnation, and the immediate reaction to the events in Mali was no exception, with the UN, the African Union, Mali’s old colonial power France, and even a tut-tutting Times editorial, all thundering against the army’s action. Yet a study of the history of coups shows that as often as not military seizures of the state have long-term positive outcomes for the countries concerned.
The “golden age” of the military coup was roughly the half century between 1945 and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Coup makers acting as proxies for the contending superpowers of the US and USSR, coupled with de-colonisation in Asia, Africa and the Middle East provided fertile soil for the military to remove corrupt, incompetent or dictatorial rulers and regimes and substitute their own versions of law, order and democracy.
Earlier examples of the military coup, however, came in Europe during an age when the continent effectively ruled the world. Although versions of coups by the Praetorian Guard in Ancient Rome can be cited, most historians date the beginning of the modern coup to 1851, when President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte of France emulated his uncle and seized power in Paris, jailing political opponents, censoring the media, and dispersing dissenters with a “whiff of grapeshot”. That coup led to the French Second Empire: the “Belle Epoque” of liberal social legislation, Baron Hausmann’s reconstruction of Paris, huge cultural achievements and attempts to export Napoleonic progressive ideas to Italy and Mexico.
Though they stink in the nostrils of stable democracies, coups may well be a preferable last resort in countries drowning in corruption or disorder whose armies see themselves as the guardians of national pride, with military discipline being an essential component of efficient action. Although successful coup makers often succumb to corruption and the temptation to be tyrants themselves, military regimes – in contrast to communist ones – are generally of short duration, and usually fulfil their promise to restore democracy in short order.
As armies embody such conservative values as order, hierarchy, tradition and patriotism, military coups are usually thought to come from right of the political spectrum. But that is by no means always the case. Of early twentieth-century coups, undoubtedly the most long lasting in its malign influence was the Bolshevik coup in St Petersburg in 1917 ushering in seventy years of terror, repression, starvation and mass murder.
Although some of these regimes were repressive and reactionary, they were arguably preferable to the alternatives
In stark contrast, reactionary coups in Germany such as the 1921 Kapp Putsch and Hitler’s 1923 Beerhall putsch utterly failed, and when the Nazis came to power in 1933 it was by their manipulation of the impeccably democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic. The 1930s was the decade of military or army-backed dictators in Europe: Horthy in Hungary; Metaxas in Greece; Antonescu in Romania; Pilsudski in Poland; Mannerheim in Finland; Franco and Salazar in Iberia. Despite the savagery of the Civil War that followed his only half successful 1936 coup, Franco gave Spain thirty-five years of unprecedented stability and economic progress and craftily resisted Hitler’s attempt to lure Spain into the Second World War as an ally. The same applied to Salazar’s Portugal until the regime he founded was ousted by Europe’s last (to date) military coup: the leftist “Carnation coup” of April 1974.
Although some of these regimes were repressive and reactionary, they were arguably preferable to the available alternatives: chaos or communism. One European coup that certainly had unintended benign consequences occurred in April 1941 when Britain’s MI6 secret service helped engineer a coup by the Yugoslav Air Force that overthrew the pro-Axis regime of Prince Paul. An enraged Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, delaying his intended invasion of Russia by three months – which several historians believe bogged his armies down in the Russian winter and eventually cost him the war.
After the war, coups entered their golden age, becoming in many countries a far more common method of changing government than elections. In the traditional home of the coup, Latin America, coups became almost an annual event. In Argentina, Juan Peron came to power via a coup, and exited the same way in 1955 – only to return to office from exile twenty years later. Another “progressive” dictator, Getulio Vargas of Brazil, preferred suicide to surrender to coup-making “golpistas”, as did Chile’s Marxist President Salvador Allende, when faced by Augusto Pinochet’s coup in September 1973.
Pinochet’s coup and an earlier 1964 coup in Brazil against another leftist President, Joao Goulart, ushered in a wave of copycat coups in other South American states – Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay – far bloodier than previous military regimes had been. Torture, disappearances, and long-term repressive rule became the daily routine in these and other states through to the 1980s. With good reason, the CIA were accused of fomenting and supporting such coups to prevent Castro’s Cuba exporting communism to the Latin American mainland. The recent experience of Venezuela (whose late leftist dictator Hugo Chavez was a failed coup-maker) suggests such fears were not wholly unfounded.
The Cold War featured coups launched across the world by proxies of either of the two rival superpowers. Iran in 1954, Indonesia in 1965, and Greece in 1967 are three examples of successful coups launched by the military against communist, leftist or perceived anti-Western forces, while in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Ethiopia military coups produced pro-Soviet regimes. Coups were usually mounted by generals, but occasionally were led by impatient junior officers – colonels in Greece and by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in Ghana – without the knowledge or approval of their superiors.
In Africa and the Middle East, with no traditions of democracy or parliamentary government, coups were the recognised and most frequent means of regime or ruler change. The leftist President of Ghana, the first former British colony to achieve independence, Kwame Nkrumah, was ousted by a coup while he was visiting China, while Uganda’s Milton Obote sufferer a similar fate at the hands of Idi Amin. Other African coups – such as those that tore Nigeria apart in the 1960s, leading to the Biafran war – were motivated by tribal or ethnic factors.
After the Cold War ended, a new threat emerged in the guise of Islamic fundamentalism and was dealt with by its military opponents in the same manner: by military coup. Algeria and Egypt being the most prominent instances of countries where the army intervened to forestall rule by Islamist parties that had won democratic elections.
Turkey was particularly prone to coups by the military to guard against Islamic backsliding from the modern secular state established by dictator Kemal Ataturk between the world wars. Three times in as many decades – in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s – the army mounted successful coups to defend Ataturk’s legacy, but when a section of the military tried the same in 2016, they were foiled by Turkey’s Islamic President Erdogan.
So why has there been such a precipitous decline in the number of coups? I believe several factors have contributed. The collapse of Soviet-style communism has meant the lack of an ideology to either inspire leftist coup-makers or present a convincing bogeyman for rightist ones. More sophisticated methods of surveillance have made rulers more secure and more difficult for dissidents to plot coups in secret. And the spread of democracy and the idea of human rights have made it harder for all but the most powerful of dictators – like China’s Xi, Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan – to defy global disapproval.
It may be that in the high-tech twenty-first century the familiar accompaniments of a coup – tanks on the streets, jets flying overhead, martial music on the radio and unknown officers in camouflage blinking in the TV lights – will become as quaint and outmoded as pipes, frock coats, and the parliamentary mace.
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