How Ghana escaped the coup trap
Lessons in political development
I: It is possible to escape coup traps
The recent spate of coups in the Sahel are a reminder that coups beget coups. All else equal, a history of coup incidents is often the best predictor of any given country’s latent coup risk. This truism explains “coup traps”, whereby successful coups are followed by persistent politicization of (interventionist) militaries and generalized political decay. Importantly, not all countries that experience coups get stuck in coup traps. Those that do typically have larger structural problems.
Coup traps were a major part of West Africa’s political history for much of the period between 1960-2000 — and continue to hang like a cloud over their processes of political development. It is striking that among the West African countries with histories of coups, Ghana is the only one that appears to have definitively escaped the coup trap and fully civilianized it’s politics.
Despite its idiosyncrasies, Ghana’s experience offers important lessons on how to escape coup traps. After its last coup in 1981, the country experienced a decade-long sustained institutionalization of politics through (violent) consolidation of elite consensus on orderly political competition and controlled re-introduction of institutionalized mass politics. Institutionalization of politics, in turn, facilitated the depoliticization of the military.
Other countries in the region with coup histories have also largely demilitarized their politics, albeit not to Ghana’s level of success. Overall, I would rank West African countries in bins (see table above) in increasing coup risk. Most countries in the region are in the negligible to moderately low range — which is a remarkable achievement. Absent any major shocks, I expect that time will enable most of the countries with low coup risk to gradually move leftward in the table.
The five countries with the elevated coup risk will have a much harder time demilitarizing their politics. The core drivers of their coup risk — serious security-related threats; relatively over-developed security sectors; lack of sufficient resources to fight wars, coup-proof, and conduct clientelistic politics; and exposure to global geopolitical manipulations — will likely not abate any time soon.
As outlined below, Ghana’s experience is a reminder that there are no shortcuts out of coup traps. The processes of consolidating elite consensus on civilian rule, institutionalizing mass politics, and depoliticizing the military all take time.
Unfortunately, time is not a luxury that coup-prone West African countries have. Mass demand for electoral politics and associated norms against military rule are already baked in, making it hard to justify a military-led process of political development. Furthermore, since 2002 the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) adopted a policy against coups (as a deterrence). Administrations that come to power via coups have been forced to commit to strict timelines for return to civilian rule; and remain suspended as members until they do so. Consequently, between 1990-2012 post-coup regime duration almost halved after the AU instituted the policy (see below).
The AU policy against coups was long overdue and is a great example of institutionalized norm entrepreneurship. However, it is most potent as a deterrence. Countries that experience repeated coups in short order despite the policy reveal their type — i.e., wracked by significant structural factors that increase coup risk — and should perhaps be given special attention. Early postcolonial coups were driven by, among other things, the basic problem of cobbling together young states. Most countries eventually outgrew their initially elevated levels of elite political instability. Countries that have yet to outgrow this challenge are of a different type.
It is not obvious that such countries can realistically transition out of their coup traps within the strict AU timelines without significant long-term support (including economic assistance and militarized coup-proofing). In other words, it is worth seriously pondering the fact that merely forcing a time-bound return to “constitutional order” under elected leaders and hoping for a spontaneous escape out of coup traps might not work for countries with elevated coup risk in the current era.
II: How Ghana escaped the coup trap
Between 1961 and 1985 Ghana experienced a total of 17 coup incidents (5 successful coups, 5 attempted coups, and 7 documented conspiracies). When the last military ruler, Jerry Rawlings seized power in 1981 (two years after his first successful coup), it was not clear whether it would be the last one. Indeed, Rawlings went on to face three attempted coups and four conspiracies. Yet by the end of 1985, Rawlings, the self-described revolutionary, had consolidated power and began to institutionalize political participation, expertly coup-proof, and moderate his politics and policies. He then went on to preside over the evolutionary civilianization of Ghanaian politics culminating in the re-introduction of multiparty electoralism in 1992.
How did Rawlings and Ghana do it? Before diving in, it is worth noting two important background conditions that were at play. First, it helped that Rawlings’ main opposition, the Ashanti establishment and successor political formations to the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), were strong and well-organized — a fact that undoubtedly disciplined Rawlings, forced him to be a responsive military ruler, tempered factional politics within his administration, and gave him an easy foil to rail against in his erratic “house cleaning” efforts against kalabule and other vices.
