The AU reneges on its stance against coups d’état

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU) met on 14 May to discuss the situation in Chad for the second time since the unexpected death of former president and self-declared ‘Marshal of Chad’ Idriss Déby.  

At this meeting the PSC, after examining the report submitted by its fact-finding mission to Ndjamena and following lengthy discussions, decided against suspending Chad from the AU or imposing individual sanctions. Instead, it endorsed the Transitional Military Council (TMC) 18-month plan to restore constitutional order.

While this decision might have been based on Chad’s specific circumstances, it still runs contrary to the values for which the AU purportedly stands. It also contradicts its previous decisions in similar situations.

Power grab by the TMC

Following the dramatic events that saw the death of Déby on 20 April and the takeover by the TMC, the PSC decided to dispatch a fact-finding mission to N'djamena. This mission was tasked with looking into the situation on the ground and shedding light on the circumstances of Déby's death.

He is believed to have died as a result of injuries sustained at the battlefront, where he was leading his troops against the rebellion by the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad [FACT]).

The PSC endorsed the Transitional Military Council (TMC) 18-month plan to restore constitutional orderThe TMC’s power grab has violated Article 81 of the Chadian constitution. This provides for the president of the National Assembly to act as interim president in such circumstances and for elections to happen within 45–90 days after the position’s becoming vacant.

The TMC instead dissolved the National Assembly and the government, and suspended the constitution. It assumed total power to lead the 18-month transition, with the possibility of extending this for another term. It also appointed a civilian prime minister, a position abolished in 2018.

While Western and African governments unanimously and strongly deplored the FACT attacks, the move by the TMC has not been condemned in the same terms. Various governments merely ‘took note’ of the creation of the TMC.

Caught between principle and pragmatism

During its first meeting on Chad, the PSC, which is usually consistent in adopting a strict position on military seizures of power, simply expressed its ‘serious concern’ over the creation of the TMC and ‘urged’ the military to restore constitutional order.

In its statement it noted the relevant texts in this regard – the AU Constitutive Act, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and the Lomé Declaration on unconstitutional changes of governments. It thus recognised that the seizure of power by the TMC was unconstitutional.

The council did not, however, follow through on the logical consequences from this observation, which should have resulted in the outright suspension of Chad from the AU or a strict deadline for the junta to hand over power.

The latitude granted to the Chadian TMC places the AU at odds with its own principles

The May 14 meeting also did not lead to the suspension of the country and/or any sanctions. In fact, the PSC de facto endorsed the Chadian junta’s transition plan and its appointment of a hand-picked civilian prime minister.

The PSC did, however, state that an extension of the transition period would not be accepted, and nor would members of the TMC be allowed to contest the post-transition elections. Clearly, the PSC’s call for the TMC to focus on military and security issues – and for the transitional civilian government to organise a national dialogue and prepare for elections ­–  does not take into account the reality of power dynamics on the ground. It also does not consider the distribution of power under the roadmap announced by the TMC. 

The current transitional arrangement gives overwhelming authority to the head of the TMC over the other transitional institutions, including the government. Whether TMC members will agree not to run in the upcoming elections is also not a given, as Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno was promoted to head the transition with the view of his replacing his father in time.

The PSC’s decision on Chad contrasts sharply with its previous positions which, since the adoption of the Lomé Declaration in 2000, almost mechanically applied the mechanism suspending soldiers who seize power. In fact, the PSC has suspended any state where the military or armed groups have clearly grabbed power over the past 20 years.

