Unraveling the Dynamics of Military Coups in Africa: A Look into the Roles of Generals and Colonels


Editorial Cartoon from NATION.AFRICA

Its Generals, not Colonels who Lead Coups in Africa

Colonel Assimi Goita, current military leader of Mali. Image from PUBLIC DOMAIN
Lt. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya — Image courtesy of Newsline

Before ascertaining the role of Colonels in coups, it is important to understand the military structure in Africa(almost all African countries have the same military structure).

Understanding Military Ranks
  • General — it is the highest military rank in the armed forces. A General is like the CEO of a company. Generals make big decisions, they approve big decisions and disapprove the big decisions. They deal with everything having to do with the whole army.
  • Lieutenant General — the Lt. General operates as a deputy to the General and is also known as a three-star General. The role of a Lt. General is planning operations in fields and in charge of combined arm action
  • Major General — in this role, the Major General is in charge of an army division, i.e. a group of 10,000 to 20,000 who are capable of independent action (combining multiple capabilities e.g. air support, artillery, infantry). Major Generals are also known as two-star Generals.
  • Brigadier — a brigadier is in charge of a brigade that is composed of three to six battalions (between 3,200 to 5,500 soldiers). The main role is to oversee the strategic and tactical planning and monitoring operations of the bridge. The Brigadier is also known as the one-star General.

This marks the end of the ranks who officers who perform planning of field operations — also known as Generals.

  • Colonel — these are officers who form a bridge between the General ranks and being field commanders. It is their role to command combat units and act as a planning officer at the battalion level (300 to 1,000 soldiers). It is the last rank with planning responsibilities.
  • Lieutenant Colonel — this is an assistant Colonel role, sometimes a Lt. Colonel takes up the role of a Colonel or is in charge of a squadron (a group of 300 soldiers).
  • Major —typically command a company which is between 80–250 soldiers depending on the country. Auxilliary roles include being a battalion staff officer.
  • Captain — an officer in charge of a platoon (about 50 soldiers).
  • Lieutenant — this is the first officer’s rank in charge of a squad (4 to 10 soldiers). It is the lowest officers rank. In Kenya, an officer has to serve three to five years to become a lieutenant. The word lieutenant derives from French; the lieu meaning “place” as in a position; tenant meaning “holding” as in “holding a position”, thus a “lieutenant” is a placeholder for a superior.

This is the last rank for officers i.e. commanding power. Below this structure is enlisted men who actually do the fighting, the highest is warrant officer and the lowest is private or corporal. Enlisted men rarely lead coups due to the logistics required save for the case in Kenya where Senior Hezekiah Ochuka led the 1982 coup.

Head of the Niger Presidential Guard, General Tchiany. Image from Twitter/@ZagazOlaMakama

The latest coups in Africa have had generals having a more visible hand, though Colonels seemingly act on the frontline. On July 26, Nigerien presidential guards led by General Tchiany held the President Bazoum and are reportedly still holding him on house arrest pressuring him to resign. In this recent case, it is Col. Major Amadou Abdramane who announced the coup in a televised statement.

Col. Major Amadou Abdramane, center, is shown speaking during a televised statement. Soldiers claimed on July 26, 2023, to have overthrown the government of Niger President Mohamed Bazoum in a statement read out on national television.
-/ORTN – Télé Sahel/AFP via Getty

In Sudan the two generals fighting for control since April were once allies. Now, in 2019, the generals turned on the longtime president, driving him from power during a popular uprising. Since then, the two generals have been the most powerful men in the country, but their partnership became strained. It broke down, and this ignited the fighting we’ve seen in the capital, Khartoum.

Sudan Military Assistant Commander-in-Chief General Yasir Alatta who recently dared Kenya’s President Ruto to intervene in Khartoum conflict. Image from PUBLIC DOMAIN

One of them is General Abdel-Fattah Burhan. He’s the commander of the military, which, in effect, means he’s been the leader or co-leader of Sudan for the past few years. His now-rival is General Mohamed Dagalo. He’s widely known as Hemedti. He heads a powerful paramilitary group that’s also part of the government security forces.

What Does the Data Say?

Systemic Peace, a research organization collected data on coups in Africa between 1946 and 2010. In order for a coup to be successful, coup leaders must seize and hold central authority for at least one week to be considered a “successful” coup d’etat. The names of coup “leaders” listed are those named in reports, accusations, and/or subsequent trials. From the data captured by Systemic Peace, herein is the distribution of coup leaders:

You will notice that General has the highest frequency — in this case, any rank from Brigadier is referred to as General. If we were to combine the rank of Colonel and Lt. Colonel then the number is comparable to Generals. However, there’s an interesting theory provided by Prof. Jonathan Powell — he states that military coups are usually orchestrated by Generals and executed by Colonels and other officers. When the coups fail the blame is heaved to junior officers while being instigated by Generals.

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