Military Coups: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Zachary Barker

The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff inspects the remains of the Turkish parliament building in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt Photograph: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


Most countries at one time or another have had their destinies changed by the intervention of their militaries into their internal politics.  Brazil’s military moved against their monarchy making the country henceforth a republic.  In the closing chapter of the English Civil Wars General George Monck made the fateful decision to send his forces down from Coldstream in Scotland to occupy London in order to bring about the restoration of British Monarchy.  Recently the elements of the Turkish military allegedly took part in a coup against the controversial President Erdogan.  If this was a genuine attempt by the Turkish military to implement regime change, then this is in many ways a continuation of a tradition the military has had in anointing itself the guardian of the values of the republic Kemal Ataturk helped found which include secularism and (with some irony) democracy.  While in power Kemal Ataturk forbid the Turkish military from participating or interfering in partisan politics, but seemingly contradictorily gave it the responsibility for being the guardian of the constitution.  Militaries throughout the world are charged with defending their country and it is often with this reason in mind (at least nominally) that they have taken the extraordinary step of pushing aside their political masters.

Coup d’etat translates directly from the original French as “blow of state” is used in modern political language to refer to a forceful seizure of power by a certain party.  Samuel Huntington identified three different types of coup d’ etat; Breakthrough coups, Arbiter coups and Veto coups.  Breakthrough coups are when soldiers play the part of a radical reformer, in Huntington’s context to create a society where the middle classes are more involved in governing decisions.  Arbiter coups are said to take place in a post-breakthrough society, where the military steps in because public order has broken down.  Veto coups take place in an effort by the military to deliberately prevent mass participation in politics or allegedly guard the values of a given society.  The recent coup in Turkey can roughly be categorised as a Veto coup since it involved the military acting against the elected Government of Turkey, ironically for the stated purpose of protecting democracy.

Breakthrough coups which have been initiated have not always been carried out to help the middle classes, since the working classes have often benefitted too.  Army Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso led a coup against another coup clique heralding a reformist government which introduced environmental programmes, mass vaccination and anti-poverty programmes.  Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup of The Directory at the end of the French Revolution was in many ways a combination of all three coups.  Napoleon did introduce reforms such as the Code Napoleon and the emancipation of the Jews and yet this also had support to stop the disorder associated with the revolution, while he controlled which parts of the middle class advanced in his regime.  However some coup leaders have seized power while advertising this effort as a genuine radical people’s coup only to betray such ideals.  Idi Amin’s seizure of power in Uganda in 1971 exemplifies this tragic incidence very well.  Amin’s coup was popular since his predecessor Milton Obote was widely acknowledged to be a tyrannical and corrupt.  However Amin proved to be much worse introducing years of disastrous policies including but not exclusively the mass killing of political opponents, rampant defense spending, rampant corruption and disastrous economic policies.

Arbiter coups are most unusual since they are seemingly blatant violations of democracy made in the name of defending it.  Some of the most interesting examples of this can be found in Africa.  In Nigeria Olesum Obasanjo who was a part of a military junta handed power back to a civilian government.  Obasanjo based the new democratic constitution for Nigeria on the United States Constitution before the handover.  In Ghana Flight Commander Jerry Rawlings overthrew a civilian government after it got embroiled in a financial crisis but later restored multi-party democracy.  Early on in Pakistan’s history Pakistani civilians had street celebrations when the military took power for the first time from a civilian government widely seen as dysfunctional, corrupt and incompetent.  Although as time went on, uncertainty grew and Pakistanis started to wonder loudly how long it would be until the soldiers returned to barracks.

Veto coups much of the time exemplify clearly the folly of having the military involved in politics, as well as the human tragedy it can bring to a given country.  Perhaps the most infamous example is General Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile on 11th September.   This military coup like many others in Latin America was given covert support and encouragement by the United States and was initiated with the declared aim of fighting Communism.  President Salvador Allende was indeed a Marxist, but one who undoubtedly had an electoral mandate.  It is also clear from historical record that much of the economic chaos existing in Chile at the time was more due to the economic war the United States was waging on the country (to help justify the coup) than Allende’s economic policies.  While the economy stabilised under Pinochet this was at the grotesque cost of thousands of lives.

It could be said that military coups are times of great uncertainty and at worst a sign that a country is on a downward spiral.  It is not a complete coincidence that they often occur in newly independent countries where institutions are weak.  This does not mean that military coups cannot happen in  long established countries.  France faced the real possibility of a military coup during the Algeria Crisis, which is widely thought to have it’s roots in the French military’s losses in the Second World War.  However in the case of the newly independent countries the coups normally happen due to widespread dissatisfaction with political elites who are often corrupt or ineffectual, therefore the military are often seen as the ones to get things done.

However even the apparently good coups came with a price.  Thomas Sankara’s revolution in Burkina Faso came with the price of a lack of democracy and an abysmal human rights record.  Jerry Rawlings’ time in power in Ghana led to approximately 300 citizens disappearing due to his “house clearing”.  In the case of the “Valkyrie” plot against Hitler many historians cite the plotting officers’ old Prussian militaristic ideology as reason to doubt that if they were successful, they would plant the seeds of a new German democracy or submit to unconditional surrender conditions.  And of course most coups, though not all, come with some form of loss of life and liberty.

I think that perhaps instead of daring to praise the military coup men themselves it is perhaps more honest to the spirit of democracy to remember those who have courageously stood against them.  The former President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff spent many years being brutally interrogated and put in isolation for her defiance to the Brazilian Military.  Aung San Suu Kyi refused to leave Burma and surrender to the military even when her husband was dying on the other side of the world.

I would say the strongest argument against coups apart from the damage they cause is the way they make democratic institutions less credible, since they are merely overridden.  That said I will leave readers to consider the dilemmas faced by people who live under two examples of non-military tyrannies that render such institutions meaningless already.  In Zimbabwe corruption is rife as is political violence thanks to the old dictator President Mugabe who uses his power to make elections and the judicial branch completely meaningless.  In Venezuela President Maduro gets ever more powers from a parliament that bows to his every whim as he imprisons more and more opposition politicians and activists.  Some of the Venezuelan opposition has openly called for the army to intervene.  My question is; could a coup make things any worse?

About Zachary Barker 42 Articles
Zac is a graduate in BA Hons International Relations and Politics and MsC International Development and Security. He is Bristol's Local Coordinator for the political organisation, Republic. His favourite journalists include Nick Cohen and Hunter S Thompson. Zac is currently working on a novel. His interests include Model United Nations, current affairs, travel, video games and reading and writing. Follow Zac on Twitter @ZacharyBarker1