Coups making a comeback?

While, for now unsubstantiated, coup rumors sweep China, a very real coup is underway in Mali. Renegade troups have appeared on state television to announce that they have taken power away from President Amadou Toumani Toure, who they say inadequately supported them in the fight against an ongoing insurgency by Tuareg rebels in the country's north. The army has apparently shut the borders and the whereabouts of Toure, who has been in power since 2002, are unknown. Soldiers are reportedly looting the presidential palace

Twitter's probably the best way to stay on top of the fast-moving story at the moment. Alex Thurston's Sahel Blog has some good suggestions of feeds to follow as well as some valuable quick analysis.

Given that it was only two years ago that the government of neighboring Niger was overthrown in a military coup, and just weeks since President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives was forced from office -- he claims -- at gunpoint, it's tempting to wonder whether military coups, which are often seen as a relic of Cold War ideological struggles, are returning to the world stage. (The SCAF's seizure of power in Egypt certainly exhibits some classic coup characteristics as well.)

So are we returning to a Cold War era level of coup occurence? Not really. Political scientists Nikolay Marinov and Hein Goemans plotted out this chart for their research on coup frequency in 2009:

 

As you can see, the two successful coups we've had this year were essentially the baseline throughout the 60s and 70s. Moreover, the coups that do happen today are more likely to end in at least semi-democratic elections. As Thurston writes of Niger:

Soldiers in Niger intervened to “reset” the civilian democracy after President Mamadou Tandja manipulated the constitution to stay in power. There was no war in Niger at the time. But in light of the coup in Niger, it is not surprising that the coup leaders in Mali have taken on the rhetoric of democracy, naming themselves the National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR) and saying, “We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened.”

They may well make good on this promise. If the coup succeeds, there will be massive pressure – in a sense there already is - for Mali to hold elections. In Niger, although again, the situation was different, soldiers were in power for slightly longer than a year before organizing new elections.

Similarly, the Hondruan military leaders that overthrew the government of Manuel Zelaya in 2009 organized elections later that year. There are still a handful of governments run by leaders who took power in recent coups -- Fiji, Mauritania, and Madagascar, for instance -- but it's pretty rare. (The political future of the Maldives is still very much unsettled.) 

The reason is that in contrast to the Cold War era, there's generally considerable international pressure brought to bear against new military juntas, rather than incentives from ideologically-driven superpowers for them to remain in power. We're already seeing that pressure brought to bear in Mali:

The African Union said the "act of rebellion" was a "significant setback for Mali".

Kenya's Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula and his delegation are stranded in the country, as Bamako's airport is closed, after attending an AU meeting on peace and security.

The West African regional body Ecowas said the mutinous soldiers' behaviour was "reprehensible" and "misguided".

Additionally, the U.S. has pledged its support to Mali's previous government, and former colonial power France has suspended security cooperation since the coup.

All this means that if Mali's new military rulers are successful in their putsch, there will likely be enormous pressure to go ahead with the presidential election that was already scheduled for next month, and indeed they have already pledged to do so. Of course, with Tuareg rebels making major gains in the north of the country, a return to stability may be too much to hope for.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

Passport

Still the People’s Republic of Rumors

As my FP colleague Isaac Stone Fish, Bloomberg View's Adam Minter, and others have very ably documented, China's microblogs have been buzzing all week with rumors - unsubstantiated -- of a political coup in Beijing. (Were those gunshots you heard? Oh, just fireworks, as per the usual in Beijing.)

Ironically, this latest eruption of China's online rumor mill has happened shortly after the government's plans to enforce real-name registration and other controls on Weibo -- the most-prominent Twitter-like microblog -- went into effect. Or were supposed to. Although Ai Weiwei's real-name Weibo account was quickly deleted, other lesser-known users report myriad workarounds: You can verify your identity with an SMS message to a phone that isn't actually yours, for example. One couple reports that the Weibo account they set up a while back in their dog's name is still as barking active as ever. (The dog, for the record, had no comment on coup rumors.) While it's too early to say if enforcement of polices -- or penalties for political chatter -- will be stepped up in the future, evidently Beijing's new controls have so far done little to dampen online speculation and conversation.

Stepping back, this has been quite a year for Weibo. From rumors of Jiang Zemin's death (not true) to rumors of chemical-spill havoc in the northern city of Dalian (highly exaggerated) to rumors of tanks this week in Beijing (not true), we've seen how quickly fear and speculation can spread over the microblog.  Meanwhile Weibo has also been a venue for important and legitimate watchdogging, including calling out government lies about the causes and impact of the Wenzhou high-speed train crash last summer, arguably pushing the mainstream Chinese media to be more aggressive in reporting as well. But there's something else all these examples have in common: Scratch just below the surface, and it's easy to see how readily people in China, or at least those inclined to discuss politics on microblogs, assume the government is lying to them.

Most of the time, the authorities' reaction is to censor key terms -- like Jiang Zemin or Wang Lijun (the name of Bo Xilai's former deputy) -- which actually seemingly gives more credence to the chatter (what are they really hiding from us?). In the case of high-level political rumors, there's no authoritative government source that ever comes forward to clear the air; as The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon memorably wrote on his blog: "And now I'm passing on the scuttlebutt too. Why? No one in Zhongnanhai is taking my calls. They're not taking anyone's calls - which leaves the outside world in the dark at a crucial moment in Chinese history." Even when government officials try to offer denials through state-run media -- as in the case of pollution fears in Dalian -- they aren't often believed. As one woman who participated in the Dalian protest last fall told me: "We feel hopeless about our local media."

The only way to really crush rumors over time isn't by trying to nickel-and-dime manage microblogs; it's by establishing some channel of trust to mediate between truth and falsehood, between the smoke-filled chambers of government and the people. Rumors can take off in any country, but they have special potency in China because there's no equivalent of a trusted Peter Jennings or White House news conference to vet before the public what's real and what isn't. And so in a city already on edge, fireworks sound like gunshots indeed.

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