Pioneering Study Finds Wartime Coups More Likely

First Study on Relationship Between Civil War and Coup Finds Coups More Likely During Wartime

Maryland, 28 September 2015:  Many of the coups that happened since 1950 occurred during civil war, but until now there has been no evidence to show how civil war affects coup activity.

How does war influence coup plotters? Are war-time coup attempts more likely to succeed than peacetime coup attempts?  These were among the questions researchers Curtis Bell of One Earth Future Foundation and Jun Koga Sudduth of University of Strathclyde set out to answer in the first empirical analysis of the relationship between coups and civil war. The study was published in The Journal of Conflict Resolution.

It turns out that coups are in fact more likely during civil war, by about 80%. However, war-time coups are less likely to be successful -only half as likely to succeed as those attempted during peacetime. Bell and Sudduth explain that desperate times call for desperate measures from military elites. Fear that the rebels might win encourages military elites to take matters into their own hands before they suffer further losses, even if their plots have a relatively small chance of success. As a result, they execute more---though riskier---coups than they would be willing to plot during peacetime.

Along the same vein, the more rebels threaten the government, the more likely military elites are to attempt a coup. Bell and Sudduth found that war-time coups were nearly three times as likely if rebel military strength was comparable to the government’s. When civil wars were fought near the capital city, war-time coups were more than twice as likely as when wars were fought in remote frontier areas.

The researchers controlled for other factors that increase a state’s vulnerability to war and coup (e.g. poverty, military spending, democratization).

The study provides important groundwork for other questions, such as how coups alter the course of civil wars, that will help shed some light on how leaders can best maintain peace and stability in the face of threats.  It could also help shed some light on where international peacekeeping efforts are potentially undermined by coup attempts.

The full study can be accessed with subscription on the Journal of Conflict Resolution’s website at


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