16th June 2021

Featured Review

Coups, Military Rule and Autocratic Consolidation in Angola and Nigeria

Reviewed by Dr Hany Besada

1. The usefulness and importance of publishing such a book.

Publishing a book like this one provides a new opportunity to further advance the literature of post-colonial countries plagued by periods of political instability, military rule and autocratic leadership in resource-endowed contexts, using comparative analytics. While literature on the “resource curse” is abundant, specific comparative studies of how the curse operates in different contexts are few and far between; this book fills the gap by providing a rich historiographic account and explanation of why Angola and Nigeria, Africa’s two largest oil-producing nations, have experienced different political and economic outcomes since attaining independence. It explains why Asian-led oil-for-infrastructure deals materialized in Angola but failed in Nigeria between 2004 and 2007.

The book will particularly be useful to scholars, practitioners and students of political economy, political science, history, development planning, civil society and natural resources governance/management. The findings of this book will deepen the reader’s understanding of the resource curse and illuminate the importance of tailoring governance solutions to reflect the specificities of any resource-wealthy context. Finally, the book will trigger curiosity for areas for further research and comparative analysis.

2. What does the book serve?

The book provides a historiographic account of the evolution of the manifestation of autocratic rule and the dynamics of power in Angola and Nigeria from independence to 2002/2003 respectively. It proposes an analytic narrative as the most appropriate approach for explaining the divergent outcomes in these two countries. This approach conceptualizes institutions as the primary object of study, transactions as the central unit of analysis and classical game theory as the analytical framework.

The book reveals, through the application of a game-theoretic model, that Angola’s JoseÄ› Eduardo dos Santos successfully used the country’s oil wealth to consolidate power early in his reign by eliminating potential threats to his dictatorial ambitions. In contrast, no Nigerian leader attained the same level of consolidation over oil or power. Perennial contestation for power—through multiple successful military coups—resulted in an uneven evolution towards a more open and competitive political settlement.

In the concluding chapter, the author explores the institutional evolution of Angola and Nigeria since the oil price shock of mid-2014 with a view to developing a more informed understanding of the political effects of oil rent decline in oil wealthy contexts, and suggests avenues for further research into emerging issues highlighted in the book. In summary, the book serves to further deepen the understanding of autocratic rule in resource-endowed contexts and power dynamics in post-independent countries.

3. What added value does it serve?

The book provides enormous added value as illustrated below:

It offers powerful historiographic insights and illustrations using a comparative analytic narrative approach based on cases primarily selected on the grounds that Angola and Nigeria are sub-Saharan Africa’s two largest oil producers, and no comparative case study accounting for their divergent institutional evolution currently exists. As such, it provides new dimensions in understanding the dynamics of their political economies. Using an analytic narrative approach, the book explains why these two similarly oil-dependent African nations have moved in different institutional directions, and why oil-for-infrastructure deals with ANOCs between 2004 and 2007 succeeded in Angola but failed in Nigeria.

Secondly, the book provides new insights, justification and opportunity for the revision of existing explanations for political outcomes in Angola. This is aptly noted by the author, “Despite a recent proliferation of game theoretic modelling of authoritarian rule, reviewed recently by Gehlbach, Sonin and Svolik (2016), Angola has escaped scrutiny through this lens. Svolik (2012) identifies Angola as a dictatorship from 2002 onwards, but dos Santos had already been in power for 23 years by then, albeit the country had been wracked by a 27-year long civil war”.

Thirdly, according to the book, oil rents bolster autocratic regimes, not by quelling democratic opposition, as typically assumed in the existing literature, but by suppressing challenges from future autocrats—usually regime insiders like the military and the intelligence services who are key players. It further explores why similarly oil-wealthy nations have divergent political experiences in terms of regime transitions. Some experience an uneven evolution towards more open political orders (for example, Nigeria), whereas others in similar contexts experience autocratic entrenchment (Angola, for instance).

Fourthly, the book employs effective use of examples and references to explain, analyze and give interpretations to various concepts, theories, explanations, frameworks, models, arguments and historical incidents, as well as differential outcomes, throughout. This rich menu provides readers with a wide scope to understand the subjects under review in different contexts and perspectives.

Fifthly, the author applies Svolik’s model to demonstrate that the persistence of relative institutional instability in Nigeria is an equilibrium outcome that obtains from the lack of an incentive-compatible and durable power-sharing mechanism within the ruling coalition. The frequency of coups emerged from the inability of any given ruler to acquire sufficient power to dis-incentivize coup plotting. This analytic narrative challenges conventional explanations of oil abundance in the presence of ethnic conflict as the primary cause of instability in weakly institutionalized contexts. Oil abundance and ethnic conflict were also present in Angola, with the oil prize catalyzing civil war at the moment of independence. Despite those constraints, dos Santos crafted the conditions for kleptocratic endurance. Coup-plotting was effectively dis-incentivized. On the contrary, no ruler in Nigeria was able to achieve a dictatorship by transitioning from a contested to an established autocracy. This model opens an analytic window into how oil interacts with political evolutions, but does not inappropriately elevate its importance. What matters is how the relevant rulers gained control over the resources and then consolidated power (or failed to do so).

