#Reviewing Seizing Power

Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. Naunihal Singh. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

Naunihal Singh’s Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups examines a subject that is still largely undertheorized: the differentiation of successful coups from unsuccessful coups. The author makes a compelling argument that communication and coordination among security forces is critical to the tactical success of a coup. This is because it is difficult for actors on the ground to ascertain whether a coup in progress has a chance of being successful and supremely dangerous to choose the wrong side. Therefore, the premise of the book is that the success of a coup is dependent upon coordination among security forces. Although this may appear to be an obvious point of departure, such an analysis has not been systematically applied to the study of military coups.

What distinguishes Singh’s position is that he argues military coups are best analyzed as coordination games rather than as the functional equivalent of elections or battles. In support of this argument, Singh presents three layers of evidence. In Chapter Two, he introduces a game-theoretic analysis, using the battle of the sexes game to examine the impact of strategic thinking on coup success within various structural constraints. In Chapter Three, Singh investigates the topic statistically, and finds a significant correlation between his proxies for the importance of military coordination and the likelihood of a coup. But the bulk of the book consists of a series of in-depth case studies. Chapters Four through Six present in-depth case studies of successful and unsuccessful Ghanaian coups, based on the author’s field work.

Importantly, Singh does not treat the military as a unified corporate entity. He distinguishes coup dynamics on the basis of three institutional levels: the elite command, the middle ranks, and the lower ranks. In the case study analyses, Singh elaborates on the different strategic options that are available to military personnel at these different levels and offers a rich collection of illustrations for each. Finally, in Chapter Seven, Singh also includes the least-likely case of the August 1991 failed coup-attempt in the Soviet Union, which, though it precipitated the collapse in December of the same year, was unsuccessful despite the fact that all the high-level officers supported it.

In addition to presenting a new and important model for coup success, Singh’s hypothesis helps explain two phenomena commonly associated with coups. The first is that coups are rarely bloody. To the contrary, they are generally won with relatively little force and involve few casualties. From his extensive interviews, Singh offers the interesting finding that this is so because officers are unwilling to sacrifice their subordinates to a lost cause. His respondents explain that military leaders are generally reluctant to place their soldiers in unnecessary danger or to engage in a fratricidal firefight.[1]

The second truism about coups is that a critical target of most coup makers, if not the first, is the capture of radio and communications centers. Singh makes the case that this occurs because of the imperative of gaining an upper hand over the distribution of information as quickly as possible to ensure the bulk of the armed forces are on board with the seizure of power.[2]

Thus, the study contributes greatly to our understanding of coup-politics, offers a parsimonious analytic model, and presents well written case studies filled with interesting details. However, there are some weaknesses in the work. One is the enormous emphasis Singh places on the importance of the control of information to coup success. This would suggest that coup-attempts are most likely to succeed when coup-plotters are able to control the national media. In point of fact, several coups have failed in spite of the ability of the plotters to gain control over the national broadcasting systems. This was the case in the failed coup-attempt against Turkish President Erdogan in 2016, during which soldiers were able to take over the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), CNN Turk, as well as the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Gazetesi.

Weapons and unifroms abandoned during the failed coup-attempt against Turkish President Erdogan in 2016. (Getty Images)

In fairness, Singh argues that what is critical is not just command over the dissemination of information but also the quality of the message itself. He presents as an illustration of this the case of Hugo Chavez’ coup-attempt against the Perez government, which had widespread support but failed because the coup-makers conveyed a garbled message.[3] His analysis of the failed Soviet coup also serves as a case in point. But there are some places in which the evidence is less compelling. For example, Singh tells us that the 1967 coup-attempt against the Ghanaian National Liberation Council (NLC) came close to succeeding because the conspirators were able to gain control over messaging and create a “fog of coup,” discouraging high level officers from opposing the coup.[4] However, according to Singh’s own analysis, the coup unraveled when the coup-plotters were confronted with mid-level officers loyal to the government who put them under arrest. What this example seems to show is that military loyalty trumped coordination and messaging. It is therefore odd that Singh uses this as an example of the utility of his theory.

Similarly, in his regression analysis, Singh argues that the fact that lower level coups are highly correlated with coup failure also supports his case for the importance of coordination. The logic offered is that a large number of previous coups would make suspect the plotters’ ability to carry through their impending take-over. This, Singh argues, is effectively the same as failed messaging, because it negatively impacts how military personnel read the probable success of the insurrection and therefore lowers the chance that the conspirators will gain the support they need to carry off the operation.[5] Yet, this argument is not entirely convincing. With a new individual at the helm of a coup-attempt, particularly one who commands the respect of the armed forces, it is just as likely previous coup failures would not enter into the calculus at all, former failures being easily ascribed to the weaknesses or incompetence of the earlier plotters.

Even if messaging is critical to coup success, it is not clear that some of the other factors Singh investigates are not logically prior to it. Thus, the capacity for coup-makers to promulgate a successful message—or even gain access to broadcast media in the first place—might be contingent upon the population’s, or military’s, recognition of the illegitimacy of the regime. Conversely, the inability of coup-makers to make a compelling case for their coup attempt might be because of the regime’s popularity. This was arguably the case for several of the failed coups that were launched against the Ghanaian military junta of Jerry Rawlings in its early years—cases Singh does not examine.

Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings led Ghana’s Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) made of young military officers, in a coup d'état on June 4, 1979, that saw the overthrow of the Supreme Military Council (SMC II), another military regime led by General Fred Akuffo. (MyJoyOnline)

Finally, Singh’s choice of the autogolpe or self-coup of 1975 in Ghana as his first case study is unusual. This is an odd choice because it is not generally counted as a coup in the literature—and for good reason. Acheampong’s 1975 purge of mid-level officers and his centralization of power is typical of non-democratic leaders. Nearly all autocratic regimes follow such tactics, both in terms of re-ordering the military hierarchy and removing civilian leaders from office. Were we to include purges as a species of coup, it would arguably undermine the analytic utility of the category coup altogether. Furthermore, it is easy to show an autogolpe is neither a coup-by-battle nor a coup-as-election, offering only nominal evidence for his theory. Why then choose this self-coup?

These critiques notwithstanding, Singh makes a singular contribution to the study of coup politics. Whether the evidence unequivocally proves the theory is rather beside the point. The granular description of the coups studied is fascinating and will serve as a valuable reference for future scholars. Indeed, Singh presents valuable information about coup-plotters strategic choices rarely covered in the literature. Moreover, his analysis of the failed Soviet coup—a case which presents an interesting puzzle because the top military supported the coup and yet it did not succeed—is compelling. Taken as a whole, this work offers a critical means to analyze coup success and introduces a layer of analysis that has been greatly needed. Above all his work underscores the need for scholars to work harder at differentiating between the motivation behind a coup and the probability of its tactical success.

Beth Rabinowitz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and the author of Coups, Rivals and the Modern State: Why Rural Coalitions Matter in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Header Image: President Ali Bongo is paraded before the military in Gabon in 2017. The Gabon coup in 2017 was not successfully because it was planned by junior officers. (The New Daily)


[1] Naunihal Singh, Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 6.

[2] Ibid., 7-8.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Ibid., 125.

[5] Ibid., 68-74.