The Coup Trap, Mali Edition

Mali had another coup d’etat yesterday, just 10 months after one that brought down the country’s elected civilian government and stunned a lot of observers in the process.

I’m not going to try to analyze the specifics of Mali’s latest coup or its repercussions, a task best left to area experts who actually know about those things, like Gregory Mann. Instead, I want to talk in broadly comparative terms about how and why this second coup is less surprising than the first.

The fact is, coups are often recursive. In a classic of the genre called “Poverty, the Coup Trap, and the Seizure of Executive Power” (alas, behind the dreaded JSTOR paywall), political scientists John Londregan and Keith Poole note that “the aftereffects of a coup include a heritage of political instability in the form of an increased likelihood of further coups.” This is the coup trap their title references; once you’ve had the first event, the risk of the next (and then the next, and then the next…) goes up.

This recursive pattern shows up loud and clear in statistical models I’ve used with some success to assess coup risk in countries worldwide. As noted in a previous post, my assessments are the average of estimated probabilities from two models, one of successful coups and the other of any coup attempts. In the former, the occurrence of a coup attempt at any time in the past five years roughly doubles the risk of a successful coup over the next year. In the latter, I use the natural log of the count of coup attempts in the previous five years minus one, but the strength of the association—and thus the general pattern—is essentially the same.

What’s more, it’s often not just the occurrence of the coup itself that affects the models’ estimates of the risk of a recurrence, but the ripple effects of that event on other risk factors. One of the models I use includes a nonlinear form of a scalar measure of democracy, the Polity scale. According to this model, countries in the mid-range between stark dictatorship and full democracy are at highest risk, and that’s often where countries wind up immediately after a successful coup. The other model uses Polity’s measure of the durability of a country’s political institutions. In this version, it’s the countries with recent institutional ruptures that are at higher risk, but again, the basic effect is the same.

We can see how this plays out in a case like Mali. If we adjust the inputs to our forecasting algorithm to catch up with the March coup and its ripples, Mali’s risk score jumps from about 4 percent, which was already high enough to land it in the Top 20 for 2012, all the way to 10 percent. Ten percent probably sounds small if you’re used to consuming probabilistic forecasts about routine things like the weather, but for rare events like coups, that’s a huge jump. Instead of being 11th on the global list, Mali would be 3rd, behind only Guinea-Bissau and Niger.

These models weren’t designed to test specific hypotheses about why coups recur, so I won’t make any bold assertions on the causal front. For what it’s worth, though, I will say that the patterns highlighted by these and many similar models strengthen my own belief that politics are, in no small part, a matter of confidence.

Whether they succeed or fail, coup attempts often disrupt established relationships among political elites. These disruptions increase elites’ uncertainty about the intentions of their potential rivals, and the proximity of the last attempt may lead them to overestimate the likelihood of the next one. In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, this intensification of uncertainty strengthens incentives to try to seize power. In game theoretic terms, the occurrence of a coup attempt pushes political elites out of a world resembling Stag Hunt, where coordination of action is their chief concern, to one more like Prisoner’s Dilemma, where uncertainty about the the other player’s intentions overwhelms incentives to cooperate. Once the original trust network has fallen apart, no one wants to be the sucker who keeps cooperating while the other guys are all planning to fink.

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