In the concluding chapter, the author describes the institutional evolution of Angola and Nigeria since the oil price shock of mid-2014 with a view to developing a sharper understanding of the political effects of oil rent decline in oil wealthy contexts. The book also offers questions for future work and hypotheses to guide further analytic narrative work that aims to understand the varying development trajectories of states apparently cursed commodity wealth. As part of added value, the author suggests new areas and avenues for further research for a better and more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of political economy. This raises a set of questions for future research: for example, how did dos Santos’s ruling coalition wrest power from dos Santos despite his efforts to maintain kleptocracy? Why exactly had dos Santos become a liability to the MPLA after having established autocracy? It is also worth exploring the mechanisms involved in re-establishing a power-sharing mechanism and how the Lourenço coalition ensured success without being prematurely detected. The author goes further to propose several hypotheses to test through further analytic narrative work.

In order to advance analytic narrative and political settlement analysis in oil-rich contexts more generally, the book raises the following questions for future research:

  • Under what conditions are unipolar power configurations likely to transition towards a more multipolar configuration, and to what extent will this be determined by how broad or narrow the social foundation on which that power configuration depends is?
  • Is inclusive development more likely to materialize when the oil price rises or declines, and does this depend on the importance of oil in shaping the antecedent institutional arrangements that gave rise to the settlement in the first instance?
  • If it is the case that oil-oriented development deals are more likely to be struck under conditions of unipolar (less fragmented) leadership power configurations, what steps can development practitioners take to prevent those deals from becoming mechanisms for aspirant rulers to acquire more diversionary power and achieve a dictatorship?
  • Does elite access to oil wealth increase the propensity towards patronage politics that divides the social foundation underpinning the power configuration in political settlements, and how might reformers ameliorate this if so?

4. Contributions

The book makes a significant contribution to a contextual understanding of the evolution of autocratic rule and the consolidation of power by explaining autocratic heterogeneity through a comparison of Angola and Nigeria, Africa’s largest two oil producers that experienced autocratic rule for most of their post-independence history. It underscores the importance of better understanding of the mechanics of authoritarian rule, drawing mainly from Milan Svolik’s contribution, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (2012). Harvey uses game theory to illustrate the divergent historical evolution of Angola and Nigeria’s institutions. Game theory underpins the book’s efforts to make more sense of the divergent historical evolution of Angola and Nigeria’s institutions than the relatively thick explanations that currently dominate the literature. The author illustrates how Eduardo dos Santos established and controlled an efficient organization, Sonangol, purposely to collect and distribute oil rents to maintain a firm grip on power.

Unlike Sonangol, however, the Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC) was inefficient and incompetent from its inception, which explains why the oil for infrastructure deals failed in Nigeria.

The book provides an explanation for why Angola’s ruling party eventually upended its dictator, José Eduardo dos Santos, after 38 years of iron-fisted dictatorship. It also explains how Nigeria inadvertently moved towards a more open political system. The game theory proposed by Svolik applies naturally to formalizing the Angola narrative and accounting for the achievement of uncontested autocracy. It is also able to account for political instability and repeated coups in Nigeria.

Secondly, this book contributes to a better understanding of the resource curse by examining the role of oil in institutional formation and evolution in Angola and Nigeria. Oil wealth in weakly institutionalized states tends to undermine development instead of catalyzing it. The findings of the book will deepen the reader’s understanding of the resource curse and illuminate the importance of tailoring governance solutions to reflect the specificities of any resource-wealthy context.

Thirdly, it contributes to the ‘China in Africa’ literature and the role of Chinese involvement in shaping political economy outcomes by showing that China’s energy security strategy in oil-rich African countries is highly differentiated. The author provides a comparative analysis to elucidate what Angola and Nigeria’s oil-for infrastructure deals with Asian National Oil Companies (ANOCs) between 2004 and 2007 tell us about their respective political structures. Lastly, it is anticipated that the book will contribute to the literature on new institutional economics and political settlements by showing how oil rents shape institutional evolution and influence political structure. It tests the hypotheses informed by such studies, and suggests modifications in light of the cases of Angola and Nigeria.


Dr Hany Besada is the Executive Director of the Institute for Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (INRSD). He is also a Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow with the United Nations University-Institute for Natural Resources in Africa; Senior Fellow, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto; Senior Fellow, Columbia Centre on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), Columbia University; Research Fellow, China Institute for South-South Cooperation in Agriculture (CISSCA), China Agriculture University; and Research Professor, Institute of African Studies, Carleton University.

Coups, Military Rule and Autocratic Consolidation in Angola and Nigeria is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 to redeem.

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