The Government Coups of 2021
By Aron Shklar
Guinea Ex-President Alpha Condé, shortly after being thrown out of office in a coup
A government coup is when the government of a country is overthrown by an internal force or group of people. While these may seem rare, they are actually far more common than people realize. 2021 was an especially active year for coups, especially military ones, with five notable coups taking place. The five coups were in Myanmar, Mali, Afghanistan, Guinea, and Sudan. Here, each of them will be looked at and explained.
The first coup of 2021 happened just a single month into the year, in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar. In the early hours of February 1st, the powerful Myanmar military - known as the Tatmadaw - arrested de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other government officials shortly before the second-ever session of Parliament was supposed to begin. They claimed that Ms. Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) had committed massive voter fraud in order to gain control of 443 out of 476 seats in Parliament and to win 83% of the popular vote. Soldiers were sent into the streets and all television channels aside from the military-owned Myawaddy TV were shut down. This stunning coup was led by a general named Min Aung Hlaing, who was also the Commander-In-Chief of the military. He quickly positioned himself as the new leader of the country, and declared a year-long state of emergency. Mr. Hlaing, who has been under U.S. sanctions since December 2019 over his role in the Rohingya Genocide, claimed that the military was doing this for the good of the people, and that they would form a “true and disciplined democracy.” In 2011 Myanmar emerged from a brutal 50-year military rule, and the sudden return to martial law sparked mass peaceful protests across the country. The military responded by violently cracking down on these protests, and all semblance of peace vanished as soldiers and protesters clashed in near all-out war. The military attacked with guns, live ammo, tear gas, violent raids, mass arrests and disappearances, and more, as protesters fought back with chants, rocks, improvised weapons, Molotov Cocktails, and more. At the time of writing, nearly 800 protesters - the youngest a 7-year-old girl - have been killed by the military in raids and anti-protest violence. Now, some experts fear that this conflict could lead to a full-scale civil war. However, this first military coup was only a precursor of further coups to come in 2021.
The second coup of 2021 occurred in the West African country of Mali, on May 24th. Curiously, this was the second government coup within Mali in 9 months. Both were led by Colonel Assimi Goita, the transitional vice president, who announced that he organized this coup in retaliation for a cabinet shake-up about which he was not consulted. The Prime Minister and President were both arrested by military personnel under Colonel Goita’s command, and he was quickly established as the new leader. Legitimate elections are scheduled for February 2022, and Goita has stated that he intends to keep these as scheduled. Whether he will keep his word, and if he will run for President or Prime Minister, are yet to be determined.
The third government coup during 2021 happened in the Middle Eastern country of Afghanistan on August 15th. That was when the terrorist group known as the Taliban retook control of the country following the end of the 20-year American mission there and the collapse of the American-supported government. This one is controversial because the Taliban took power after the government collapsed, rather than overthrow it, but I am choosing to count it as a coup because their goal was to bring down the government and take control. When the American military began leaving in May of 2021, the Taliban began a lightning offensive across the country, growing their territory from controlling 73 districts to holding 223. Their invasion of the capital city of Kabul was the final step in their offensive, and came just hours after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the leaderless government finally collapsed. For the Taliban, retaking control of Afghanistan had been a decades-long goal, ever since they were pushed out of power in 2001 by the American invasion meant to defeat them - the end of which, ironically, led to the Taliban simply returning to power. This coup was not led by a lone person, but was instead the result of two decades of work and planning. The country is now being led by a key Taliban leader named Hibatullah Akhundzada. Under his leadership, many schools for women have been closed down, women are forced to wear head and face coverings in public, and protests have been frequent.
A fourth government coup in 2021 happened in the West African country of Guinea. On the morning of September 5th, heavy gunfire echoed through Conakry, capital of Guinea. Then pictures of President Alpha Condé being held in custody by fatigue-clothed men surfaced on social media. Finally, a young and popular colonel named Mamady Doumbouya, the head of Guinea’s special forces, appeared on state television while draped in the flag of Guinea and announced that the constitution, government, and all institutions had been dissolved, solidifying his coup. Confusion spread in the international community and a clear picture of how this had happened soon emerged. In the early hours of September 5th, Colonel Doumbouya had taken a small group of loyal special forces soldiers and left the town of Forécariah; they drove four hours to the capital in an armored convoy, where they performed their coup. The United States quickly condemned the coup, but was involved in a different way: Colonel Doumbouya and his comrades had slipped away from an American military base - where they were being trained by the Green Berets (elite special forces soldiers from the American military). The instructors denied having any prior knowledge of Colonel Doumbouya’s plans, and according to the New York Times, suspended the training program and “drove straight to the United States Embassy in Conakry” when they realized a coup was underway. As they came to the capital, they had to maneuver through huge crowds of cheering citizens, celebrating the coup and their charismatic new leader. In his televised address, Colonel Doumbouya declared “we [Guinea] are no longer going to entrust politics to one man, we are going to entrust it to the people. We come only for that,” and that it was “the duty of a soldier to save the country.” The energetic response to the coup was not surprising, as President Condé was an unfavorable and controversial leader. In the elections just a year before the coup, clashes between government supporters and the opposition had killed dozens, and President Condé had accused the opposition leader of trying to recruit mercenaries to attack the country. In response, he then closed the border, preventing many Guineans who lived abroad from returning to vote. Additionally, President Condé was not even supposed to be running, but had changed the constitution to allow him to stay in power past his two-term limit.
The fifth and most recent coup of 2021 took place in the African country of Sudan. On October 25th, the Sudanese military stormed the headquarters of Sudan’s state broadcaster and arrested workers there. Hours later, the ruling Sovereign Council - a shaky coalition of military and civilian leaders, which has ruled since former president Omar al-Bashir was forced out of power in 2019 after a brutal 25-year rule - was dissolved by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chief of the Council. This coup came on the heels of a failed coup attempt on September 21st by forces loyal to al-Bashir, which prompted calls from some Sudanese for the military to take control. On October 25th, they did just that, placing Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest and dissolving the transitional government. Protests quickly erupted, and clashes between protesters and troops began, ending in multiple casualties of protesters. However, in a strange twist, Prime Minister Hamdok was reinstated as Prime Minister, and an agreement was formed between the army and government.
In the end, almost all these coups are all still ongoing. People in those countries continue to fight one another, divided between supporters and opposition. All of these coups have been condemned by international powers, but to no avail. Will 2022 hold more coups, or will it be a year free of government collapse?