Assessing Coup Risk in 2012

Which countries around the world are most likely to see coup activity in 2012?

This question popped back into my mind this morning when I read a new post on Daniel Solomon’s Securing Rights blog about widening schisms in Sudan’s armed forces that could lead to a coup attempt. There’s also been a lot of talk in early 2012 about the likelihood of a coup in Syria, where the financial and social costs of repression, sanctions, and now civil war continue to mount. Meanwhile, Pakistan seems to have dodged a coup bullet early this year after a tense showdown between its elected civilian government and military leaders. I even saw one story–unsubstantiated, but from a reputable source–about a possible foiled coup plot in China around New Year’s Day. These are all countries where a coup d’etat would shake up regional politics, and coups in some of those countries could substantially alter the direction of armed conflicts in which government forces are committing mass atrocities, to name just two of the possible repercussions.

To give a statistical answer to the question of coup risk in 2012, I’ve decided to dust off a couple of coup-forecasting algorithms I developed in early 2011 and gin up some numbers. Both of these algorithms…

  1. Take the values of numerous indicators identified by statistical modeling as useful predictors of coup activity (see the end of this post for details);
  2. Apply weights derived from that modeling to those indicators; and then
  3. Sum and transform the results to spit out a score we can interpret as an estimate of the probability that a coup event will occur some time in 2011.

Both algorithms are products of Bayesian model averaging (BMA) applied to logistic regression models of annual coup activity (any vs. none) in countries worldwide over the past few decades. One of the modeling exercises, done for a private-sector client, looked only at successful coups using data compiled by the Center for Systemic Peace. The other modeling exercise was done for a workshop at the Council on Foreign Relations on forecasting political instability; this one looked at all coup attempts, successful or failed, using data compiled by Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne. For the 2012 coup risk assessments, I’ve simply averaged the output from the two.

The dot plot below shows the estimated coup risk in 2012 for the 40 countries with the highest values (i.e., greatest risk). The horizontal axis is scaled for probabilities ranging from zero to 1; if you’re more comfortable thinking in percentages, just multiply the number by 100. As usual with all statistical forecasts of rare events, the estimates are mostly close to zero. (On average, only a handful of coup attempts occur worldwide each year, and they’ve become even rarer since the end of the Cold War; see this earlier post for details). For a variety of reasons, the estimates are also less precise than those dots might make them seem, so small differences should be taken with a grain of salt. Even so, these results of this exercise should offer plausible estimates of the chances that we’ll see coup activity in these countries some time in 2012.

Here are a few of things that stand out for me in those results.

  • My forecast supports Daniel’s analysis that the risk of a coup attempt in Sudan in 2012 is relatively high. It ranks 11th on the global list, making it one of the most likely candidates for coup activity this year.
  • Surprising to me, Pakistan barely cracks into the top 40, landing at 38th in the company of Iraq, Cambodia, and Senegal. Those countries all rank higher than 120 others, but the distance between their estimated risk and the risk in most other countries is within the realm of statistical noise. Off the top of my head, I would have identified Pakistan and Iraq as relatively vulnerable countries, and I would not have thought of Cambodia or Senegal as particularly coup-prone cases.
  • Unsurprising to me, China doesn’t even make the top 40. Perhaps there has been some erosion in civilian control in recent years, as Gordon Chang discusses, but it still doesn’t much resemble the countries that have seen full-blown coup attempts in the past few decades.
  • Interestingly, Syria doesn’t show up in the top 40, either. To make sense of this forecast, it’s important to note that assigning a low probability to the occurrence of a coup attempt in Syria in 2012 isn’t the same thing as a prediction that President Bashar al-Assad or his regime will survive the year. It might seem like semantic hair-splitting, but the definitions of coups used to construct the data on which these forecasts are based do not include cases where national leaders resign under pressure or are toppled by rebel groups. So the Syria forecast suggests only that Assad is unlikely to be overthrown by his own security forces. As it happens, my analysis of countries most likely to see democratic transitions in 2012 put Syria in the top 10 on that list.
  • Two of the countries near the top of that list–Guinea and Democratic Republic of Congo–are the ones where the Center for Systemic Peace’s Monty Marshall tells me he saw coup activity meeting his definition in 2011. Those recent coup attempts are influencing the 2012 forecasts, but both countries were also near the top of the 2011 risk list. This boosts my confidence in the reliability of these assessments.

