In response to the resurgence of unconstitutional changes of governments (UCGs), especially coups, since 2019, the African Union (AU) continues to use sanctions against defaulting member states. It upholds its normative frameworks and sanctions on UCG predominantly through the use of suspension. Between June 2019 and August 2023, the AU effected seven suspensions. These were Sudan (June 2019 and October 2021), Mali (August 2020), Guinea (September 2021), Burkina Faso (January 2022), Niger (August 2023) and Gabon (August 2023).
Two of the three affected regional economic communities (RECs) – the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) – have taken similar steps. ECCAS suspended Gabon recently, while ECOWAS suspended Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. In 67% of recent coups, ECOWAS has exceeded suspensions to impose economic sanctions.
Despite the impressive record of AU and REC sanctions, the persistence of UCGs, coups particularly, raises doubts about their effectiveness. There is a mounting sense in policy circles that sanctions have failed to curb coups and deter UCGs. However, determining whether or not sanctions are effective requires assessing the motivations for using them.
AU and REC sanctions are motivated by the desire to change the behaviours of defaulting member states and promote collective norms. The AU, for instance, sanctions states when they act counter to collective financial and governance rules and for non-compliance with decisions and policies.
Responding to UCGs, the AU has sought members' compliance with democratic norms of its Constitutive Act, Peace and Security (PSC) Protocol and African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Since 2003, the AU has suspended all the coup countries mentioned above, except Chad.
From a REC perspective, Articles 1 and 4 of the ECOWAS Supplementary Act stipulate that the aim of sanctions must be to prevent the non-respect or non-application of acts of the authority and council of ministers. Those include the ECOWAS (revised) treaty, conventions, directives, protocols, supplementary acts and decisions. Article 4(3) of the Act addresses UCGs specifically. It states that sanctions against member states must seek to create conditions to restore normal constitutional processes when imposed, for example, following a breakdown in democracy.
Against this backdrop, ECOWAS has suspended three of the four current coup countries, excluding Niger, and imposed economic and administrative sanctions on all as supplementary means to hasten their behaviour change. ECCAS has justified the suspension of Gabon by the need ‘to restore constitutional order swiftly’. In so doing, it has reemployed a recurrent language in both the AU and ECOWAS communiqués addressing coup countries and aiming to foster compliance of de facto authorities with democratic norms.
Effectiveness or lack of?
From the 1960s to 2019, the AU consistently implemented sanctions against UCGs, especially coups, with evident success. Two waves of decline were observed owing to its ‘zero tolerance of coups’ policy. From an average of 2.2 coups a year between 1960 and 1989, the number dropped to 1.6 in the 1990s and 0.8 between 2000 and 2019.
However, since 2019, the continent has experienced a resurgence of coups. From 0.8, the average number of coups in Africa reached 1.8 in 2023, getting closer to the level of 1960 to 1989. This is likely to increase, given that several African countries are vulnerable to takeovers.
A trend in this third wave is that sanctions implemented against Sudan, Mali, and Burkina Faso have not prevented the repetition of coups there. Nor have they deterred military unlawful assumption of power in Guinea, Niger, Chad and Gabon. Several continental and regional factors could explain this.
From the above, it is clear that AU and REC responses to the current wave of UCGs have yet to achieve the intended objective. Sanctions have failed to change behaviour and deter disregard for democratic norms.
This is particularly because, despite punitive measures, several countries are yet to restore constitutional order or revert to the status quo meaning that coup-makers seem to drive transitional agendas. The latest manifestation is the postponement of the February 2024 presidential elections in Mali. Whether the AU and ECOWAS have been consulted remains unclear.
As with the previous coup waves, the AU has stuck to suspending defaulting member states. However, inconsistencies in responding to the current coups and other UCGs have prevailed. While it promptly suspended Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Gabon, it hesitated to act against Niger. Even though it did so ultimately, the application of the rule was delayed, given the suspension should have been immediate, in line with AU Constitutive Act Article 30.
In Chad, the military assumed power instead of the president of the national assembly as enshrined in the Chadian 2018 constitution (Article 81). The AU’s response was perplexing as it failed to define and treat the situation as a UCG, hiding behind security risks.
In addition, it kept silent while constitutional manipulations occurred in Côte d’Ivoire (2016), Guinea (2020), Gabon (2023), Rwanda (2023) and the Central African Republic (2023) for term extensions beyond constitutional limits. Even though the unconstitutionality of such amendments may be debated, the silence of the AU ran counter to the 2009 Ezulwini Framework on UCGs.
In line with Article ix of the framework, the AU should have deployed preventive missions based on early warning indicators when the events occurred. These could have been fact-checking missions to determine whether constitutional amendments could be considered UCGs, at least to show seriousness about all unconstitutional changes, not only military coups.
As the AU failed to treat the events equally, it reinforced a sense of double standards among coup-makers and citizens of countries where constitutional manipulations occurred. Lack of firmness and consistency in its treatment of coup countries has undermined the AU’s legitimacy, diluted the deterrence effect of sanctions implemented against previous waves and fostered defiance among coup plotters in Mali, Guinea and Niger.
ECOWAS, the most affected REC, has, in addition to suspensions, implemented economic and administrative sanctions against all coup countries in its region. However, these have not changed behaviours for two reasons. First, neighbouring countries undermine imposed sanctions.
This was observed in Mali, where some regional countries expressed reservations about ECOWAS’s sanctions and enhanced cooperation with Malian de facto authorities. Although ECOWAS decisions do not apply to non-members, AU member states could have supported such sanctions given that they adhered to a continental norm of zero tolerance of UCGs, which ECOWAS was attempting to preserve.
The second reason is ECOWAS economic sanctions' comprehensiveness and dire effects on livelihoods in coup countries. This has fostered popular aversion to the regional body and fertile ground for citizens' support to coup plotters in the name of nationalism. Popular rejection of ECOWAS measures in Mali (2020 and 2021), Guinea (2021) and Niger (2023) are examples.
To respond robustly to the current coup wave, the PSC should fix its inconsistencies to address all forms of UCGs with equal seriousness and intensity. Doing so requires thorough implementation of guidelines such as the Ezulwini Framework and accelerating the activation of the PSC Subcommittee on sanctions to monitor measures implemented against defaulting states.
Regionally, the PSC, given its primary role in peace-making, should ensure consistency and equal treatment in regional bodies' responses to UCGs. It should also collaborate with regional bodies to ensure sanctions are targeted and respectful to citizens of affected countries. This would minimise the popular rejection of sanctions and heighten the chances of success for measures adopted during crises. The Council should also secure neighbouring countries’ support and ensure they promote collective principles and norms instead of individual strategic interests.