Second, Rawlings rose to power with organized factions in his corner that helped channel debates and enable the organization of popular involvement under the military regime. The June (1979) Fourth Movement (JFM) and the New Democratic Movement (NDM), in particular, were important internal sources of criticism and incentives for populist mobilization for the regime. The JFM advocated for a Bolshevist revolutionary party and dominated the PNDC (57%), while NDM advocated for moderate evolution towards socialism. The JFM/NDM factional politics most likely shaped the behavior of Rawlings’ opponents — especially after regime radicals murdered three supreme court justices in 1982. The specter of someone worse than Rawlings likely helped cool minds. Overall, organized factional politics bought Rawlings time to consolidate his rule and served as a screening mechanism for letting would-be challengers reveal their type well in advance of their moves.
The point here is that military regimes that do not face strong and organized opposition typically fall to the temptation of avoiding costly investments in real populist/popular political mobilization in the manner that Rawlings and the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) did. Such regimes quickly devolve into chaotic personalist rule, thereby attracting ever more (palace) coups. In the same vein, lack of internal organizational means of channeling competition, debate, and dissent leaves fledgling military regimes open to swift counter-coups and denies them the ability to invest in mass-based sources of legitimacy.
These background conditions notwithstanding, Ghana’s last military dictatorship (1981-1993) offers important generalizable lessons for other contexts. While a lot of factors mattered, four important ones stand out:
Rawlings institutionalized popular participation as a means of rejuvenating Ghanaian political life; and sought to make a clean break with the past.
The process of consolidating Rawlings’ military rule was violent. After his first coup in 1979, he had eight senior military officers (including three former heads of state) executed by firing squad. When he came back to power in 1981 many more more were subjected to capital punishment or harsh sentences by “People’s Tribunals” across the country (“house cleaning exercises”). The cases targeted establishment elites and businesspeople suspected of corruption, hoarding essential goods, and other crimes. According to Ghana’s National Reconciliation Commission, more than 67% of all atrocities reported atrocities (1957-2003) were attributed to the PNDC (see below).
Amidst the violence, the post-1981 revolutionary mobilization under PNDC also activated important civilian constituencies (students, unions, farmers, etc) that had long exited politics under previous dictatorships. Importantly, the popular mobilization was institutionalized. The People’s/Workers’ Defense Committees (PDCs/WDCs) were not merely window-dressing. They could originate policies at variance with the PNDC’s preferences (Rothchild and Gyimah-Boadi, 1989). Indeed, their independence led to their replacement in 1984 PDCs/WDCs by Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) which were designed to be loyal to the PNDC.
Finally, between 1984-88 the National Commission for Democracy (NCD) examined how to introduce electoral participation, leading to the rejuvenation of elected subnational governments (with chiefs comprising 30% of district assemblies) after 1988. The rejuvenation of decentralization helped deflect political pressure from Rawlings and the PNDC to local assemblies, in addition to coopting chiefs.
The institutionalization of the political mobilization proved useful when, in 1983, Ghana face three major crises. The failure of the rains caused a harsh drought, the economy was in free fall, and Nigeria expelled 1.2 million Ghanaians. Amidst the crises, the PDCs/WDCs provided organized outlets for Ghanaians to feel like they were in charge of providing solutions, while also deflecting blame from the central PNDC. The populist mobilization model enabled the absorption of returnees (9% of Ghana’s population) without precipitating a humanitarian catastrophe. The returnees were resettled in their rural home areas where Rawlings initiated Mobilization Squads (mobisquads) composed of young returnees recruited for community welfare and an assortment of development projects. This was both good policy and good politics:
By providing rural employment, the Mobisquads helped further the PNDC’s agenda to rehabilitate the countryside and to reverse rural-urban drift. Their establishment also cemented political support for the regime in the rural areas.
The PNDC eschewed populist politics as an end in itself, and was willing to moderate its politics and policies (including mobilization of a section of establishment elites to support the regime)
Like all self-respecting revolutionary organizations, the PNDC had splitters. The split came in 1982 when it emerged that Rawlings was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for an economic reform program (ERP), a structural adjustment program (SAP). JFM leaders openly revolted against Rawlings and conspired to remove him from office multiple times. Rawlings reacted by purging the PNDC of the dissenters and reining in the WDCs/PDCs that had become sites of JFM ideological indoctrination.
