Exorcising the demons of coups d’état

Africa has its work cut out for it in dealing with the recent spate of military takeovers.

The wave of coups that has engulfed several West African countries in the past two years prompted the African Union (AU) to convene a high-level forum to tackle the issue. The meeting took place in Accra, Ghana, from 15 to 17 March 2022. Coups took place in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021) and Burkina Faso (January 2022), and there was an attempt to overthrow President Umaro Sissoco Embaló in Guinea-Bissau in February 2022.

As coups had occurred in four countries, it was feared that there could be a contagion effect leading them to proliferate to even more countries in the region and on the continent.

The coup formula is too well known – the military takeover of the presidential palace and the national broadcaster, then the arrest or assassination of the president of the republic. This is followed by televised or radio announcements by military officers of the suspension of the constitution and the establishment of a military committee to run the country.

Appeals were made to include more robust and targeted sanctions against coup plotters

The political instability induced by changes in power through coups seriously harms the democratic ideal to which most Africans aspire. Thus, the Accra meeting explored the causes of the coups, identified gaps in frameworks addressing the challenge and proposed measures to contain the situation. The conclusions of the meeting are to be presented to the AU heads of state and government at an extraordinary summit in Malabo in May 2022.

Governance issues

According to several delegates to the Accra forum, interruption of the constitutional order by the military can be blamed on the structure and mode of governance of African states. States’ inability to provide public goods, particularly security, education and health and to offer prospects have caused the contestation they face from large sections of their population.

Challenges in sustaining state relevance ultimately create a deficit of legitimacy. The increasing number of constitutional amendments to extend presidential terms or strengthen executive powers often goes hand in hand with the organisation of dubious elections. These factors point to governance weaknesses and political manipulation that exploit vulnerable populations.

Accra discussions overlooked the question of how to foster a culture that prioritises constitutionalism

In a similar vein and to varying degrees, the army continues to be prominent in the state structure of many African countries. Some soldiers are in power because they have traded their military uniforms for civilian clothing to become head of state. In other cases, the army guarantees stability and maintenance in power of autocratic regimes and those described as ‘civilianised’ (being civilian only in name).

Clearly, electoral ‘democracy’ and the often-fabricated legality of many African regimes cannot replace a much more substantive democracy. The state must also maintain its own legitimacy through its services to citizens. Consequently, if unconstitutional changes of government, particularly seizure of power by the military, must be condemned, it has to be done where constitutionalism has substance and is not a facade.

As noted in Accra, African normative instruments have become less and less effective in preventing coups. In other words, even if they remain relevant, the AU Constitutive Act, the Lomé Declaration, and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, in particular, show their limits today.

The Chadian case was mentioned in Accra, but a question remained unasked. This was whether the AU Peace and Security Council’s decision not to label it a coup fed the ambitions of those plotting to remove Condé in Guinea and Kaboré in Burkina Faso.

What precedent has Chad now set on unconstitutional changes of government? Several meeting participants also raised the treatment reserved for putschists. If they comply with the AU and regional economic communities requirements of a ‘classic’ transition, delegates stated, they do not incur sanctions or repercussions likely to discourage future orchestration of putsches.

The May 2022 AU summit on unconstitutional changes of government will consider Accra’s recommendations

Accra discussions, however, overlooked the question of how to foster a culture to turn constitutionalism into a strong conviction beyond implementation of and respect for constitutional norms. This culture would transcend procedure to become an unshakeable belief in the supremacy of the constitution as the sacrosanct and inviolable foundation of the nation.

Solving the problem

Various solutions were proposed, the immediate priority being that the AU strengthen existing normative frameworks. These instruments must, first and foremost, be properly implemented and domesticated. Countries that haven’t done so must ratify the key AU frameworks.

It was also pointed out that existing instruments should be updated and made more specific. They should consider popular protests against incumbent regimes and how to deal with the legalistic contortions that allow constitutional amendments to strengthen executive powers or extend presidential terms. Similarly, in the revamped instruments, appeals were made to include more robust and targeted sanctions against coup plotters.

All of this would be effective only if the continent’s deficits of good governance are curbed. This could be achieved partly by establishing state structures and institutions that are much more responsive to the contemporary challenges of African societies. Also necessary is a strong response to the perennial question of sovereignty, which is likely to hinder AU and regional organisation moves to improve governance of member states.

The May 2022 AU extraordinary summit on unconstitutional changes of government will consider recommendations made in Accra. Heads of state must decide whether to push for ratification and implementation of existing frameworks or whether to amend these to cover concerns raised. Either option will require strong political commitment, with amendments of instruments taking longer and having an impact on the pace of ratification.

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