 

Country Nature of the change in power Date PSC decision
Central African Republic François Bozizé, with the help of mercenaries, overthrows president André Kolingba March 2003 Immediate suspension
Togo At the death of Gnassingbé Eyadema, Faure Gnassingbé comes to power with the support of the military and after a controversial revision of the constitution February 2005 Immediate suspension
(Prior to the PSC decision, Togo was suspended by ECOWAS, which also imposed sanctions on Togolese authorities)
Mauritania A military junta led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall overthrows president Maaouiya Ould Taya August 2005 Immediate suspension
Mauritania Sidi Ould Cheick Abdallahi is overthrown by Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, head of the presidential guard August 2008 Immediate suspension
Guinea Captain Moussa Dadis Camara takes power following the death of Lansana Conté December 2008 Suspension within five days at a second meeting of the PSC on Guinea
Madagascar Part of the army overthrows president Marc Ravalomanana and brings Andry Rajoelina to power March 2009 Immediate suspension
Niger Mamadou Tandja is overthrown by soldiers February 2010 Immediate suspension
Mali Soldiers overthrow president Amani Toumani Touré March 2012 Immediate suspension
Guinea-Bissau Soldiers overthrow interim president Raimundo Pereira April 2012 Immediate suspension
Central African Republic Rebels overthrow president François Bozizé March 2013 Immediate suspension and sanctions
Egypt Soldiers led by Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrow president Mohamed Morsi July 2013 Immediate suspension
Burkina Faso General Gilbert Diendéré and elements under his command briefly overthrow transitional president Michel Kafando September 2015 Immediate suspension and sanctions
Sudan The military deposes president Omar al-Bashir following months of public protests against the regime April 2019 Delayed suspension:
the PSC initially gave the military two weeks to hand over power to civilians. The deadline was subsequently extended to 60 days. Following protests and the killing of civilians, the PSC suspended Sudan about three weeks before the new deadline.
Mali Soldiers depose president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta following several weeks of public protests against the regime August 2020 Immediate suspension

Table: Countries suspended by the AU since 2003

 

Even when the relevant sub-regional organisation has not condemned the coup or taken the lead, the AU has almost always pronounced itself decisively – as it did after the overthrow of Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso in 2014. While the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) did not immediately take a firm stand, the PSC gave the military two weeks to hand over power to a civilian government, which it did. Burkina Faso was not suspended from the AU at the time.

The latitude granted to the Chadian TMC places the AU at odds with its own principles. It tarnishes its reputation as a strict enforcer of constitutionalism in Africa and sets a damaging precedent for the existing continental norm against unconstitutional changes of government.

Why was the Chadian junta given so much time?

The AU opted for a solution that would give the Chadian TMC ample time to work on restoring constitutional order. The considerations that influenced this choice are, it seems, largely around security.

The PSC notes in its 14 May statement that Chad has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism in the Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin. It also serves, by virtue of its geographical position, as a natural barrier which, if it were to give way, would further expose West Africa, and even Central Africa, to the chaos emanating from Libya.

The security of Chad and that of the various regions, therefore, appears to have taken precedence over adherence to the principle of rejecting unconstitutional changes of government.

The current transitional arrangement gives overwhelming authority to the head of the TMC

Although the PSC also gave Burkina Faso (2014) and Sudan (2019) time, this came with strict requirements to restore constitutional order within two weeks of the first communiqué issued by the council. In the case of Sudan, national and regional security considerations were also discussed, but this did not dissuade the PSC from clearly and immediately asking the military to relinquish power to civilian authorities.

Coups a symptom of poor governance

While the AU has worked hard to disincentivise coups and other forms of unconstitutional changes of government, it has not done enough to eradicate their root causes. It should therefore consider broadening the definition of an unconstitutional change of government.

Election tampering and constitutional amendments by incumbents to stay in power have created the conditions that delegitimise certain heads of state. This fuels attempts to find other means to remove authoritarian and longstanding regimes.

The AU has to become more responsive and involved in the management of these fundamental problems and not simply pronounce itself only when an unconstitutional change of government occurs. Dealing with the material conditions that lead to military and other kinds of takeovers will yield better and longer-term results for peace and stability on the continent.

As much as it has to be practical, the AU cannot afford to waver on applying the crucial norms it has established and for which it has been cherished. The TMC in Chad should not be granted the leniency that it does not deserve at the expense of upholding the norm against unconstitutional changes of government across the continent. Such a move could undo gains in Africa’s efforts to address the scourge of unconstitutional changes of government.

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