Coup predictions: Africa doesn't look as volatile as you might think

Recent coups in Mali and Guinea-Bissau don't amount to a big continental shift, according to a new statistical analysis.

Aliou Sissoko/AP
Volunteers load a truck with medical supplies for a humanitarian shipment funded by Malian donations and destined for rebel-controlled Timbuktu and Gao, in the capital, Bamako, Mali, Friday, April 13.

In the office the other day, after reading about the coup in Guinea-Bissau, I wondered what two African coups in March and April (the first being Mali) meant. There's been a lot of research and reporting in recent years pointing out that the period of terrible conflict in Africa that followed the end of the cold war was well behind us and that regional states were handling differences far more often at the ballot box, with regional militaries largely back to barracks when it came to domestic politics.

It turns out, there's very little to worry about so far, at least according to Jay Ulfelder, who writes at his fascinating blog "Dart-throwing Chimp." Mr. Ulfelder is a political scientist with a focus on the quantitative side, using statistical analysis to try to forecast trends in everything from famine to conflict. While I'm generally in the camp that sees modern political scientists as far too focused on math, at the expense of considering culture and psychology, I've enjoyed browsing his blog in the days since I discovered it.

In a post last week, he addressed my musing head on: "Has African Gone Coup-Crazy in 2012?" The short answer is a clear "no." In his post, he has a chart that measures the frequency of coups in Africa. The details of the statistical tools are laid out on his blog. The takeway is that Africa has had three distinct coup spikes. "In the mid-1960s, a few years after the start of decolonization; another in the early 1990s, after the end of the cold war; and a third in the late 1990s, when the rate of coups in the region takes a sharp dip. Meanwhile, the pair of events observed so far in 2012 looks perfectly normal, just about average for the past decade and still well below the recent peak of six events in 2008."

To be sure, there could well be more coups this year. It's just that it would take at least a half a dozen to push Africa out of its recent statistical range.

I first came across Ulfelder's blog when someone posted his January article "Assessing Coup Risk in 2012." He made the calculation that runs a algorithm with four "risk factors": infant mortality rate, degree of democracy, recent coup activity, and the stability of a country since the end of the cold war.

Of his top ten most at risk countries (he provides a chart of the 40 most "at risk" countries, in his estimation) eight are in Africa, with Guinea-Bissau at No. 2, and Mali at 10. Niger, which has some similarities with Mali (a restive Tuareg population and a history of entanglement with Muammar Qaddafi's Libya) is number one. Rounding out the list in order are Chad, Guinea, Madagascar, Congo, Mauritania, Bangladesh, and the Central African Republic. Sudan is No. 11, with practically the same score as Mali.

His assessment of risk isn't a prediction that a coup is highly likely in a given country in a given year, just of danger. As he writes: "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)." 

And remember, "coup" and "uprising" are not the same thing, as is the case of Syria, which didn't crack his top 40.

"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."

I've really enjoyed poking about in his blog archives and highly recommend giving Dart-Throwing Chimp a look.

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