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The Ministry of Defence has, since 2012, trained troops from at least eight countries that have had recent military coups, new evidence from charity Action on Armed Violence reveals.
These international cadets were attendees of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS), where all officers of the British Army are trained.
The international troops came from Mali, Niger, Egypt, Thailand, Burundi, Sudan, Chad, and Gabon – which have all experienced military coups since 2012.
According to the analysis of two Freedom of Information requests to the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), as many as 1,123 overseas cadets were trained in Sandhurst between 2012 and 2022. In total, cadets at the officer training academy have come from at least 61 countries since 2012.
A comparison of those nations with a global coup dataset compiled by American researchers Powell and Thyne shows that eight countries that have sent military cadets for British army training since 2012 have also gone on to witness military coups.
It is not known if the trained cadets from Mali, Niger, Egypt, Thailand, Burundi, Sudan, Chad and Gabon were involved in the military coups, as the MoD would not release the names of its attendees.
In 2018, the British Army was paid some £4.6 million by countries sending students to train at its Berkshire academy. The MoD’s website states that “other nations choose to send their personnel to RMAS for officer training because it is recognised as a world-leading military training academy”.
The MoD argues that all overseas officers attending RMAS are taught to lead by example and positively shape the cultures and behaviours that are defined by the British Army’s “values and standards” – including courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty, and selfless commitment. Their actions must be lawful, appropriate, and professional.
The number of cadets has also increased in recent years. In 2017/8, just 96 troops from overseas countries were trained at Sandhurst by the British Army. In 2022/23, this had risen to 149 – an increase of 55%, with nearly every year showing an increase in numbers.
The research also showed that, of the 97 nations that have experienced military coups – both successful and foiled – since 1950, RMA Sandhurst has recently trained up army cadets from at least 24 of them.
These are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Burundi, Egypt, Fiji, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Thailand, Uganda, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
In 2021, Mali’s coup leader Colonel Assimi Goïta seized power, orchestrating the ousting of President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. Goïta claimed their removal was necessary due to their failure to consult him about a recent Cabinet reshuffle.
There had been another coup in 2020, in which the junta leader had sought to lead the interim government. However, the regional body, the Economic Community of West African States, (ECOWAS), which mediated the transition deal, insisted on a civilian leader.
Yet Colonel Goïta clearly remains in power as ‘Interim’ President of the West African nation.
The power struggle underscores the ongoing political instability in Mali, with the regional implications and potential consequences remaining uncertain.
In July 2023, democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown by the very presidential guards responsible for protecting his office.
General Abdourahmane Tchiani was installed as the new head of state, suspending the country’s constitution.
The coup was driven by concerns about escalating security threats from jihadist groups in the Sahel region.
International reactions include stern condemnations from France, Niger’s former colonial power, and calls from the US and various international bodies for the president’s release. The coup threatens Niger’s cooperation with European nations on migration issues and efforts to combat human trafficking.
In 2013, the Egyptian army ousted President Mohammed Morsi, suspended the constitution, and announced plans for new elections following widespread protests.
Army Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led the coup to remove Morsi, who was Egypt’s first freely elected President.
Violent clashes and detentions followed, including the arrest of key Muslim Brotherhood figures. US President Barack Obama expressed deep concern and called for a swift return to civilian rule.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was sworn in as President of Egypt in 2014 and remains in office.
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In 2014, Thailand’s military, led by Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, seized control of the Government, and suspended the constitution, following months of political unrest.
Martial law and a nationwide curfew were imposed, the Cabinet was ordered to report to the military, TV broadcasting was halted, and political gatherings were banned.
Thailand has witnessed at least 12 military coups since 1932.
General Prayuth justified the coup as a necessary action to prevent further loss of life and property.
In 2015, an attempted coup was staged in Burundi, targeting President Pierre Nkurunziza.
It was announced by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, leading to celebrations in the capital, Bujumbura. However, the coup failed and was met with international concern, including from then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who urged restraint.
General Niyombare, once a close ally of the President, cited the President’s unconstitutional bid for a third term as the motivation for the coup.
In 2021, the death of Chad’s long-serving President Idriss Déby triggered a political crisis in the country, prompting accusations of a “dynastic coup” by the main opposition parties.
Déby, who was 68 and had been in power for three decades, died after being shot in combat with rebels. Following his death, his son Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, a 37-year-old four-star general, was swiftly appointed as the country’s new leader, dissolving the Government and Parliament.
This move was met with widespread condemnation, including from rebels who insisted that “Chad is not a monarchy”. The African Union (AU) expressed “grave concern” over the military takeover.
A military coup consumed Sudan in 2021, during which Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok and his Cabinet were arrested and the Government dissolved.
The coup drew international concern, especially as Sudan had only recently begun re-establishing global ties after years of isolation.
The country had been in a transitional phase since the overthrow of authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, with a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council governing.
General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, the head of the Sovereign Council, announced a state of emergency and dissolved both the Council and the Cabinet.
In 2019, the Government of Gabon successfully quashed a coup attempt led by a group of soldiers who briefly seized the state radio station. The soldiers called for a public uprising while President Ali Bongo was in Morocco, recovering from a stroke.
All coup plotters were apprehended, and both the African Union and the French Foreign Ministry condemned the attempt.
This year, another Gabon coup succeeded. Gabon’s new military leader, General Brice Oligui Nguema, declared a temporary suspension of democracy but did not provide a timeline for new elections.
The move came after the military seized control of the government, ending the Bongo family’s 55-year hold on power and placing President Ali Bongo under house arrest.
The coup has drawn criticism from international bodies such as the UN and the African Union, as well as from Gabon’s former colonial power, France.
Gabon’s main opposition group, Alternance 2023, has called for the restoration of civilian rule, describing plans for General Nguema to be sworn in as transitional President as “absurd”.
Highlighting the recent “succession of military coups” across Africa, UN Secretary-General António Guterres in August 2023 emphasised the need for durable democratic governance and the rule of law.
“Many countries face deep-seated governance challenges – but military governments are not the solution,” Guterres told the press at the UN Headquarters in New York. “They aggravate problems. They cannot resolve a crisis; they can only make it worse.”
In addition, research shows that cadets trained by the British Army over the 11-year period under review (since 2012) came from 13 nations that are also on the latest 2021 list of nations of human rights concern that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) publishes annually.
The FCDO stated that these 13 nations were among 31 countries “where we are particularly concerned about human rights issues, and where we consider that the UK can make a real difference”.
These 13 countries were Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Colombia, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen.
A British Army spokesperson said: “Whilst at Sandhurst, personnel are exposed to UK doctrine and training on international humanitarian law and other international conventions along with the values and standards of the British Army, which promote concepts of accountability, human rights and transparency.
“Sandhurst has a long and proud tradition of training overseas military and civilian personnel. We welcome the overseas personnel who attend Sandhurst, bringing with them unique skills and experiences.”
But the revelation that RMA Sandhurst has trained cadets from countries that later witnessed military coups raises ethical and strategic questions about the UK’s military engagement with nations that have dubious human rights records and unstable political landscapes.
It also highlights a potential dissonance between the UK’s professed commitment to human rights and democratic governance, and its military training practices.
A transparent review of how and why such training is being provided, and its potential implications for international peace and security, might allay future concerns.
Iain Overton is the executive director of the Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) charity