In early September of this year, major international media organizations broadcasted a footage of a man in a regular attire sitting on a sofa barefoot, surrounded by soldiers. The man in the footage was the 83 year old Guinean President ousted by a military coup.
Guinea is the latest African country to experience a military coup. Once soldiers took control on September 5, 2021, talk of Africa and coups erupted once again across the continent and beyond.
Coup d’etats have often been used in Africa to overthrow an incumbent. With African leaders clinging to power indefinitely or for a lifetime, democratic elections and peaceful transfer of power seem to be left with a little room. This trend has continued to endure to date with countries such as Egypt in 2013, Burkina Faso in 2015, Zimbabwe in 2017, Sudan in 2019, Mali in 2020, Chad in 2021 and now Guinea experiencing coups.
According to encyclopedia Britannica, a coup is the sudden, violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group of the army. The chief prerequisite for a coup is control of all or part of the armed forces, the police, and other military elements.
Unlike a revolution, which is usually achieved by large number of people working for basic social, economic, and political change, a coup is a change in power from the top that merely results in the abrupt replacement of leading government personnel.
A coup rarely alters a nation’s fundamental social and economic policies, nor does it significantly redistribute power among competing political groups.
Regarding the major factors that sustain the phenomenon of coup in Africa, literatures and scholars attribute dictatorial regimes, corruption, mismanagement of economy and resources, lack of good governance and the absence of free, fair and periodic elections, as factors to instigate a coup.
As the factors mentioned above run rampant in the continent, it has made military coups a regular modus operandi to control power in Africa in the decades since independence. Recent events in Guinea, which resulted in the ousting of President Condé, are the latest example of the army intervening in national politics.
Observing the recurrence of coups in the continent, predecessor of the African Union, the then Organization for African Unity (OAU) in 2000 adopted the Lomé Declaration on the framework for an OAU response to unconstitutional changes of government, which defined four cases as unconstitutional change of democratically elected government. These include, a military coup d’état, an intervention by mercenaries, a seizure of power by armed dissident groups and rebel movements, and a refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power after free, fair and regular elections.
The AU also envisaged tackling undemocratic means of taking power and established the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), which essentially has five segments.
These segments work towards the prevention, management, and resolution of conflicts, for which they can collaborate with different African institutions. These are the Peace and Security Council (PSC), Panel of the Wise, the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), the Standby Forces, and the Peace Fund.
However, not all have functioned as envisaged and the phenomenon of coups has not subsided. It is well understood that unconstitutional changes of government are key drivers of insecurity, instability, and conflict in Africa. These inevitably create headaches for the AU and the regional blocks.
Even though the AU, between 2003 and 2017, suspended over 90 percent of countries that experienced coups and imposed targeted sanctions on over 70 percent, it was not able to ensure a system that member states comply with mainly because it lacks both the carrot and the stick. Furthermore, countries that have been suspended by the AU do not lose anything either economically or diplomatically. In the recent case of Guinea, similarly, the AU condemned the overthrow in no uncertain terms and immediately suspended the country’s membership.
Apart from this, there are also other factors that hinder the AU to take serious measures such as its willingness to negotiate new power arrangements, despite it being unconstitutional.
In the case of Sudan in 2019, for instance, the AU, on the one hand, condemned the military overthrow and backed its words with actions. On the other hand, it was aware that the coup came amid months of enormous protests and arguably saved the country from more chaos. In the interests of Sudan and the wider region therefore, it also had to engage constructively to avoid letting the country plunge into deeper instability. Similarly, it also preferred to remain in silence in the Chadian transfer of power, as the son of the deceased President Idriss Deby took power.
Another challenge is the model of third-termism. This is when those in power effectively refuse to resign by amending the constitution and prohibiting democratic change.
There is a growing list of leaders who have done this with few repercussions. These include, among others, Burundi’s late president, Pierre Nkurunziza, Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, the now overthrown Guinea’s President, Alpha Conde, and Côte d’Ivoire’s President, Alassane Ouattara, to mention a few.
Despite this being a dangerous trend, the AU has been all but muted. Controversy arose in connection with the application of the rule prohibiting participants in a coup from taking part in the next elections due to the fact that the newly elected President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had been involved in the ousting of the previous president, Mohammed Morsi. Given the AU’s lenient attitude towards Egypt, critical voices spoke of double standards and preferential treatment for the big member states, jeopardizing the AU’s leverage.
Experts argue that constitutional amendment by heads of states aimed at staying in power is the major factor that triggers political turmoil and violence in many African countries.
Hence, experts advised that the AU needs to find intelligent ways to end its incumbent bias. It must treat all cases of unconstitutionality with the same Pan-African outlook and fairness, whether perpetrated by a military junta or an incumbent civilian authority.
Furthermore, if the continental block is really committed to tackle the major cause of instability and chaos in the continent, it must address why the continent seems to witness more coups than other parts of the world.