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Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, Naunihal Singh

Reviewed by Barbara Geddes

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Naunihal Singh’s book is the best analysis I have seen of how and why coups unfold as they do. It focuses on the day or few days of the coup itself, with less attention to the plotting stage or the reasons plotters decide to attempt to oust the incumbent government. By putting the days of the coup itself under the microscope, Singh develops the theory of military seizures of power as coordination games far beyond the argument to that effect that I made some years ago.

In coordination games, multiple individuals separately decide what to do based on what each thinks others will do. All individuals want to take the same action as most others even more than they want to take their own favored action. Battle of the sexes is a coordination game. Singh uses a series of very detailed studies of coups and coup attempts in Ghana between 1967 and 1981 to show that soldiers’ grievances against the incumbent do not predict which side they will take during coup attempts. Although officers rarely mount coups against popular incumbents, Singh shows persuasively that even deeply aggrieved soldiers do not join those who have taken up arms against the incumbent unless they believe that other soldiers will do so. Regardless of which side they personally favor, most officers will remain on the fence until they can tell which way the rest of the military seems to b

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