The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council’s (PSC) decision on 14 May to accept the military transition in Chad sets a crucial precedent in the African system of collective security.
While the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the regional economic community (REC) for Chad, has been absent since the death of president Idriss Déby, the PSC has taken the lead in the country’s crisis management. However, the PSC’s decision to endorse a military transition with dynastic overtones raises several questions related to the AU’s commitment to the normative frameworks it has established over the past 20 years.
The PSC decision is historic because it tolerates an unconstitutional change of government by endorsing a military transitional committee mostly comprised of senior officers from Déby’s ethnic group. They have suspended the constitution and unilaterally proclaimed a transitional charter that grants inordinate powers to the deceased president’s son, himself a soldier.
A gradual dilution of normative frameworks
It is important to analyse the Chadian situation against the background of the numerous upheavals that the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) has undergone. While the case of Chad might seem unique, it actually epitomises a trend towards the gradual dilution of the main AU normative frameworks. These were illustrative of the qualitative leap forward from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) days.
First, Article 4h of the AU Constitutive Act, which provides for intervention in the context of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity, experienced a serious setback during the 2015 political crisis in Burundi. An ambassadorial-level decision by the PSC to intervene in Burundi was overturned by heads of state at the January 2016 summit.
Second, the PSC's nuanced reaction in Chad is not an exception, since it follows similar cases where the AU decided not to intervene, such as in Zimbabwe, Gabon and Algeria. In these cases, the disruption of the constitutional order was not sanctioned through automatic suspension from the AU but rather became a basis for discussions about the country's stability.
In general, these situations were resolved on a case-by-case basis, at different times, with different country membership of the PSC and, more importantly, with limited awareness of the precedents they set.
Deferring decisions to the region
The AU’s approach to these situations has serious implications. Above all, the implementation of the Lomé Declaration has been progressively permeated by the de facto ‘subsidiarisation’ of the peace and security architecture.
Over the years, the PSC's reaction to conflict situations has tended to follow the preferences of the region of the country in crisis. Even in regions where the relevant REC is sluggish and undecisive, the PSC will generally align itself with the position of those regional countries that are PSC members.
Thus, the May 2021 PSC decision on Chad reflects the views of Central Africa, where constitutionalism is closely aligned with strong presidentialism. As a result, strict compliance with the legal and political frameworks of the AU is gradually being replaced by a logic that gives primacy to state stability.
Principles cease to be principles when they are implemented inconsistently and according to the context of the moment. Of course, if their application is likely to aggravate a country’s instability, one may question their relevance. However, the arguments used by the PSC in the communiqué of its 996th meeting in favour of Chad’s stability are problematic.
They suggest that constitutional rules should be disregarded in order to protect Chad’s stability. Yet those very same rules were established to ensure predictable, transparent and inclusive changes of government.
As has been suggested by scholars, the AU’s policy on unconstitutional changes of government has evolved into a logic of protecting incumbents. In the communiqué on Chad, the emphasis on the notion of stability is indicative of this trend.
The PSC seems to be more concerned with perpetuating the status quo and the primacy of incumbent political actors than with holding them accountable for the situations their countries are facing. In doing so, it promotes a precarious stability based on personal and military rule.
In the case of Chad, it is difficult to argue that Déby’s death is the only source of instability. In fact, it is a symptom of this looming crisis, which has punctuated Déby’s rule for 31 years. The structural cause of Chad’s instability is the militarisation of political competition since the early 1970s and the limited state building that has occurred since then.
This militarisation is combined with the acute tribalisation of political lines of divide, as evidenced by the almost mono-ethnic composition of the Transitional Military Committee.
What is at stake is not so much the stability of Chad, as argued by the PSC and other actors. It is rather the perpetuation of a political regime and an economic system of predation that explain why Chad’s population has hardly benefited from the country’s oil wealth (i.e., the country’s quasi-permanent state of war).
Arguably, in the spirit of Article 14 of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, the best way to prevent any lasting destabilisation of Chad would have been to curb the militarisation of political governance rather than perpetuating it in its current form.
Therefore, the unexpected death of Déby did not create a vacuum per se. It is the unilateral establishment of a military transition that has created uncertainty, because it establishes an institutional political context that is inherently based on arbitrariness. This is a breach of both the constitutional order and the principles set out in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
The PSC's response to the crisis in Chad indicates the gradual transformation of APSA from a collective security system based on norms into a collective defence system that protects governments and regimes in the face of real or perceived enemies.
The emphasis on the threat posed by armed groups in Chad to justify support for an unconstitutional political transition demonstrates that the defence of states now takes precedence over one of the institution's key values.
Questions over the threat facing Chad
The argument about the existential threat posed by the Front pour l'alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) is particularly tenuous, given that the armed movement appears to have been permanently defeated less than two weeks after the death of Déby.
Yet the language of the PSC's decision does not seem to indicate an acceleration toward a return to constitutional order as the security environment evolves. On the contrary, there has been an expansion of the domain of the struggle for Chad's territorial integrity, with Chadian officials now emphasising the persistence of insecurity, citing Libya as a source of instability in their country.
When principles that were once untouchable are subject to bargaining, or when the argument of stability masks the inability of the governance architecture to address upstream situations whose consequences can only lead to even greater instability, one may wonder whether the ambition of the APSA to establish a system of collective security is not waning. Also, if the AU now places stability above all considerations related to the rule of law, should the frameworks established in 2000 and 2004 not be adjusted to reflect the preferences of member states?
The difference between a system of collective defence and a system of collective security is that the former focuses exclusively on military protection against common enemies, while the latter includes a concern for shared values among members of the system that bring long-term stability.
The creation of the AU out of the ashes of the OAU was grounded in the AU architects’ ambition to enhance positive values of human security and not just state security and stability, as had been the case previously.
The arguments made by the PSC in its decision on Chad set a precedent that undermines a key principle of the organisation for the sake of political expediency. While APSA organs still exist and member states appear to adhere to its principles on paper, their practices deviate from the architecture’s original spirit.
In legitimising the current unconstitutional transition in Chad, the PSC reveals the narrowness of the consensus around the AU’s ambition to be closer to African citizens, as pledged in Agenda 2063.