Strengthening the AU’s sanctions regime

To deter unconstitutional changes of government, current AU practices must be refined.

The decision to activate the Peace and Security Council (PSC) sanctions committee was a key outcome of the African Union (AU) 16th extraordinary summit in Malabo in May this year on unconstitutional changes of government (UCGs). The committee, established in 2009 by the PSC’s 178th meeting communique, has never operated, partly due to opposition and the lack of buy-in from member states.

The decision – a commitment to seeking sustainable solutions to the surge of UCGs – has generated intense discussion within AU policy circles. This informed a PSC open discussion under the chair of The Gambia on 15 August 2022. It focused on the role of sanctions in deterring UCGs and how to achieve an effective sanctions framework on the continent.

AU and sanctions

Over two decades, the AU has established itself among its global counterparts as a pacesetter in the use of sanctions against member states to correct deviation from agreed norms, decisions and frameworks. Provisions from AU legal instruments touching on sanctions establish three situations under which sanctions may be imposed.

These are when a member state defaults on contribution payments, after a UCG and for non-compliance with decisions and policies. In practice, an additional dimension has emerged where the AU aligns with regional sanctions pronouncements similar to the recent Economic Community of West African States engagement on Mali.

In the absence of an AU sanctions committee, the use of sanctions has had mixed results in Africa

The provisions against UCGs have been most consistently used due to the frequency of coups on the continent. Between 2000 and 2022, it was used 20 times against 15 member states, in either suspension or targeted sanctions. In the absence of a sanctions committee to advise on their imposition, thoroughly monitor their implementation and decide on their lifting, the use of sanctions has had mixed results and, sometimes, varied applications.

AU member states sanctioned, 2003 to 2022

AU member states sanctioned, 2003 to 2022

Source: 2013 to 2019 data from Elin Hellquist, updated to 2021
(click on the table for the full size image)

It has, therefore, become common when a coup happens for African citizens and member states to expect the AU to react swiftly by imposing sanctions. When sanctions are delayed, questions are asked about what is happening and how the situation differs from another in which sanctions were imposed. It can, thus, be said that the AU has implemented sanctions fairly consistently against UCGs, particularly coups.  

Managing coups

There are two indications of AU achievements. First is the reduced number of coups since the rollout of the AU framework against UCGs. Between 1960 and 1989, Africa witnessed an average of 2.2 coups a year, which dropped slightly to 1.6 in the 1990s. Between 2000 and 2019, it fell to 0.8. This is attributable largely to the AU’s zero tolerance of coups, robustly expressed in the Lomé Declaration, and the consequent sanctions or suspensions enforcing it.

Second is the extent to which member states vehemently lobby against suspension when they are in the throes of complex political situations. It is clear that suspension is the last thing a member state wants. Even when coup-makers show extreme recalcitrance, rarely have they completely ignored the AU’s pronouncements of suspension or questioned its legitimacy to insist on a return to constitutional normalcy.

This means that the continental framework against UCGs is accepted by all actors. They see it as a legitimate way to deal with those who ascend to power outside constitutional provisions or processes which lack overwhelming popular support, as with the Arab Spring. It also has wider global support, particularly by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.

Drivers of success

When AU sanctions have restored normalcy and deterred UCGs, their effectiveness has depended greatly on their predictable and consistent application regardless of the member state affected. Of the 22 cases the PSC has handled since 2005, 91% have been suspended.

Consistency in response to coups, for instance, has made it easier to apply sanctions against even big powers such as Egypt (2013). It has reinforced the AU as a just enforcer of the norm. The lack of suspension following a UCG is seen as an exception. Such a case was when Idriss Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, was named leader of the transition in Chad in 2021 rather than the president of the national assembly, as required by the country’s constitution.

When AU sanctions have worked, their effectiveness has depended on their predictable and consistent application

The AU doesn’t cut a sanctioned or suspended country loose, but plays the proverbial African mother, correcting an erring child with the right hand and drawing him or her closer with the left. AU sanctions hardly happen without mediation to address the matter. In most UCGs, regional mediation supports a return to constitutional rule. This makes the AU and regional economic communities active participants in the search for solutions during UCGs rather than just enforcers of a regional or continental norm.

Lessons from difficult situations

When the AU has been ineffective in imposing sanctions against UCGs there has usually been hesitation in invoking provisions for suspension timeously. This appeared true in Sudan’s 2019 coup. In some cases, partial implementation of provisions, lowering the bar for readmission after suspension, and coup legitimisation seem to be permitted.

The last-mentioned is evident in the many coup-makers who find their way into government despite provisions against their legitimisation. Articles 25(4)(5)(7) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance have explicit provisions against the involvement of coup-makers in subsequent governments.

However, after most UCGs, peace processes have allowed some coup actors into government. Such situations usually raise questions about the AU’s ability to follow through on its pronouncements to implement. In the absence of a robust sanctions unit to monitor implementation of provisions, not all aspects of sanctions against UCGs have been fully implemented.

An effective framework

For the AU to establish an effective sanctions framework to deter UCGs and sustain progress, the current practice must be refined. The existing framework should be reviewed to remove ambiguity about when action is needed. This is particularly important with UCGs, given the blurring of lines between civilian action of legitimate protests and their evolution into military action, as happened in Sudan.

Better coordination on sanctions is needed between the AU and similar organisations, particularly the UN

It is also important to know precisely when targeted sanctions ought to be triggered against coups and other UCGs, particularly the manipulation of constitutional provisions. Thus, existing sanctions pronouncements have to be built into a framework aligned with the current evolution of the threats they seek to address.

A solid sanctions infrastructure is needed to support the work of the sanctions committee. Apart from activating the committee and equipping it to play its role, it must be supported by a permanent AU Commission unit and a monitoring group. This group will conduct pre-sanction assessments, monitor imposed sanctions, advise sanctioned member states and assess compliance before sanctions are lifted.

This is particularly important if the use of targeted sanctions increases to strengthen the current practice against UCGs. The group will boost the technical component of the sanctions imposition, monitoring and lifting process, and ensure consistency and predictability in the use of the tool by Africa’s political leaders.

Better coordination on sanctions is needed to achieve greater buy-in of international actors and to ensure synergy between AU sanctions and those of similar organisations, particularly the United Nations. Sanctions operate better with wide support and wide reach.

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