African coups are making a comeback

The AU should do more to pre-empt coups by sanctioning bad governance and attempts by presidents to extend their terms.

Coups used to be the method of choice in Africa for changing governments, with over 90 occurring between 1951 and mid-2020. During those years, only 30 incumbent leaders were peacefully removed from power by their political opponents in elections.

And in that time, just 28 heads of state voluntarily left office after serving their legally allowed number of terms as president, says Issaka Souaré, Director of the Sahel and West Africa Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In 2000, the propensity for staging coups – there had been 15 in the previous decade – worried the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) enough to adopt the Lomé Declaration. In a radical departure from the OAU’s firm policy of turning a blind eye to member states’ ‘internal affairs’, it decreed that any member taking power through an ‘unconstitutional change of government’ would be suspended. In practice, this referred to military coups.

After replacing the OAU, the African Union (AU) has exercised that power of suspension 14 times since 2003. After the Lomé Declaration, the incidence of coups steadily declined from 15 in the previous decade (1991 to 2000) to eight in the decade after, and five between 2011 and 2020. The extent to which the declaration played a role in this reduction is unclear, considering that the trend suddenly seemed to reverse last year.

The African Union has exercised its power of suspension in relation to coups 14 times since 2003

In fewer than 13 months from 18 August 2020, four coups have occurred. Two happened in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), one in Chad (May 2021) and one in Guinea last month. This prompted the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) to tackle the question: Are coups back in Africa? in a seminar this week.

Answering it would require a crystal ball, but the discussion suggested that although the long-term trend was positive, coups could be here to stay. What might help prevent that would be better responses from AU, regional bodies, and international partners to coups and other forms of unconstitutional change of government. And most importantly to what Souaré and other participants labelled ‘UPP’ – the unconstitutional preservation of power.

The first step in tightening up the Lomé Declaration – and matching instruments in the regional economic communities (RECs) – is to apply the measures consistently across different countries, said ISS Senior Research Consultant David Zounmenou.

He cited the sharp difference in approach towards Mali and Chad. The former was suspended from the AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after the 2020 and 2021 coups. In contrast, Chad was allowed to remain in the AU pending a transition to elections and civilian rule.

The AU and ECOWAS lifted their suspension of Mali a few weeks after August 2020 when the heads of a new civilian transitional administration – vetted by coup leader Assimi Goïta – were announced. Goïta’s toppling of those same civilian leaders in May this year suggested the AU and ECOWAS had misjudged Goïta’s commitment to truly civilian rule. As Zounmenou said, if military leaders see they can seize power with impunity, there’s likely to be a proliferation of coups.

Goïta’s coup in May suggested the AU and ECOWAS had misjudged his commitment to civilian rule in Mali

All the ISS seminar participants agreed that the real focus of the AU, RECs and other external actors should be on addressing the causes of coups, which include the ‘unconstitutional preservation of power’.

Kwesi Aning, Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, suggested that optimism around the declining rate of coups this century needed to be treated with caution. He said forecasts should account for a ‘teeming democratic sea … of frustrated, uneducated, barely educated, unemployed and increasingly unemployable youths … who see the possibilities of their participation in the domestic governing of their countries truncated by people who want to stay in power.’

The feelings of the disenchanted were clear when they lined the streets of Conakry in Guinea to applaud Colonel Mamady Doumbouya after he toppled Alpha Condé last month. Similar scenes of popular jubilation greeted Mali’s Colonel Goïta in Bamako last year after he ousted Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta.

Aning agreed that the AU, RECs and others could help discourage coups by targeting incumbents who cling to power beyond their terms. Condé was a prime example of the consequences of the ‘unconstitutional preservation of power’. He forced through an unwelcome constitutional change in 2019 to rescind the two-presidential term limit, at the cost of many protesters’ lives.

Doumbouya cited this as one of the main reasons for the coup. As Souaré observed, we have no way of knowing if that was Doumbouya’s true motive but the possibility should be removed, not only for its own sake but as a plausible pretext for coups.

The AU and RECs should sanction the ‘unconstitutional preservation of power’ to help prevent coups

Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Head of the ISS’ African Peace and Security Governance programme, noted that the Lomé Declaration went further than military coups and other violent power seizures as a trigger for suspension from the AU. An unconstitutional change of government could also include ‘the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair and regular elections.’

And he noted that the AU’s 2009 Ezulwini Framework for enhancing implementation of the Lomé Declaration’s measures against unconstitutional changes of government had gone further still. It stipulated that ‘the constitution shall not be manipulated in order to hold onto power against the will of the people’ and granted the African Court of Justice and Human Rights the jurisdiction to prosecute coup makers.

Atta-Asamoah felt the AU should be commended as a ‘norm entrepreneur’ for establishing the principle that coups were bad. Nonetheless, the frameworks for preventing unconstitutional changes of government were not really working because they were reactive, not preventive, he said.

So instead of addressing the grievances that sparked the coup, the AU and RECs’ post facto interventions often pitted them ‘against the overwhelming will of the people in the street’, especially when the AU and RECs insisted on restoring the old regime.

Perhaps the root causes of coups run too deep within a country for any external actor to influence much. But to the extent that they can, the AU and RECs should use their power preventively, focusing more on sanctioning ‘unconstitutional preservation of power’ and other undemocratic behaviour to try to pre-empt coups.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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