Do coups improve human rights in countries like Gabon?

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The recent failed coup-attempt in Gabon has stirred an existing debate about the impact of coups. Given that competitive elections are associated with improvements in human rights conditions, and coup leaders often promise to reintroduce multiparty democracy, it is plausible that coups could improve political rights and civil liberties. But does this work out in reality? Travis B. Curtice and Daniel Arnon explain the findings of their excellent Working Paper, which provides important insights into these question, and the impact of coups in countries like Gabon.

Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang – commander of the Republican Guard – and a handful of others seized the national radio station and announced that the National Restoration Front was taking control of the government to “restore democracy,” calling for the youth to take to the streets against President Ali Bongo.

The promise of a dislodged autocrat – Ali Bongo – whose family has been in power for just over fifty years, failed to mobilize protesters into the streets of Libreville.

As Monday’s events unfolded into the next day, several coup-plotters were arrested or killed. In the capitol of Libreville, the Internet was cut and people were put under curfew as military tanks patrolled the city. While the regime has stated that the situation is under control and the government and its institutions remain “in place,” this attempted coup raises doubts about the ability of the president to rule the country from his sickbed in Morocco.

The coup-attempt also raises broader concerns about the role of security sector engagement in politics.

Scholars have contended that coups may be a pathway to democracy. Paul Collier even previously called for us to praise coups, writing “the real might lies with a dictator’s own forces of repression. Our best hope — and the best hope of suffering citizens — is to turn those very forces against the men they now protect.”

Given that competitive elections are associated with improvements in physical integrity rights conditions, successful coups could be good news for human rights (Marinov and Goemans 2014).  Yet Derpanopoulos et al. (2016) find coups are likely to result in higher levels of state-sanctioned violence.

In our working paper, we address these two seemingly contradictory bodies of knowledge. On one hand we know coups are marked by violence, sparking cycles of repression and violence (Derpanopoulos et al. 2016).  Yet on the other hand, there is a growing literature linking coups to democratization (Chacha and Powell 2017; Marinov and Goemans 2014; Miller 2016; Powell 2014; Thyne and Powell 2016).

Coups generate political uncertainty about who is in power; in particular, who controls the security apparatus. Understanding social unrest and political violence in post-coup environments requires a theory of why leaders are likely to use repression following a coup.

Rather than focusing on variation within regime types or asking whether coups lead to elections, we examine whether failed and successful coups d’état affect state repression and, if so, to what extent these effects persist over time.

We argue successful and failed coups are a result of elite bargaining failure – often between members of the security apparatus and the ruling coalition. Consequently, coups generate political uncertainty decreasing respect for physical integrity rights, as post-coup regimes employ preemptive repressive tactics to maintain control and deter political challengers.

We suggest two possible mechanisms for why coups decrease respect for physical rights. First, post-coup regimes preemptively repress as a show of strength to deter threats from those excluded from power. Second, post-coup regimes repress to settle scores against known political opponents.

Although regimes are likely to preemtively repress to deter threats and settle scores following both failed and successful coups, we argue that incomplete information about who to target following a failed coup leads to a more persistent retaliation cycle – the period of time regimes employ repression to settle scores. The retaliation cycle will last longer following failed coups because incumbent regimes are less effective at identifying would-be political opponents.

We find coups are not good news for human rights.

To test our theory, we use a global dataset of every observed successful and failed coup from 1975-2015, constructed by Powell and Thyne. For our measure of respect for physical integrity rights, we use several data sources including The Political Terror Scale, the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, and the Latent Human Rights Protection Scores. These data measure a country’s protection of its civilians from actions such as political killings and extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture and beatings, and political imprisonment.

Regardless of which data we use, we find coups – whether they succeed or fail – lead to a decline in respect for physical integrity rights. These results hold even controlling for confounding variables like a state’s level of democracy, judicial independence, wealth and exposure to conflict, violent, and non-violent protests.

Comparing whether coups fail or succeed leads to interesting results over time. As we argue in our paper, only failed coups lead to a persistent and marked decline in respect for physical integrity rights (up to four years after the coup occurred).  Successful coups, on the other hand, only lead to a decline in the year following a coup.

{Datasets: Coups, Human Rights: PTS, CIRI, HR Protection Scores}

Bongo’s regime has thus far successfully thwarted the coup. However, it may lead to a continued crackdown on political opponents within and outside his ruling coalition. Our study suggests yesterday’s coup attempt could have serious implications for cycles of political violence moving forward, including the duration of state repression that is likely to follow.

We hope the recent events lead to accountability and greater respect for human rights in Gabon. Unfortunately, our findings suggest that instead, further repression is more likely. The regime is likely to preemptively repress political opponents who might see this as an opportunity to challenge the regime.


Travis B. Curtice is a PhD Candidate at Emory University. Previously, he was the 2017-2018 Election Monitoring Fellow at the Institute for Developing Nations and The Carter Center. He worked as an election analyst in Kenya, Liberia, and Nepal. His research focuses on the politics of policing and security sector engagement. 

Daniel Arnon is a PhD Candidate at Emory University and a Principal Investigator for the Political Terror Scale. His research focuses on human rights, conflict, and rebel insurgencies. 

One thought on “Do coups improve human rights in countries like Gabon?

  1. Curious whether all coups included were given equal weighting or not in this and other previous papers cited. While it is intuitive that leaders surviving failed coups would trend toward repression of broader scope and longer duration that successful coups, would not successful coups such Spain during Franco and of Uganda during Amin suggest it is less clear?

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