The recent coup in Niger, carried out by President Mohamed Bazoum’s own bodyguards, has attracted attention to a neglected region of Africa. Since August 2020, six African nations have suffered seven coups or attempted coups — all in the Sahel. This has created a belt of military dictatorships across the sub-Sahara. Yet palace coups are not an issue confined to Africa. Throughout history rulers and politicians have faced threats from individuals and factions within the very institutions that are intended to protect them and enforce their rule.
One of countless examples: the Byzantine Emperor Michael III was overthrown by the commander of his bodyguards, who became Basil I. According to legend, the coup was due to Michael’s attempt to force Basil to take the Emperor’s own mistress as his wife, thereby making him a cuckold.
After the Ottomans replaced the Byzantines in Constantinople, the Sultan’s bodyguards were known as the Janissaries. Their demands for payment became insatiable, and they became infamous for their role in overthrowing the Sultans they served, creating a series of succession crises.
But by far the most notorious example of this kind of palace coup have been the Praetorian Guard. The elite bodyguard of the Roman emperors ended up assassinating more of their patrons than they protected — at one point offering to sell the throne to the highest bidder. By the time Constantine came to power in the fourth century, their reputation was so poor that he dissolved the guard. Ever since, bodyguards and similar elite forces continue to be colloquially known as “Praetorians”.
Whether for vengeance or political and financial reward, the threat of coups from the state’s agents, entrusted with the “monopoly of violence”, has continued to manifest itself in both unstable states and those previously thought secure. Understanding this “Praetorian problem” and the methods by which states have traditionally coped with it is not just an academic exercise. Such coups can create long-lasting effects that poison environments before, during, and after conflicts. The current war between factions in Sudan or the sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria are all consequences of efforts by Omar al-Bashir, Saddam Hussein and the Assad clan respectively to escape the problem. Historical parallels are not perfect methods for analysing the present. But they can provide insight that can benefit stemming this ongoing undemocratic tide, as well as stabilisation efforts moving forward.
There have been three main methods that political leaders have used to stem the possibility of being betrayed by their instruments of the monopoly of violence: utilising different, unconnected, nationalities; the creation of parallel structures outside the traditional agents of violence; and cults of personality. Each has its own flaws.
Some rulers have employed bodyguards or agents comprised of outsiders or different nationalities. Their logic is that with no local connections or familial links, these outsiders couldn’t have conflicting loyalties and would remain loyal to their original benefactor. It was this logic that led the Byzantine emperors to employ Norse and Germanic soldiers to form the Varangian Guard. Likewise, knowing his family’s reputation for squabbling and betrayal, the Ayyubid Sultan al-Adil once remarked that one mamluk – a caste of slave soldiers serving as the royal bodyguard and shock troops – was “worth more than a thousand sons”.
But even this wasn’t foolproof. The very same slave soldiers that al-Adil commended would later overthrow his descendants to establish their own junta, while the Norsemen recruited by the Byzantine emperors into the Varangian guard would later participate in their own share of coups. The cause of this is simple. The longer these groups remain engaged within the country of their employers, the more likely that they will become embedded and in doing so develop their own political and financial agendas. At best this creates significant dysfunction within the political system: the hatred of “foreigners” may act as a driver of conflict or, at worst, can lead to state capture. For example, the Wagner Group’s business model in Mali has reignited old conflicts with the Tuaregs in the North. It now exerts significant control within the Central African Republic – including control of critical economic activities (everything from beer to gold to timber) — and purportedly manages access to the president as his personal protection force and security advisors.
Others have pursued parallel structures to balance the official agents. In doing so they cultivate an environment of competition that prevents any singular entity becoming powerful enough to challenge the sitting ruler, who is relied upon to mediate disputes. This also cultivates the perception and narrative that preserving the sitting ruler is the only antidote to preventing chaos and/or civil war.
This is a particular favourite of modern dictators. Omar al-Bashir cultivated and empowered the Arab tribal militias known as the Janjaweed (“devils on horseback”). They developed into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to act as a counterweight against the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). In Russia Putin allowed Prigozhin’s disputes with the Ministry of Defence to shore up his own position and deflect blame for the debacles in Ukraine. But even when this works to preserve the ruler’s position, it has the critical flaw of creating dysfunction within the state. This can significantly undermine the state’s ability to reach its maximum potential across the spectrum of national power (military, economy, political, informational) and in times of crisis can cause paralysis.
Furthermore, creating an environment of dysfunction, where each agent is dependent on the favour of the ruler, fosters paranoia. The knowledge of this dependency can act as a sword of Damocles. Agents become aware of their own insecurity and how quickly their positions – and by extension their protection – can be taken away. This paradoxically motivates agents within these parallel structures to lash out to pre-empt their own dismissal or demise. The RSF joined the SAF in ousting Bashir in 2019, as it became clear there were greater benefits to be gained by siding with the “reformers”. Vladimir Putin has felt a similar sting from the Wagner Group, as its leader Prigozhin feared the deprivation of supplies he was experiencing at the front would undermine his usefulness and open him to being targeted by his enemies.
