Seven days was all it took for 2019 to see its first attempted coup. In Gabon, a group of soldiers seized the national radio station to declare the overthrow of Ali Bongo as president and the transfer of power to a ‘national restoration council’. Although the plot quickly collapsed, events in Gabon mean that 2019 already matches 2018 for attempted coups, which was the first year since 2011 to see just one coup attempt.
Will there be other coup attempts in 2019? In this piece, the third instalment of our Political Risk Outlook for the year, we take a look at the issues surrounding coups, the historical trends, and we use our Government Stability Index Projection to draw out the countries we consider most likely to fall victim to a coup – DR Congo, Gabon, Sri Lanka and Venezuela.
Why coups matter to business
Attempts to overthrow a government, whether they are successful or not, can be violent and are almost always highly destabilising. Even a failed coup can create costly uncertainty for businesses with operations in the affected country, and the negative impact can be long-lasting. Since the overthrow of independent Kyrgyzstan’s first president in 2005, investors in the country’s goldmines have repeatedly faced expropriation threats and forced contract renegotiation.
In the worst case, a coup or attempted coup can unleash violence across a country.
In DR Congo, for example, any military challenge to the executive would risk upsetting the country’s ethnic power balance and provoke unrest in at least some areas. Indeed, a coup would raise the risk of resurgent secessionism in the mineral-rich province of Katanga, threatening the stability of copper and cobalt supply chains.
What is more, coup attempts in one country can trigger instability and violence beyond its borders. The political crisis in Venezuela has already triggered a regional humanitarian crisis in the region and the inflow of more than a million Venezuelan refugees to Colombia threatens the fragile political stability of the latter.
Coups increasingly rare and mostly in Africa
Coups are rare events. While the end of the Cold War led to a flurry of coups in Africa, Latin America and the former Soviet states, with up to nine events per year, three coups (or coup attempts) per year has become the norm since 2000.
As the figure below illustrates, Africa is home to most attempted coups, having seen 68 since 1990 – though even here they are becoming less frequent thanks both to democratic traditions becoming more embedded and the increasingly strong international condemnation of coups.
Key countries to watch in 2019
As we have already seen one attempted coup in 2019, we consider 2018, which saw only one coup attempt, likely to prove an anomaly. Our watch-list below includes DR Congo, Gabon, Sri Lanka and Venezuela – if at least one coup occurs in all these countries, 2019 would represent a spike in coup activity.
Meanwhile, 2019 will also prove a test case for the extent to which a (failed) coup still leads to another, as in the 1990s. If we see coups (or coup attempts) in Gabon and Sri Lanka in 2019, it would suggest that this remains a risk, if not a trend; and in our analysis, a coup attempt in Venezuela would very likely prompt a second coup.
The risk of a coup is high particularly in the short term, following a chaotic election. Indeed, the continued dispute over the result threatens to justify a military intervention as the only way to restore order. Felix Tshisekedi (who has controversially been declared winner of the elections) has taken office, but he will find his room for manoeuvre restrained by the fact that former president Joseph Kabila retains the loyalty of key military units. If Tshisekedi goes too far in asserting his own independence, he will be highly vulnerable to a coup from Kabila loyalists.
While the attempt to overthrow President Bongo in Gabon has fizzled out, the developments underscore the fragility of the country’s governance structures. In our view, the government and security forces will struggle to maintain the status quo for much longer, especially if the president’s health does not improve. When Bongo eventually steps down, the public is unlikely to accept another dynastic succession.
Although the Bongo family has ruled the country for more than 50 years, the regime has an increasingly narrow base of support – having only won the 2016 election by blatantly falsifying the results. Should oil revenues decline in 2019 (amid subdued global prices), the government will struggle to pay security personnel on time.
The political situation in Sri Lanka remains fragile, especially as President Sirisena lost a significant amount of political capital during the 2018 crisis. The political turmoil also highlighted the population’s increasing sensitivity towards any action seen to undermine Sri Lankan democracy. Sirisena’s constitutional authority to call for a snap presidential election earlier than November 2019 implies that the risk of unrest and even a coup attempt remains elevated.
Following a clearly stage-managed re-election of Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela is now in the position of having two parallel governments, backed alternatively by the West and the East. New, crippling US sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector are aimed at forcing a resolution to the conflict. The White House expects that the military, which controls the oil industry, will be forced to cut a deal, with or without Maduro, averting a coup this year.
With the stakes incredibly high, a non-violent resolution to the impasse is by no means guaranteed. What is more, the Venezuelan military is fractious and its monopoly on violence is in question given the presence of a variety of heavily armed local and transnational criminal groups, plus left-wing Colombian guerrillas. The nearest parallel to Venezuela 2019 might be Libya in 2011; at its extreme, Venezuela risks civil war.