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Ethnic Inequality and Coups d’État  

Cristina Bodea and Christian Houle

A coup d’état is an all-around consequential event, and coups remain frequent in sub-Saharan Africa. Historically, ethnic inequality—the measure of income disparities at the level of ethnic groups—has been paid little attention as a potential cause of coups and other types of regime breakdown. More work exists on the relationship between ethnicity broadly construed and coup d’état, and in particular the role of unequal access to the military for different ethnic groups and the role of ethnic exclusion from political power. Our own work presents a theory that links “between” and “within” ethnic group income inequality to coup d’état initiated by ethnic groups. The argument is that high income and wealth inequality between ethnic groups, coupled with within-group homogeneity, increases the salience of ethnicity and solidifies within-group preferences vis-à-vis the preferences of other ethnic groups, increasing the appeal and feasibility of a coup. Empirical findings from sub-Saharan Africa support the main theoretical claim linking ethnic inequality to coup d’état. Additional evidence from sub-Saharan Africa and a larger global sample are consistent with the causal mechanisms. More remains to be researched in this area, however. Directions for future research include looking at the access of ethnic groups to the military, the intervening role of natural resources in the calculus of ethnic groups, and the role of ethnic inequality in incumbent takeovers.