Cults of personality also come under the umbrella of parallel structures, but via a more holistic approach. Indoctrination of the masses makes it impractical to replace the leader or fracture the political environment, for any successor would be usurper. Two of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon are the Schutzstaffel (SS) and Mao’s Red Guards.
The SS are often cited as the ultimate praetorian guard, born from a cult of personality and indoctrination. Incorporating many ceremonies and daily acts of indoctrination that tied them to the “will of the Führer”. But it should be remembered that among the most prominent among the traitors of Hitler’s inner circle was Reichsfuhrer-SS Himmler and many of his staff – who attempted to negotiate with the allies without Hitler’s knowledge. When push came to shove, many of the SS chose to cut a deal or go underground rather than fight to preserve the regime.
At the other end of the spectrum, Mao’s red guards were drawn from the masses, and terrorised the elites throughout the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But inside stories from the times and preserved archives show that at times Mao struggled to control them, in the end forcing him to purge them. This demonstrates how those seeking to cultivate cults of personality can lose control of the message and direction, creating chaos and undermining their authority at the benefit of extremists. Similarly, the Assad clan’s cultivation of an image of themselves as protectors of Syria’s minorities inadvertently manifested sectarian divisions that fuelled the recruitment of extremist groups (after moderates were crushed) and have made negotiations to end its frozen conflict nigh-on impossible.
In short, a cult of personality rarely tumps personal survival, particularly at the elite level. Nor does the originator/subject of the cult necessarily control the image and message. It can take on a life of its own that leaves the leader of the cult trapped.
These examples have largely come from non- and pre-democratic states, but similar tactics continue to be employed (and their repercussions felt) in fragile states and emerging democracies in the contemporary era. Worse still, a growing number of praetorian coups have been greeted by support at a grass roots level. But these setbacks do not mean that emerging democracies are doomed to failure. Despite the current backslide, there have been multiple modern states that have managed to escape the problem. Ultimately, the solution to ensure state endurance is good governance.
Conducting a Root Cause Analysis of recent coups reveals several dominant issues. These include lack of security sector reform (contributing to general insecurity), high perceptions of corruption, and disenchantment with the failures of “democratic development”. It is states that have addressed these problems via governance reform that have escaped the praetorian problem.
According to analysts, accountability is the core of security reform and can be established by direct and indirect means. Direct accountability means security organisations must answer directly to the public they serve. Parliamentary committees on defence and security and the offices of ombudspersons fill that function in practical terms. Indirect accountability happens when politicians and bureaucrats are held accountable by the public for the actions of security organisations. Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, and Zambia all enshrined the role of civilian oversight bodies in their constitutions and initiated a process of empowering civilian leaders to review the management of the security sector.
But beyond these strategic endeavours, security reform must begin at the grassroots level. Specifically, local platforms are needed to bolster dialogue between communities and security services. One solution is to establish panels of locals to provide perspectives on issues before and after they’ve been addressed, to gauge perception changes – with specific ones for gender issues. This bridges the divide and ensures that local issues are addressed in a targeted manner that will inspire trust. Multiple initiatives at the local level have a cumulative effect on building a wider security environment. Such initiatives have proven highly successful in Mauritania and Somalia.
Addressing corruption is often a more difficult endeavour and requires a “whole-of-state” approach. This involves not just punitive laws but also incorporating incentives for transparency and accountability, such as open data initiatives and whistleblower protection laws. Anti-corruption commissions and ombudsman offices can help streamline these efforts. It must also become part of the culture: educating the public, promoting ethical leadership, and strengthening the role of media and civil society organisations in exposing and preventing corrupt practices.
The final problem, disenchantment, is the most difficult to resolve; it requires both local and global good governance. Although frequently fuelled by disinformation and malign influence operations, critiques are overall couched in legitimate grievances ranging from unfair economic practices to vaccine nationalism during the Covid-19 pandemic. Addressing disenchantment requires significant reform in the international order to give states in the Global South a greater voice. To a degree this is already under way, with a permanent representative from the African Union to the G20 and the UN security Council being implemented.
But this process will be gradual. In the meantime, three initiatives must fill the gap. Firstly, investment in local language campaigns must be renewed – the BBC World Service, for instance, has had its budget cut just when the West needs to be able to speak to the world as never before. Secondly, Western partners should take more credit for their contributions to stabilisation initiatives, while ensuring that local partners remain front and centre. It must be made clear that Western partners are following local directives rather than the other way round. Lastly, it is important to meet audiences in the middle by acknowledging the flaws in the system, with the aim of achieving greater objectivity among audiences, thereby making them less susceptible to “whataboutery” and disinformation.
Analysts are already speaking of a coup contagion in Africa that is likely to continue to spread. Supporting statespeople in their efforts to build good governance through capacity building programmes when requested is the best solution. This does not come without risks. Niger’s President Bazoum’s reforms are believed to have motivated the coup leader General Tchiani to overthrow his former benefactor, out of fear of losing his job and potential imprisonment. But the alternative so far has been the return of juntas who herald economic decline and an increased instability that has ripple effects far beyond the suffering of their own populations. To paraphrase Churchill on democracy: good governance may be the worst guarantee of stability and protection against praetorian coups — apart from all the others.
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