Is the AU failing coup countries?

With a precarious transfer of power recently taking place in Gabon, Africa has experienced no fewer than 10 coups in the last decade, confirming its relapse into political instability and democratic backsliding. Prior to Gabon, the focus country was Niger, where a coup d’état took place on 26 July 2023 due to long-standing palace tensions between President Mohammed Bazoum and the commander of his presidential guard, General Abdourahamane Tchiani.

The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded swiftly, issuing communiqués condemning the coup. ECOWAS held two extraordinary summits to discuss appropriate responses and approaches in line with its coup zero-tolerance policy.

The primary outcomes were a set of nine sanctions and a decision to deploy its standby force to restore constitutional order in Niger. Such decisions came on the back of the failure and putschists’ rejection of the diplomatic efforts of ECOWAS.

Unlike other coups, Niger’s happened amid commendable economic progress and relative political stability

Unlike the continent’s earlier coups, driven by political instability, poor economic performance and states’ inability to deliver basic services, Niger’s happened amid commendable economic progress and relative political stability and security. Thus, some observers portray it as an abrupt coup.

However, before the coup, perceptible signs had raised awareness in policy circles that something was amiss. Despite that, neither ECOWAS nor the AU acted despite their leeway to respond proactively. Such a response to the early signs could have spared Niger its current political quagmire.

Perceptible signs

Before Bazoum was deposed, the risk of an impending coup in Niger was widely known in regional and continental policy circles. AU early warning actors had repeatedly drawn attention to the deteriorating situation and the risk of military interference in the political space. According to sources interviewed by the PSC Report, however, Bazoum had repelled any attempt by actors to assist in managing the situation, claiming that he was in control of the situation.

His stance links to the trend of AU member states’ reluctance to being discussed by their peers in any form, whether for support or early warning reporting. A few weeks before the 2021 coup in Sudan, for example, a senior AU representative warned of the risk of a coup in the country. This was dismissed by a Sudanese diplomat who claimed nothing like that was imminent in his country despite palpable signs to the contrary.

Rejections such as that of Bazoum are driven by nationalist pride and not necessarily the reality of the situation, but the AU hardly activates preventive measures once it faces such resistance. Niger’s case proves that rather than chickening out in the name of non-interference, the AU should robustly use its non-indifference provisions in the interest of regional and continental stability.

The AU could have acted to broker peace between the parties by using any available preventive diplomacy tool

In Niger, on policy appreciation of Bazoum-Tchiani tensions, the AU should have urgently activated regional and continental preventive responses by offering to broker peace between the parties. This is despite Bazoum’s rejection for two reasons.

The first was the country’s coup history, which shows that the Nigerien military has intervened in politics multiple times and, given a similar set of conditions, has the tendency to do the same. The two failed coups and the Bazoum-Tchiani dispute were symptoms of a conflict of interests and a trust deficit between the two institutions. According to the country’s coup history, the discord could have been expected to have affected democratic political, institutional arrangements or legitimate exercise of power in Niger.

The second was the danger of relieving Tchiani of his duties amid evident tensions between the two. There were clear indications of Tchiani’s overwhelming influence and capacity to disrupt the country’s political stability through the use of the heavily armed military units under him. Engagement could have diffused the situation and, even in the case of further tensions, would have kept the diplomacy options on the table since the entry points for engaging the army would have been clearly established prior.

AU prevention?

Frameworks such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and PSC Protocol outline the AU’s pivotal conflict prevention role. Article 24 of the former states: ‘When a situation arises in a State Party that may affect its democratic political institutional arrangements or the legitimate exercise of power, the PSC shall exercise its responsibilities in order to maintain the constitutional order in accordance with relevant provisions of the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council.’

Articles 3b, 4b and 7(1.a) of its protocol allow the PSC to anticipate and prevent disputes and conflicts using ‘early response’ to contain crises and prevent them from developing into full-blown crises. In Niger, the AU could, therefore, have acted swiftly within these mandates to broker peace between the parties, using the good offices of a special envoy or any other preventive diplomacy tool.

The PSC must watch out for at-risk countries with an early-response eye

The PSC could have also discussed the tensions in a session to signal its concern about the warning signs and ceased its security implications. Discussing the issue would have set a precedent, encouraged a systematic use of the PSC’s conflict anticipation prerogative and driven prompt response towards a diffusion of the risks to Niger’s stability. 

Lessons to learn 

The PSC should watch out for at-risk countries with an early-response eye, given that failing to do so amounted to a missed opportunity to prevent the situation in Niger. Certain factors make at-risk states vulnerable to coups. These include backsliding of democratic practices, including constitutional manipulation for third- or multi-termism, muzzling of opposition parties, states’ inability to provide security, fragmentation within armies and mounting discontent among citizens.

Such characteristics currently exist in many states and should concern regional and continental policy actors. Failing to take early measures in these countries will make the AU fall behind the response curve again. However, to address issues in at-risk countries effectively depends on how the current situations in Niger and Gabon and others under military regimes are managed.

AU readiness to find diplomatic means to engage member states despite their resistance to being discussed is also a major issue. This needs to be considered if the organisation is to be relevant in managing the rising number of coups, thus honouring its crisis-prevention mandate.

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