African Union facing the dilemma: democracy and military coups. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ahmedou Ould Abdallah president centre4s   
Friday, 15 July 2016 23:56

At Kigali, Rwanda, the agenda of the forthcoming African Union (AU) summit is already full. Held under the theme '' strengthening women's rights '', it probably will discuss the fight against violent extremism as it is a major source of concerns in many parts of the continent, spreading from Somalia to the Sahel through Egypt, Libya and around the Lake Chad area. The summit will also discuss the environmental issues and the COP 22 to be held next November in Marrakech, Morocco. Political alternation to power is another issue whose resolution will facilitate that of the other challenges. Indeed, it deserves their full attention.



The summit offers the heads of states the opportunity to update their standing on the peaceful transfer of power. Their fellow citizens expect no less.


At the 1999 and 2000 Algiers and Lomé summits, respectively, the Heads of States have adopted resolutions condemning any political takeover through anti-constitutional means. At that time, and although in the self-interest of a few leaders, these resolutions were hailed as great democratic achievements. In accordance with the AU Constitutive Act, a military coup results automatically in the suspension of the concerned country from all organs of the continental organization. And that was until the constitutional order is restored.


On this point, there can be no disagreement. This position on principles is still perfectly valid. For very long, the continent has suffered from coups led by generals, colonels, captains and even sergeants. With often inconclusive political and economic results. Today, more than fifteen years later, and as many parameters have evolved, there are a number of effective reasons to enrich these resolutions with new components.

Because of its mechanical nature, by itself, the condemnation of a coup is not enough to resolve the problems unless the AU put in place preventive measures in favor of an open political space. Locking that space in favor of the ruling party has fossilized the political systems, marginalized the opposition groups and destabilized national and foreign private sectors.


Bad governance coated with arrogance


The resolution should address the real causes and other motivations of a military coup. The military coups do not happen without causes and, because of the enormous risks involved, are not easily decided. In fact, they are usually the result of poor governance coated with arrogance. A governance that leaves no hope for a peaceful transfer of power and results in ethnic or social exclusion and endemic corrupt practices. Finally, trafficking, in particular in drugs and the subsequent mass of money conveyed, perverts the political systems.


Across the continent, the democratization process of the early 1990s is weakening. Except for the freedom of expression – with comparatively some progress - the political landscape is clouded by a series of obstructive measures preventing the possibility of a peaceful alternation to power. Moreover, the latest political fashion, the mania of constitutional amendments, has aggravated an already difficult situation. By targeting the removal of the limitation of the number of presidential terms, where it exists, that mania has further exacerbated tensions and hence fueled the jihadist recruitment.


It is rare that the AU and its external partners condemn such constitutional amendments carried out by leaders determined to stay forever in power. However, in an increasingly connected world, African citizens are no longer inclined to accept being forced to endorse all kinds of leadership. Today, like other peoples, once under the harsh rule of the one party system, they abhor as much rigged elections as playing with States’ constitutions.


What to do when a president behaves in an erratic manner: executing his opponents, encouraging the violation of human rights, using nepotism as the basis for recruitment, pervasive corruption as mode of governance and, even, declaring himself to be in direct contact with God?


Very few African constitutions have provisions providing for impeachment proceedings in cases where the head of state becomes physically or mentally ill fitted to fully exercise his responsibilities. Left on its own, the concerned country faces a severe dilemma. A military coup may end its nightmare but will lead to the prospect of international sanctions. However, accepting the status quo, means further decay of the country, with real prospects of a civil war and the evils inherent in it: destruction of the physical infrastructure, the loss of active populations including the elite in migration to the foreign countries.


It is certainly not impossible to Africans, as to their fellow South East Asians, to live under undemocratic regimes if, like them, they can enjoy the fruits of a sustainable economic growth. Hope of a better future with functioning physical and social infrastructure (roads, railways, electricity, schools and health centers,), could as in South East Asia, help mitigate the rigors of an autocratic regime.


Civilian coups and military coups


What is unacceptable, especially for the youth, are the loss / loss formulas combined to political totalitarianism and economic regression. For the increasingly globalized African citizens, the perpetuation in power of these leaders is seen as a curse and the new efforts to hand pick their successor is the final straw.


At the end, although the condemnation of military coups against a genuine democratic regime is justified, two conditions are necessary to make it effective. First, the condemnation needs to be credible. That means that AU should also condemn unequivocally any blatant manipulation of elections. These manipulations, actually genuine civilian political coups, are the real causes of military coups.

In response to a military coup, the AU should go beyond its current automatic reaction and sets conditionalities to be fulfilled by the new regime.


The following should be among those conditionalities: an independent audit of the financial, economic and the human rights situations of the country; the implementation of a credible democratic and open process; the setting up of a not too long transition period for the organization of free elections; a commitment of the civilian and military coup leaders not to run for the planned elections and to remain neutral during the transition process.


 As demonstrated by the recent unconstitutional changes of power – military coup in February 2010 in Niger and Burkina Faso popular uprising in October 2014, the AU sanctions, alone, are not a strong enough deterrent to discourage populations and oppositions determined to free themselves from regimes considered impostors.


Development partners cannot continue to let the promotion and defense of democracy and freedoms to the sole United States. At least, that defense deserves a consensual transatlantic approach amongst mature democracies and support from countries that invest heavily in Africa - China and Turkey for example - that will gain in respectability and subsequent influence. Indeed, promoting democracy must at all costs avoid double standards, in other words, defending democracy in some parts of the world and sympathizing with dictatorships under other skies.


Before the African countries recent democratization, the threat of military coups was de facto a means to moderate the power exercise. Specifically, the fear of a possible coup served as a counter power to that of the so called strongmen. In a way, at least these coups offered a sort, though not peaceful, of alternation to power.


Many Africans are now convinced that an initial good intention, the condemnation of military coups, has produced unintended consequences with perverse effects. It turned into a green light, and a life insurance, to the sitting presidents. Presidents determined to keep power forever.


Which coup to condemn?


It would be wiser to balance the condemnation of a military coup by an equal condemnation of an electoral holdup that is indeed another form of coups. The current status quo carries with it, the risk of freezing the countries in a vicious cycle of military coups in response to civilian coups.


In Kigali, African leaders should start taking preventative measures to warn, suspend and if needed exclude those regimes that do not comply with their own electoral rules and regulations. The summit will also be an opportunity to agree on a more comprehensive definition of the coups. That should obviously include any takeover of power by the military at the expense of a genuine democratically elected regime. It should also include the election parodies and the constitutional amendments of convenience, intended to perpetuate in power a man or his clan.


Terrorism, environmental degradation and trafficking are closely linked to the way countries are managed. As the peaceful transfer of power, or good governance, provides an effective insurance against these risks, the AU should look to it but with no delay. 



Based in Nouakchott, the Centre’s area of intervention is the band of land stretching from Mauritania down to Guinea along the Atlantic coast and, across the savannah, to Chad and Sudan. The main issues it ADDRESSES are: defense and security of the Sahel Sahara; armed violence and terrorism; competition for oil, gas and uranium; irregular migrations within and outside the region; trafficking in human, cigarettes, drugs, etc; environmental and renewable energies. The main priority is to help the region and its international partners – public and private, as well as those from Civil Society organizations, Universities, Forums, and others Groups, to collaborate further in order to ensure security and prosperity of the Sahel.  


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