Thursday’s coup in Niger is the fifth successful putsch in Africa since 2008, after a decade in which military takeovers had become less common. The African Union, which was founded in 2002, forbade coup leaders from becoming members. “Coups went out of fashion,” says Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society. “There were leaders like Obasanjo and Mbeki who could have a word with anyone contemplating it and say ‘don’t try it’. There is nobody who is leading Africa now. The rules have been bent a bit now.”
The recent rebellions, plus a handful of failures, provide a useful blueprint to any potential coup plotter.
Know where you are going.
A Darfur rebel group that tried to oust Omar al-Bashir in 2008 drove more than 1,000 miles across the desert to Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum on the opposite side of the Nile. Only then did they realise they didn’t know where the presidential palace was. They stopped and asked for directions, giving the Sudanese army time to regroup and prevent them crossing the bridge.
Don’t tell too many people beforehand.
Simon Mann’s notorious 2004 ‘Wonga Coup’ in Equatorial Guinea failed to get off the ground partly because they couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Several national intelligence agencies were fully aware of what was about to happen.
Get neighbouring countries to help.
Sudan and Chad have been supporting each other’s rebel groups for more than a decade. Laurent Kabila, who ousted Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, was backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Be careful though. Once Kabila was in power his one-time friends decided to stick around and help themselves to Congo’s minerals, which led to a new, even deadlier war.
Take control of the TV and radio stations.
Play cartoons or old films until you are ready to address the nation. In Niger the coup leaders opted for military music on the radio and live wrestling on television.
Make friends with the foreign investors.
China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has a $5bn (€3.7bn) deal to pump oil out of Niger, while French company Areva is spending $1.5bn on a new uranium mine. A smart coup leader will be calling their chief executives and reassuring them their assets are safe, thus preventing too much of an international outcry.
Oust an unpopular president.
Niger’s coup leaders have an advantage. The man they deposed, Mamadou Tandja, had recently forced through constitutional changes to allow him to remain in power. More than 10,000 people joined a street protest earlier this month. The coup appears to be well supported and there is a hope that, oddly, it might lead to a return to democracy.
Tell the world there will be elections soon – and that you won’t stand.
You can change your mind – about either – at a later date. But in the initial days you need to reassure the international community that you really are doing this for the good of the country.
Make sure no one tries to do the same to you.
Moussa Dadis Camara, the junior officer who took power in Guinea last year, slept during the day and worked at night because, he said, “that’s when coups happen.” Staying up all night didn’t help, though. After 157 peaceful demonstrators were killed by Dadis’s presidential guard he tried to pin the blame on his aide-de-camp Aboubacar Diakite, who responded by shooting his boss in the head. Dadis was not killed but had to be flown abroad and cede power.
Work out what the old colonial power will do.
Chadian rebels almost ousted Idriss Deby (himself a successful coup leader in 1990) in February 2008. France, which has several thousand troops in Chad, eventually came to Deby’s rescue and defeated the rebels.
Ensure you have a popular leader. Madagascar’s Andreiy Rajolina was the well-liked mayor of the capital, Antananorivo. He led weeks of protests against president Marc Ravalomanana, which led to an eventual coup in March last year.
Employ someone who has done it before. French mercenary Bob Denard took part in more than a dozen coup attempts from Yemen to Benin, including several in the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros.
Read a good thriller. Mann’s coup attempt was remarkably similar to the plot of Frederick Forsyth’s Dogs of War. That’s not so surprising – Mann had read it.