I hope there’s a lot more on (or off) that list that interests readers, and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on the results in the Comments section. For now, though, I’m going to wrap up this post by providing more information on what those forecasts take into account. The algorithm for successful coups uses just four risk factors, one of which is really just an adjustment to the intercept.

  • Infant mortality rate (relative to annual global median, logged): higher risk in countries with higher rates.
  • Degree of democracy (Polity score, quadratic): higher risk for countries in the mid-range of the 21-point scale.
  • Recent coup activity (yes or no): higher risk if any activity in the past five years.
  • Post-Cold War period: lower risk since 1989.

The algorithm for any coup attempts, successful or failed, uses the following ten risk factors, including all four of the ones used to forecast successful coups.

  • Infant mortality rate (relative to annual global median, logged): higher risk in countries with higher rates.
  • Recent coup activity (count of past five years with any, plus one and logged): higher risk with more activity.
  • Post-Cold War period: lower risk since 1989.
  • Popular uprisings in region (count of countries with any, plus one and logged): higher risk with more of them.
  • Insurgencies in region (count of countries with any, plus one and logged): higher risk with more of them.
  • Economic growth (year-to-year change in GDP per capita): higher risk with slower growth.
  • Regime durability (time since last abrupt change in Polity score, plus one and logged): lower risk with longer time.
  • Ongoing insurgency (yes or no): higher risk if yes.
  • Ongoing civil resistance campaign (yes or no): higher risk if yes.
  • Signatory to 1st Optional Protocol of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (yes or no): lower risk if yes.

How Risky and Costly Are Coups, Really?

Coups d’etat don’t happen as often as they used to, but they do still happen. In the past few year, coups have toppled leaders in Honduras, Niger, and arguably Egypt, while coup bids have fizzled in Guinea-Bissau (twice), Democratic Republic of CongoMadagascar, and, less than a year after the aforementioned success, Niger. Meanwhile, just this morning, we’re hearing fresh rumblings of a possible coup in Pakistan, which last saw the military openly seize power in 1999. (Whether it’s ever really taken its hands off the levers of power at any point in Pakistan’s history is another matter.)

The persistence of coups is a bit of a puzzle, because coup attempts are typically costly to their perpetrators in at least two ways.

1. Most coup attempts fail. From 1955 to 2008, half of all coup bids worldwide failed (158 of 316). As the chart below shows, the failure rate has been much higher in the past two decades than it was in earlier years. And these are just the coup bids that make it all the way to an overt attempt. If our tally also included all of the plots that were uncovered and foiled before they could be put in motion, the failure rate would be much higher. If coup attempts usually fail, and the punishment for a failed coup is often imprisonment or death, then coup bids would seem to be a pretty risky gamble for their plotters.

 2. Coups take a toll on the economy. The figure below plots the estimated impact of a successful coup on a country’s GDP growth rate over the several years following the coup event (data geeks: see the technical notes at the end of this post for details on the method used to derive these estimates). The impact is substantial: on average, a couple of percentage points knocked off the growth rate in the year of the coup and another point or so the following year. Expected growth rates resume a few years after the coup, and there even seems to be something of a rebound effect several years down the road, but three or four years is a long wait in political time. This knock on the GDP growth rate matters for coup plotters because if they succeed, they’re liable be blamed for the damage done (Pakistani generals, take note!).

