A year of coups

In what amounts to another pointless exercise, the Washington Post repeated its 2013 map of countries most likely to have a coup. Of course, African countries are at the top of the list.

Egyptians ride atop a military tank in January 2011. That time it wasn't a coup, but a people's led revolution, since suppressed (Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy, via Flickr CC).

Earlier this week, Max Fisher, The Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger (and about whose infatuation with colored maps we blogged before here and here) posted an entry: “A worrying map of countries most likely to have a coup in 2014.” It is based on the work of political scientist Jay Ulfelder. The post includes a colored map of the globe with countries shaded from light yellow to dark brown. And as you might guess, the darker the country, the more likely it will see a violent overthrow of the government some time this year.

In Ulfelder’s study he takes a number of variables, such as the political stability and infant mortality rate. But he also took into account variables like how long a country’s been independent or who the last colonizer was. It’s not very clear how and why these could have an effect on the result, but according to Ulfelder’s blog these variables don’t necessarily have to have a significant effect on the risk of a coup.

This being Max Fisher, it’s not the first time he has had fun with maps and with Ulfelder’s research. Last year they did exactly the same thing, only then the headline read: ‘The countries most at risk for a coup in 2013.” At the time, Fisher called Ulfelder “the Nate Silver of coups.” (For the uninitiated that’s a reference to the American statistician who started analyzing elections like he used to analyze baseball and basketball matches.) Egypt didn’t make the Washington Post’s list  in 2013. I wonder what changed in the last three hundred somewhat days that we went from ‘risk’ to ‘worrying’ and ‘most likely’?

Anyway, Africans: brace yourself, because the continent is up for an orgy of coups. From Guinea-Conakry to Madagascar, it doesn’t look very pretty, especially for the Sahel region.

But does the continent really stands on brink of political and civil chaos? Some readers at least seems to have a hard time believing this gospel. One, in my opinion rightfully, comments:

A coup d’ Etat is highly unlikely in the following countries: Mali, Central African Republic, and Guinea.

The two first are already under French and international community supervision; the third could face not a coup , but a lower level of civil unrest (maybe civil war) because of the Fulani ethnic group (financial power of the country) and the people of the forest region marginalization.

Another one writes:

A coup in Somalia seems more like a rhetorical exercise than an actual undertaking. There’s not a heck of a lot of government to overthrow, is there?

And on and on it goes.

And indeed, because when is an overthrow of the government considered a coup? And maybe equally important, when is a coup considered to be successful? As we said, Egypt for example did not even make it to last year’s list. However, some still struggle with what to make of the army’s interference in the country’s politics and deposing of the president. When writing an article with a screaming head as in this case, it would have been nice to at least get some context.

Apart from a failure to explain what exactly is meant by a coup, it is also quite confusing when the article is supposed to be about “countries most likely to have a coup”, but where the research the article is based on looks at the risk of attempts and not actual successful coups. And finally, it’s a bit of a downer if after all the predictions, you read midway through:

[E]ven the most extreme cases are well below a 50 percent likelihood of a coup, meaning that a coup probably won’t occur.

That’s where I stopped reading.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.