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Seizing Power

The Strategic Logic of Military Coups

Naunihal Singh

Publication Year: 2014

While coups drive a majority of regime changes and are responsible for the overthrow of many democratic governments, there has been very little empirical work on the subject. Seizing Power develops a new theory of coup dynamics and outcomes, drawing upon 300 hours of interviews with coup participants and an original dataset of 471 coup attempts worldwide from 1950 to 2000. Naunihal Singh delivers a concise and empirical evaluation, arguing that understanding the dynamics of military factions is essential to predicting the success or failure of coups. Singh draws on an aspect of game theory known as a coordination game to explain coup dynamics. He finds a strong correlation between successful coups and the ability of military actors to project control and the inevitability of success. Using Ghana’s multiple coups as well as the 1991 coup attempt in the USSR, Singh shows how military actors project an image of impending victory that is often more powerful than the reality on the ground. Singh tests his coordination theory by analyzing ten coups in Ghana from 1967 to 1981. In the process he identifies three distinct points of origination: coups from top military offices, coups from the middle ranks, and mutinous coups from low-level soldiers. Singh’s theory will provide scholars with insight into the dynamics of authoritarian regimes, democratic transitions, and political instability. Seizing Power will appeal to scholars and students of civil-military relations, democracy transition studies, and the politics of Africa.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. v-vi

Figures and Tables

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Thanks are due first to my advisors, the intellectual godfathers of this book, Robert Bates, Jorge Dominguez, Bear Braumoeller, and Samuel Huntington. To this number should be added a fifth, Adam Brandenburger, who served as the unofficial advisor for the game theoretic parts of the argument.
This book would not have been written without the...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-14

In 1991, in a last-ditch effort to save the Soviet Union from dissolution, a coalition of the top military and civilian leaders in the country tried to seize power from Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The conspirators included every major official in the state apparatus except the premier himself, including the defense minister, interior minister, KGB chief, the prime minister, the secretary of the central committee, and...

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2. Theory

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pp. 15-40

Although there is little scholarship on the topic of this book, two arguments are present, implicitly and explicitly, in writing on civil-military relations that can explain the dynamics and outcomes of coup attempts. The first of these explanations claims that coup attempts are like battles, miniature invasions of the country by its own armed forces whose outcomes are determined by tactical dominance. This...

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3. Counting Coups

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pp. 41-78

This chapter statistically evaluates the three posited theories of coup outcomes using data from an original dataset covering all identifiable coup attempts and their outcomes across the world between 1950 and 2000, the most extensive data collected on coups to date.1
The chapter first examines what these data reveal about when coups are attempted. This was done to test the claim of the coups-as-elections...

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4. Coups from the Top of the Military

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pp. 79-107

Coups from the top ranks of the armed forces are distinctive in that conspirators at that level have the greatest amount of “soft power.” Because of their position at the apex of the military, senior officers have prerogatives that enable them to gather information about what is happening within the armed forces, to preferentially disseminate information favorable to their point of view and, most important, to...

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5. Coups from the Middle

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pp. 108-147

Coup attempts from the middle are organized and mounted by officers in direct command of fighting units, such as battalions, regiments, and brigades. Such units are large enough to move on their own (unlike a company, which may need outside transportation) but still small enough that the entire unit can fall under the direct command of one officer (unlike a division). These groups also tend to be cohesive, as...

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6. Coups from the Bottom

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pp. 148-194

The final category is coups from the bottom of the military hierarchy, which encompasses coup attempts organized by enlisted men, non-commissioned officers, or very junior officers. These can be considered mutinies with objectives that go beyond better pay and working conditions to explicitly aim at overthrowing the government. This type of coup attempt is the least likely to succeed, as the challengers...

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7. USSR, 1991: Three Days That Changed the World

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pp. 195-221

The 1991 Soviet coup attempt was arguably the most important coup attempt of the twentieth century. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was one of the world’s two superpowers, geographically larger by far than any other country, and in possession of the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world. At stake in this coup attempt was not just control over one of the most powerful political entities in the world...

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8. Conclusion

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pp. 222-230

In this book I have argued that coup attempts are best understood as resembling coordination games rather than battles or elections. During a coup attempt, each actor wants to be on the same side as everybody else, both to prevent a deep split from developing within the military and to avoid the punishment associated with supporting the loser. This imperative to coordinate creates a point of leverage for both the...

Appendix: Description of Variables Used in Analyses

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pp. 231-234


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pp. 235-246


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pp. 247-252

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413372
E-ISBN-10: 142141337X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413365
Print-ISBN-10: 1421413361

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 6 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2014