In light of these facts, it’s hard to understand why coup plotters keep trying, even if they are trying less often. To attempt a coup, you’ve either got to be ignorant of these facts or to consider them irrelevant to your particular situation. You might consider them irrelevant because you’re exceedingly optimistic about your own coup’s chances for success, as behavioral psychology suggests many military and political leaders will be. Alternatively, you might expect your attempt to fail but still think it’s worth a try because you believe that success will produce large private benefits (like the opportunity to loot the state treasury) or non-economic public benefits that will reflect well on you and your co-conspirators (like liberation from an awful tyrant, or defense against public disorder).

My hunch is that all of these forces–ignorance, optimism, greed, and benevolence–factor into the decision-making behind many coup attempts. We’ll never really know for sure, because even first-hand accounts of plotters’ motivations are highly unreliable. What we can say with some confidence, I think, is that people are going to keep trying anyway.

Technical Notes

The figures and charts in this post are based on coup event data compiled by Monty Marshall at the Center for Systemic Peace. You can find them here, under the Polity IV heading.

To estimate the impact of successful coups on GDP growth, I first used “coarsened exact matching” to pre-process a time-series cross-sectional data set of all countries worldwide for the period 1955-2008. Country-years were matched on several risk factors for successful coups, including infant mortality rates, degree of democracy (Polity scores, quadratic), recent coup activity, and a marker for the post-Cold War period. After matching, I used Zelig to estimate the average “treatment effect” for successful coups. The values used in the plot above are the medians from six iterations of this drill, one for each year away from the coup event. The GDP growth data are from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.

Fact Check: Are Military Coups Back in Vogue?

In a recent piece for The National, Joshua Kurlantzick claims to spot a resurgence of military coups. He writes:

In Latin America, Africa and Asia, coups, which had been a frequent means of changing governments during the Cold War, had become nearly extinct by the dawn of the new century. But over the past decade, the military has made power grabs in at least 12 states, from Guinea to Honduras, from Thailand to Madagascar.

What does that 12 tell us, though? Have military coups really become more frequent in the past several years?

The answer is a flat “no.” The chart below plots annual counts of successful coups from 1946 through the first half of 2011, using data compiled by the Center for Systemic Peace. As the chart clearly shows, the incidence of coups has fallen substantially in the post-Cold War period and remains historically low. (NB: Those counts don’t adjust for the large increase in the number of countries worldwide in the post-Cold War era. Against that growing denominator, the rate of successful coups has declined even further than the raw counts suggest.)

Maybe coup attempts have become more common, but fewer of them are succeeding? Again, no. The following chart looks at the incidence of failed coup attempts over the same period. Again, there has been a clear decline in the past couple of decades, and that pattern has not changed noticeably in the past several years.

Kurlantzick’s story of a trend that isn’t reminds me of this anecdote from a post by Sarah Slobin at Mix Online called “The 7 1/2 Steps to Successful Infographics,” which I found through Andrew Gelman’s blog.

When I was at the NYT, there was this reporter who drove a thousand miles across country chasing this thesis that population growth was sparked near off-ramps on the interstate. It was a lovely road-trip story; he gathered amazing anecdotes and the editors loved it. Except that when we mapped the census data it didn’t support the thesis. Imagine how much gas he could have saved had he started by looking at the data.

Forget infographics for a moment; the moral of Slobin’s story applies to anyone looking for patterns or trends in the real world. Sure, some questions can’t be answered with numbers; the relevant data may not exist (yet), or the research question might involve aspects of process that are difficult to quantify. The rest of the time, however–and that’s going to be a lot of the time–it’s a good idea to look at available data before getting deeply invested in a particular answer.

How Is Liberia Staying Stable?

Earlier this year, in preparation for a workshop at the Council on Foreign Relations, I developed a set of statistical models to assess the risk of onset of a few forms of political instability–violent rebellion, nonviolent rebellion (link), and coup attempts–and then used those models to generate global forecasts for 2011. Liberia scored in the top five on two of those lists: violent rebellion (a.k.a. civil war) and coup attempts. The models pegged it as having roughly a 15% chance of civil-war onset (3rd highest in the world) and more than a 60% chance of a coup attempt (4th highest) before 2012.

