From popular uprisings to regime change

On 22 August 2019 the Peace and Security Council (PSC) will be discussing the issue of popular uprisings and their impact on peace and security in Africa. In recent times, mass civilian mobilisations have become an avenue through which citizens express their discontent with government.

A 2019 Foreign Affairs article notes that ‘over the past decade, mass uprisings in Africa have accounted for one in three of the nonviolent campaigns aiming to topple dictatorships around the world. Africa has seen 25 new, nonviolent mass movements –  almost twice as many as Asia’. In 2019 Africa has witnessed two major uprisings that have resulted in the toppling of long-term leaders in Algeria and Sudan.

In 2019 Africa has witnessed two major uprisings that have resulted in the toppling of long-term leaders in Algeria and Sudan

This leaves the African Union (AU), which has established strong continental norms against unconstitutional changes of government, with a dilemma: should regime changes resulting from popular uprisings be treated as ‘unconstitutional changes of government’ and condemned by the AU, or should they be considered as the popular will of the people and supported?

Forms of popular uprisings in Africa

Two major forms of popular uprisings are noticeable on the continent. The first is a widely supported popular military action that results in regime change. Such actions usually end in coups d’état, which are clearly condemned under AU norms.

The second form of uprising, however, is a popular mass civilian protest demanding respect for civil, economic and political rights or changes in governance or government. Popular civilian mass protests sometimes trigger military action, especially when there is a stalemate or massive abuse by the incumbent government. Popular cases in recent times include Egypt, Algeria and Sudan.

In Libya, however, clashes resulting from the government’s response to mass protests triggered a civil war, setting off a chain of events that ultimately led to the overthrow of the country’s leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

While the AU unequivocally rejects regime changes that result from military coups d’état, the organisation’s legal and normative frameworks are not clear on whether the removal of sitting governments through popular uprisings constitutes an unconstitutional change of government.

AU’s responses to the different forms of uprisings

The difficulty in designating regime changes resulting from popular uprisings as either constitutional or unconstitutional stems from the multitude of ways popular uprisings lead to regime change. As a result, the AU’s responses have not always been the same for all cases. It has dealt with four different scenarios.

First, when popular civilian uprisings result in the resignation of an incumbent president, as was witnessed in Algeria in 2019, the AU seems to consider them as an internal affair of the member state. Though the AU may issue statements stressing the need for a peaceful transition, there is no direct intervention as would be the case with an unconstitutional change of government.

Second, when the army of a given country steps into the vacuum created by the resignation of the incumbent president, as was the case in Burkina Faso, the AU usually provides the military with a deadline to hand over power to a civilian government. Failure to do so results in the country’s suspension from AU activities.

The AU usually provides the military with a deadline to hand over power to a civilian government

Third are situations where the army hijacks a civilian mass movement’s demands for regime change to force the sitting leader to resign. In Sudan, the AU categorised such a move by the army as a military takeover and demanded a reversal to civilian leadership. Upon the army’s failure to do so, it suspended Sudan. Egypt’s recent experience is another case.

Finally, when popular uprisings have turned into armed dissent or civil war, such as in Libya in 2011, the AU tends to treat these instances as civil war and launches conflict resolution initiatives from the onset.

The AU thus seems to treat the direct military ousting of governments differently from cases where popular uprisings trigger military-led regime change.

Gaps in AU legal frameworks

From the above practice, it is clear that the AU respects the right of citizens to protest in line with their domestic laws, as declared in the organisation’s 50th Anniversary Solemn Declaration. But there are questions as to why the AU does not consider the resignations of heads of state following popular mass uprisings as unconstitutional, especially in cases where the circumstances of the resignation points to meddling by the army or duress. Resignations made under duress could in fact constitute an unconstitutional change of government. For example, in Zimbabwe there are indications that Robert Mugabe resigned in such circumstances. Yet the army’s role in his ouster was not labelled as unconstitutional.  

The AU respects the right of citizens to protest in line with their domestic laws

AU legal instruments are also not clear whether forcible removal of a leader as a result of foreign military action, intervention by another state or coalition of states or international action in the name of maintaining international peace and security constitutes an unconstitutional change of government. In the case of Libya, the AU rejected the involvement of foreign militaries in the removal of Gaddafi but did not expressly define his removal as an unconstitutional change of government.

There appears to be an inherent tension between two key AU principles – the respect for constitutional order in leadership changes and the right of people to oppose an oppressive regime, through peaceful protests.

Need for preventive measures

As acknowledged by the PSC in a 29 April 2014 statement, popular uprisings that lead to demands for regime change are often ‘deeply rooted in governance deficiencies’.  Clearly, while grappling with this contentious issue and refining its normative frameworks are important, the AU should take greater steps to promote good governance in order to mitigate the need for citizens to resort to mass uprisings. Also important is the need for the AU to clarify which outcomes of popular protests constitute an unconstitutional change of government.

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