by Kara Kingma NeuDecember 20, 2021
Beginning in December 2018 and continuing over the following five months, protesters in Sudan took to the streets to demand the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir. They were successful in part because the military joined them in their opposition. Yet the military did not only defect, it also seized power in a coup d’état, forming a Transitional Military Council under Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf. Continued protests forced the military to agree to a new government and power-sharing council made up of both officers and civilians, but recently General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led another coup that dissolved both and instituted a state of emergency.
Militaries can defect in different manners: by following orders inefficiently, disobeying them altogether, demanding the dictator step down, or joining the opposition. But they also sometimes remove an unpopular dictator by seizing power, as the Sudanese military did in April 2019.
Unfortunately, most existing research does not differentiate coups and other forms of military disloyalty and thus does not explain why, during the course of a nonviolent campaign, some militaries defect and others seize power. This is an important question to explore, because different forms of military disloyalty likely bring about different nonviolent campaign outcomes. For example, given that coups involve the threat or use of violence and typically end in military rule and repression, they may not support democratization. Yet we know from scholarly analyses of civil resistance that military defections are often crucial to nonviolent campaign success.
What explains military coups and defections during civil resistance? And more importantly, how can movements use this knowledge to gain military support but prevent military rule? This post explores these questions, based on research I recently completed at the University of Denver (USA).
Dictators use different strategies vis-à-vis their militaries to consolidate and secure their personal power. In an article forthcoming in the Journal of Global Security Studies, I argue that the choice of strategy impacts the likelihood of coups versus defections during ongoing civil resistance campaigns.
In one scenario, a dictator comes to power with the help of the military. Later, he “civilianizes” his regime by creating civilian-dominated political parties, to replace his military supporters with less threatening civilian ones. (Historically, most dictators have been male.) This strategy of “civilianization” undermines the power-sharing agreement the dictator had with the military. Because he no longer has to rely on the military’s support, he can reduce the power he shares with it. The military in this scenario is more likely to attempt a coup d’état during ongoing civil resistance against the dictator, exploiting and seizing on the success of a nonviolent campaign in weakening the dictator's legitimacy and control. Consequently, the military replaces the dictator while preserving its own role and power (I provide the brief example of Mali below).
In a second scenario, a dictator uses a strategy of personal control of the security apparatus, in addition to or in absence of “civilianization” of his support base. With this strategy, he appoints the leaders of new or existing security services in ways that reward loyalty and counter threats. Personal control motivates military disloyalty. It involves interference in the military’s internal affairs, with the dictator making promotion decisions on the basis of loyalty over merit. The dictator may also favor other forces (like the presidential guard) with resources, arms, and additional privileges, at the expense of the military.
But personal control also reduces the ability of militaries to seize power, because the dictator tasks the other agencies with gathering information on potential coups and resisting actual coups. Personal control can furthermore cause divisions in the military between loyalists and others who make it difficult for the military to operate coherently in seizing power or otherwise. The military in this scenario is thus more likely to defect than attempt a coup d’état during civil resistance (as the Beninese military did in the example below).
I find support for my argument using a statistical analysis of all anti-authoritarian civil resistance campaigns from 1950 to 2011. For further information about this evidence and my methodology, keep an eye out for my forthcoming article in the Journal of Global Security Studies.
This research offers a number of takeaways for activists. A dictator who has used civilianization or personal control of the security apparatus increases the likelihood of military disloyalty—a goal of most nonviolent movements. Activists cannot influence whether and how the dictator uses such strategies. But they can be alert to the possibility of a coup, especially if the military in question has power and privileges it may want to protect.
If the military does seize power, Mali in 1991 provides an example of people power in response. President Moussa Traore civilianized his regime, and during major protests against him in early 1991, the military was disloyal through a coup. However, continued pressure from the opposition forced the military officer-led government to form a different, civilian-involved body that held democratic elections in 1992. Activists were not able to prevent the coup, but they did prevent long-term military rule—an outcome civilians in Sudan are also seeking to avoid.
As discussed in the second scenario above, some militaries are less able to seize power, because of a dictator’s personal control of the security apparatus (or other reasons). Activists probably will not know whether or not a military is able to seize power; however, they can still discourage coups—which tend not to result in long-term democratic transition—while encouraging defections—a goal that successful nonviolent campaigns often aim for and achieve.
Benin’s 1990 episode can enlighten us on this point. In Benin, President Mathieu Kerekou personally controlled the security apparatus, using the strategy to appoint loyalist personnel to existing and new forces. The military defected from Kerekou in 1990 by supporting an opposition-led national conference that sought to strip him of power and initiate a transition to democracy. Civilians had allowed military participation in the conference, and military representatives used their influence to shape various resolutions in their favor. But importantly the civilians were able to balance these military interests with activists’ ultimate goals. They gained military support without derailing the country’s democratization.
In sum, dictators use a variety of strategies to consolidate and secure their personal power, and often they affect the military. Activists should take note if a dictator has created a new, civilian dominated political party or taken control of the country’s security agencies. These strategies may increase the likelihood of military disloyalty during civil resistance, but the former could lead to a coup. Activists can also look to the examples of Mali and Benin for lessons on how to respond to either scenario and hopefully achieve the overthrow of the dictator—with military support, but without military rule.
The implications of this research should interest policymakers as well. Understanding why a military is likely to be disloyal by defecting or seizing power is crucial as policymakers seek to encourage military disloyalty while being aware of, and mitigating, the risks of military takeover.
Kara Kingma Neu, PhD (International Studies, Josef Korbel School, University of Denver) is a Research Fellow at the Sie Cheou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy and a Visiting Teaching Assistant Professor at the University of Denver. Kara was a recipient of the ICNC 2016 Research Fellowship award.Read More