Game of coups
In the blood-soaked history of Bangladesh, this week marks the 40th anniversary of a particularly dark and grim episode. On 7 November 1975, dozens of army officers of were killed by mutinous jawans. The mutiny was orchestrated by Lt Col Abu Taher, who was retired from services a few years earlier and at that time was a key leader of the radical Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal. The mutineers killed Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf, who had instigated a coup few days earlier against the regime of Khondaker Moshtaq Ahmed, in power since the bloody putsch of 15 August that killed President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family. Amid the confusion caused by Mosharraf’s manoeuvres against the ‘killer majors’, four senior Awami League leaders — including Tajuddin Ahmed, the country’s first prime minister who led the war effort in 1971 when Mujib was interned in Pakistan — were assassinated in the central jail, allegedly with the consent of President Moshtaq. The chaos and carnage of 7 November, coming on the heels of the August massacre and the jail killing, threatened to put the very existence of Bangladesh at risk.
Fortunately, Taher’s mutiny proves short-lived as the army rallied behind Major General Ziaur Rahman.
This post isn’t about revisiting our coup-prone history or explaining it. Rather, using the ideas of Naunihal Singh, an American political scientist, I want to discuss why some of those coups were more successful than others, and what they might tell us about the present day Bangladesh.
Mr Singh’s recent book Seizing Power: the strategic logic of military coups is a major contribution to the literature on military coup. His thesis is summarised in this review of the book:
Coup attempts are best understood as coordination games, or “situations in which each individual has an incentive to do what others are doing, and therefore each individual’s choices are based on his or her beliefs about the likely actions of others.” Instead of thinking about coups as battles (e.g., the side with the greatest military power will win) or coups as elections (e.g., the side with the most public support will win), Singh pushes us to think of coup success as being driven by coup-makers’ ability to get others to believe that their coup attempt will be successful.
How do coup-makers convince others their coup attempt will be successful? They convince military actors that the success of the coup has the support of almost everybody in the military and that any possible resistance is minor.
Let’s think about the events of 1975 through the prism of Singh’s analysis.
In the morning of 15 August 1975, radio blared the news of Mujib’s death while tanks roamed the streets of Dhaka. There was no resistance against the coupmakers. Surviving senior officers like Major General Shafiullah have pleaded over the years that there was nothing they could do to save the president. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps not. But Singh’s logic tells us that once Mujib and family were dead and one of his senior ministers appeared as the leader of the new order, the killer majors succeeded in getting others to believe that their coup attempt was successful. After that, toppling the Moshtaq regime would require a counter-coup.
Khaled Mosharraf’s counter-coup and Taher’s counter-counter-coup failed because both failed to get others to believe that their respective coup attempts would be successful. Khaled negotiated for hours with the majors and ultimately let them go while the jail killings happened. His aims were never made public, and he was vulnerable to the accusation of ushering in a Mujibist restoration or being a puppet of Indian hegemony. In Taher’s case, ordinary soldiers chose as their leader Zia, who did not share Taher’s politics.
By the same logic, Zia succeeded in restoring order and consolidating power because of his ability to get others to believe that he would be successful. It is ironic that Zia’s political heirs spend so much energy in trying to elevate Zia’s 1971 role while his detractors try to portray him as the arch-villain of 1975. A less blinkered view of history would be that the political importance of the March radio broadcast from Chittagong was the rank and not the person holding it — that it was a major of Pakistan army telling the world, in English, that a war of resistance against the Pakistanis had begun. It may well have been another major in Kalurghat that day in 1971, and things probably wouldn’t have been all that different.
Not so after 7 November 1975, when Zia, and only Zia, could get others — initially the army, then the bureaucracy, the urban elite and foreign donors, and eventually the entire nation — that he would be successful in preserving Bangladesh’s existence. A more mature political discourse would acknowledge Zia as the hero of 1975.