If Liberia is so susceptible to these kinds of political crises, why aren’t they happening now? The country’s horrible 14-year civil war ended in 2003 and has not flared again since then. Elections held in 2005 handed the presidency to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and no one has yet tried to depose her by force. For a country supposedly at the leading edge of what Robert Kaplan in 1994 called “the coming anarchy” of state collapse and civil strife (link), that’s a terrific run of political stability.

Of course, Liberia is not out of the woods yet. The year is only half over, and the country is scheduled to hold legislative and executive elections this October. Electoral competition or frustration over its results could trigger civil violence or coup attempts. Fears of exactly that scenario have already prompted more than 20 political parties to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Liberian police pledging to conduct their election campaigns with civility (link), but that paper promise is hardly a guarantee against crisis.

Still, let’s take the optimistic view and assume that Liberia crests this hump in its political risk without sliding back into large-scale civil violence or suffering a coup. What explains its ability for nearly a decade now to avoid the “conflict trap” that has plagued so many of the world’s poorest countries after the apparent ends of their civil wars?

Liberia doesn’t get a lot of attention in the U.S. press, but the bits I have seen and heard in the past several years have focused almost exclusively on the figure of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. As a plain-talking, Harvard-educated black female economist presiding over a country brutalized by a succession of male warlords, Sirleaf cuts a rare and appealing figure, and foreign governments and international aid organizations seem unusually committed to her government’s success. “We see her as one of us,” U.S. ambassador Linda Thompson-Greenfield told the New York Times. “We don’t want to see her fail.”

I don’t know enough about Liberia to assert anything with confidence, but as a general observer of political instability, my hunch is that international peacekeeping has played a larger role in preserving Liberia’s tenuous stability than the hagiographies of President Sirleaf imply. Since 2003, the United Nations has maintained a large peacekeeping operation (PKO) in Liberia to prevent a return to civil war, support humanitarian work, and train that country’s soldiers and police (link). As of May 2011, that PKO included more than 9,200 uniformed personnel, 1,300 police, nearly 500 international civilian personnel, and roughly 1,000 local staffers and was funded with an annual budget of more than $540 million. That’s a tremendous commitment in a country with a population of about 4 million and a gross domestic product (GDP) of less than $1 billion.

The scale and strength of the peacekeeping efforts in Liberia remind me of the U.N. mission in neighboring Sierra Leone, a neighboring west African country that was also brutalized by civil war and so far has avoided both a resumption of violence and a breakdown of its post-conflict democratic regime. Running from 1999 until 2005, the PKO in Sierra Leone involved as many as 17,000 military personnel at its peak and cost $2.8 billion in total in a country with roughly 5 million residents and a GDP of less than $2 billion (link). At this scale and duration, international peacekeeping operations should stand a better chance of helping domestic rivals overcome the security dilemmas that often drive recurrent conflicts, and Sierra Leone and Liberia’s experiences offer a couple of anecdotes in support of that view. [For excellent academic treatments of civil-war recurrence and settlement, see Barbara Walter and Jack Snyder’s 1999 edited volume and Monica Toft’s 2010 book.]

In short, I believe Liberia’s comparative stability since 2003 is, above all, a testament to the possibility of effective international peacekeeping, especially in smaller countries where intervening forces can more readily achieve a scale that’s virtually impossible to reach in larger countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I didn’t have the data required to consider the effects of PKOs in my statistical analysis of violent rebellion and coup attempts and am now eager to try adding them in the future. The 2011 forecasts based on my already-completed analysis could still turn out to be prescient, but I’m certainly hoping they don’t. In the mean time, I would be very interested in hearing from people with expertise on Liberia about their ideas on how that country is beating the odds to stay stable.

UPDATE: Not long after posting these ruminations, I saw a tweet from African Elections (@Africanelection) with a link to an IRIN story, via AlertNet, about Liberia’s current conditions and upcoming election season. The story didn’t change my views about the country’s conflict and coup risks, but it looks like an excellent backgrounder. You can find it here.

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