The Impact of Culture on African Coup D'etat, 1960-1997

By Henderson, Errol A. | World Affairs, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Culture on African Coup D'etat, 1960-1997


Henderson, Errol A., World Affairs


It is often assumed that cultural variables are at the heart of intrastate violence in Africa. This widespread belief is accentuated by recent conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi, and Liberia where interethnic antagonisms have fueled coups d'etat, massacres, civil wars, and even genocide. Some scholars assert that states with high levels of ethnic homogeneity, ceteris paribus, are more likely to experience coups (Jackman 1978, Lunde 1991), while others insist that political and economic factors are more important (Johnson, Slater, and McGowan 1984). In this article, I assess the relative impact of cultural, economic, and political factors on the frequency of coups d'etat in Africa for the period 1960-97, nesting the study in the broader analysis of intrastate conflict in that continent. In the first section, I outline the role of cultural variables in the process of state building, nation building, and economic development. Following that, I review the literature on the correlates of African coups and then conduct an empirical analysis to determine the capacity of the relevant factors to account for the incidence of coups. I then briefly discuss the findings and their implications for further study. However, because culture is afforded such a prominent place in studies of conflict in Africa, I will begin by briefly discussing the manner by which it often violently fuses with politics and economics within African states.

THE IMPACT OF CULTURAL VARIABLES IN INSTABILITY

It is widely assumed that conflict in postwar Africa is largely a function of rifts between culturally dissimilar groups arbitrarily bound together in single juridical entities--postcolonial territorial states. The process of decolonization in Africa witnessed the creation of more independent states than in any other continent over the postwar period. Elites in these juridical states have great difficulty consolidating a truly "national" consensus, due largely, it is assumed, to the competing culture-based groups within their domain. Historically, attempts to consolidate groups under one central government have been associated with increased levels of violence (Tilly 1975; Cohen, Brown, and Organski 1981; Maoz 1989). New states in Africa often faced the challenge not only of building the institutional apparatus of the state, but of simultaneously constructing a national identity among disparate cultural groups (with exceptions such as ethnically homogeneous Somalia). Often, most of these states had not established sufficient institutional bases, such as effective political parties and efficient state bureaucracies, to successfully coordinate the mobilized interests of their populations. In such poorly institutionalized states, culture is often the primary criterion for political association.

In Africa, political parties can become the breeding ground for intercultural conflict, as the political enterprise becomes a competition among cultural interest groups. This competition puts added pressure on elites within fragile political unions. Within culturally plural societies, the pressures are often exacerbated by group leaders whose mobilization of support centers on appeals to "identity issues" and "communal interests." As cultural boundaries begin to reflect and define political participation, fissures in the fragile state system fracture, and unless more integrative institutions of the state exert a countervailing pressure, the result is too often intercultural conflict that may spawn coups d'etat, secession, irredentism, or civil war.

The mutually violent processes of state building and nation building are even further complicated by the requirements of economic development. Economic growth provides an important resin for the political and cultural aspects of development. Empirical studies have linked cultural variables with economic growth in developing states (Glahe and Vorhies 1989, Abrams and Lewis 1995); however, economic development, which appears to reduce violence in the long term, can exacerbate tensions in the short term. …

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