The Zia regime did face a number of coup attempts, the last one ending his life in May 1981. His successor as military strongman-turned-politician, Lt Gen HM Ershad, faced no coup threat, and the only time the army disobeyed him was when he asked it to put down a student-led urban uprising. That uprising ended his regime. The army rank-and-file was drawn from the same socioeconomic class whence the university students came from. Any given captain in charge of firing on the demonstrations might well have had a cousin in his target. The army chose to accept civilian leadership than use large scale violence against civilians.
The need to avoid large scale violence against civilians was used as a key motivation for Lt Gen Moeen U Ahmed’s power grab in January 2007. Ultimately, the 1/11 experiment failed because Moeen and his backers were outplayed by Mrs Hasina Wajed and Mrs Khaleda Zia. But the initial coup attempt succeeded because Moeen and others like Major General Masud Uddin Chowdhury could get others to believe that their coup attempt would be successful.
In the winter of 2013-14, many in our political class expected a coup, but it didn’t eventuate. Why?
One argument is that the army has been ‘funded to forget‘ about coups — as Victor Mallet put it in the Financial Times in April 2015. The FT is paywalled, so let me quote the choice bits:
“Zia’s strategy is to bring in the army,” says one leading Bangladeshi analyst who asks not to be named for fear of reprisals. “You ratchet up the level of violence to the extent that the army feels compelled to restore order.
“Hasina, understanding that . . . is giving [the military], all sorts of toys — buying them MiGs or submarines and allocating cantonments [residential areas]. She is creating an appetite [within] the army that future governments will find very hard to feed. Nothing they are asking for is being denied.”
Bangladesh is buying subsidised weapons from China and Russia and its annual defence budget has doubled in the past six years to more than $2bn, although official defence spending remains a fairly modest 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product.
The government says the 260,000-strong army has no interest staging a coup d’état and benefits from being the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping forces around the world. “This is something the army wouldn’t like to tarnish,” says HT Imam, a minister and one of Ms Hasina’s advisers.
Mahbubur Rahman, an opposition BNP leader and a former army chief, defends the army’s professionalism and says it would nowadays intervene in politics only out of patriotism and if national security was threatened.
But he also agrees that the Hasina government is providing financial and other inducements to keep the armed forces on its side, not least through a generous policy of promotions for senior officers. When he was army chief there was only one lieutenant-general — himself — whereas now there are six, he says.
“This government has really expanded the army, by manpower, firepower, and equipment. There are a lot of welfare projects for the army,” he says. “The pay is better.”
Like some of the BNP’s leaders, independent analysts have concluded that Ms Hasina has outwitted Ms Zia — at least for the time being — partly by co-opting every branch of the security forces from the main military intelligence agency to the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-crime and anti-terror unit accused of atrocities against the opposition.
According to Singh’s analysis, however, it’s not the largesse as such that made a coup less likely. Rather, given the largesse, the crucial factor might be the inability of any would be coupmaker to convince anyone else in the army that collectively the forces would be better off with a coup.
Further, there is another factor that may be less well understood. With the advent of the Rapid Action Battalion, the army as such need not be at risk of being pitted against the civilian populace. For example, think about the events of Matijheel in May 2013. The army rank-and-file is drawn from the same socioeconomic class whence the Hefazot gatherers came. Any given captain in charge of firing on the gathering might well have had a cousin in his target. The thing is, the army was never called to disperse the mob in Shapla Chattar. Rather, it was a particular unit of RAB that was deployed. The conjecture is that the routine RAB posting of majors and colonels act as a screening device for the government to determine which officers and their men can be trusted for such sensitive assignments. The whole army need never be involved in any political mess. Indeed, by toppling the current government, any would-be coupmaker would put the army squarely in the middle of a political mess. How would any coupmaker then convince anyone else to support his power grab?
That is, according to Singh’s analysis, a coup is less likely today because of the coup-makers’ inability to get others to believe that their coup attempt will be successful.
There are so many things depressing about today’s Bangladesh. At least one upside is that a repeat of 1975 is less likely.