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date: 13 June 2024

Sierra Leone: Military Coups and Dictatorshipslocked

Sierra Leone: Military Coups and Dictatorshipslocked

  • Jimmy D. KandehJimmy D. KandehDepartment of Political Science, University of Richmond


The recurrence of subaltern coups and the involvement of politicians in these usurpations of state power are key features of military interventions in Sierra Leone. The losers of the 1967 and 1996 general elections instigated and/or supported coups that toppled the elected governments, and the coups of 1968 and 1992 also attracted the support of many disgruntled politicians. The country’s first two coups and the 1992 coup were pro-SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party) while the 1968 and 1997 coups were broadly supportive of the All People’s Congress party. Collusion between military factions and politicians permeates all ranks of the army but is particularly salient among senior officers, who share the same class location with politicians but not with armed subalterns whose ties to politicians are based not on shared class interests but on patronage and communal solidarity. Subaltern usurpations of state power in Sierra Leone reflect, inter alia, the extent to which senior officers have been clientelized by political incumbents and rendered less prone to stage coups in the contemporary period. Far more likely to attempt coups are armed regulars who, as a substratum, are unclientelizable, malleable, and often unpredictable. That the last three coups (1997, 1992, 1968) were carried out by this insurgent militariat is indicative of how senior officers have been displaced as major coup plotters since the 1960s. The underlying causes of these coups are rooted in state failures, low levels of institutional development, endemic corruption, politicization of the military, and the failure of the country’s political class to deliver development and good governance. Deterring coups in the future will depend as much on what politicians do as on what subaltern factions of the military are planning or capable of doing, but distancing politicians from the military and prolonging democratic rule are critical to reducing the probability of coups. Neither civilian nor military factions of the country’s political class are genuinely committed to democratic governance, but the two most important factors holding the military in check are the relatively long duration of constitutional rule (1998 to the present) and the global community’s hostility to military seizures of power. Four elections have been held since the last coup in 1997, with power twice (2007, 2018) alternating between the two main political parties. Elections are no longer precipitating coups, and the more of them that are held freely and fairly the better the prospects for military disengagement from politics and democratic maturation.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • World Politics

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