Having weathered the storm, Rawlings pushed ahead with painful, albeit gradual, economic reforms that alienated the PNDC’s Leftist core base of students and workers (see here and here). The reforms, by and large, reduced economic volatility in Ghana (see above). Being a good politician, Rawlings knew to provide chasers to the bitter reform medicine. As he cut budgets and jobs (workers were “redeployed to rural areas) and devalued the cedi, he also initiated programs like the Program of Action to Mitigate the Social Costs of Adjustment (PAMSCAD); courted rural constituencies and their elites (chiefs); and ensured that the marginalized north (which was both a JFM base and overrepresented in the military — 67% at independence) and parts of the country outside the Ashanti core got development projects. These regions would later comprise the core base of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), PNDC’s successor, after 1992. Rawlings’ rural strategy was also good economics that boosted rural economic output (see below) and increased commodity exports after 1985 (no doubt helped by the good rains of 1984).
Finally, Rawlings was not a gratuitously radical ideologue. He was willing to moderate both his populist economics and revolutionary anti-imperialist politics. He did not let his administration become a geopolitical pawn, even as he moved Ghana closer to Cuba and Libya. When he discovered a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) cell in 1984 he promptly expelled American embassy officials and upped his criticism of Western imperialism. However, his geopolitical posturing did not erode his fidelity to domestic facts on the ground. He stayed the course on economic reforms and continued working with the IMF and the World Bank. But even as he did so he wasn’t a naive believer in foreign-led magical solutions. Ghana’s economic reforms were as gradual as possible in order not to jeopardize political stability.
Mechanisms of coup-proofing adopted by PNDC did not de-institutionalize the state or the military.
PNDC’s long tenure was not guaranteed. Coup risk is highest among military regimes. Consequently, Rawlings had to actively coup proof. Yet instead of adopting the usual tactics of de-institutionalizing the military, creating competing paramilitary organizations (see below), or devolving into regime-endangering personalist rule, Rawlings opted not to create personalized counterbalances to the military (Nkrumah was deposed partially for trying to do this). Instead, he used standard state surveillance resources and relied heavily on cultivating popular support for the PNDC regime and keeping the rank and file in the military onside. Importantly, coup-proofing through institutionalization of politics (mass mobilization, establishment of local government, responsive economic management, and cooptation of chiefs) contributed to the gradual depoliticization of the military throughout the late 1980s.
The PNDC depoliticized the military before the transition to civilian rule.
Ghana’s military dictatorship civilianized on its own terms. By the time the PNDC morphed into the NDC to contest the 1992 elections, both the institution and Rawlings had significantly civilianized. Counterfactuals are always difficult to nail down, but it is very likely that Ghana’s successful return to stable multiparty electoralism was partially aided by the fact that the PNDC and Rawlings succeeded themselves after writing a new constitution. Winning the 1992 and 1996 elections bought the military even more time for depoliticization. It is telling that when the stress test came after the NDC lost the 2000 election the military refused to intervene on behalf of the party, enabling the New Patriotic Party (NPP) to ascend to power.
III: Conclusion (tough lessons for Sahelian states)
The case of Ghana provides some tough lessons for the five Sahelian states with elevated coup risk. Time is not on their side — they face enormous domestic and international pressure to embrace mass electoralism immediately. They lack any obvious prospects for economic turnaround as a basis of building popular support, accumulating resources to pay for intra-elite consensus, and coup-proofing (due to their colonial history, they are likely to coup proof through costly counterbalancing). The region is also a geopolitical flashpoint and will continue to attract meddling global powers — robbing them of the ability to evolve a coherent intra-elite consensus on stable politics and patterns of coup proofing. Finally, Sahelian states face protracted conflicts that make it difficult to depoliticize their militaries. The training and resources needed for effective counterinsurgency far outstrip the ability of their civil societies and political institutions to provide effective civilian control.
To be blunt, as long as the above factors are in play it will be very difficult to fully civilianize politics in these states — at least not by adhering to the standard mainstream prescriptions. Recall that constraining executives/militaries during wartime is a common problem even in countries with far more institutionalized civilian control.
Of course, it would be equally naive to tell Sahelian states to just be like Ghana under the PNDC. The best way forward would be for those who seek to civilianize politics in the Sahel to realize that their efforts must involve a serious multi-pronged approach. The arduous processes of state-building and national-building cannot be avoided. Citizens’ material conditions must be improved. There is no hope in trying to leapfrog real and institutionalized popular mobilization. Professionalization of militaries will not work as long as conflicts that aggrandize and fractionalize militaries persist. Achieving meaningful sovereignty and guarding against nefarious foreign meddling are preconditions for creating an environment in which to cultivate durable elite consensus on legitimate political conduct and against coups.
And above all, time is a much-needed resource. Everything that needs to be done to escape coup traps requires time.