The AU goes to Bed with Constitutional Coups but loathes Military Coups

Saturday, 06 January 2018 1059 Views 0 Comments

New coup plotters are not finding acceptance on the African continent as easy as their predecessors once did. It is becoming increasingly difficult for a coup d’etat to succeed in Africa. There’s been a critical roar by the AU and regional groupings in the conservation of the anti-coup regime in Africa, broadening it to a regime of constitutionalism. Elections have thus become the accepted means of changing power across the continent. So, ascent to power by coup is illegitimate!

This explains why, within six days, General Gilbert Diendéré’s coup attempt in the land of the upright man – Burkina Faso – would be foiled. A combination of popular opposition, regional pressure and a strong opposition from the regular army defied Mr Diendéré and his men until they backed down, with a little bloodbath. The African Union condemned the coup in the strongest possible terms and immediately suspended Burkina Faso and threatened to impose drastic sanctions within 96 hours if the civilian rule wasn’t re-instated. But was this a unique Burkina Faso experiment? I doubt.

In Africa, ideas are contagious. Burkina Faso had just set an example, and with what’s going on in Zimbabwe, I can’t help but think that we are about to witness more coup attempts on the continent. Zimbabwe’s army has taken custody of the 93-year-old President Mugabe in what appears to be a coup, but the army denies a coup is ongoing.

My thoughts centre on the following dilemma: Whereas we can all agree coups are violations of democracy, is it not also true that denial of electoral defeat and manipulation of constitutions to remain in power are a violation of democracy that the anti-coup regime seeks to preserve? Hence the question: does not ascent to power via coups have similar consequences as policing constitutionalism in Africa?

The answer is simple! The AU is just a club of incumbents who protect the interests of each other. While all sitting heads of states have an interest in dissuading their rivals (would-be rebels) from ousting them from power, few leaders want to limit their own options for staying in charge for as long as they want. When leaders strong-arm their parliaments and judiciaries to change their constitutions to stay in power after their terms end, the AU has generally played dumb. And our memories are fresh with evidence to support this claim.

Despite a two-term limit set by the country’s constitution and a peace agreement, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza’s insistence to seek a third term set off widespread violence that continues to this day. And the AU had little moral standing to insist that he step down because they are busy engineering extra time in office for themselves. In their deceitful attempt to address the issue, guess who they picked to spearhead the crisis resolution? None other than General Museveni, who, in 2005, changed Uganda’s constitution to allow him to run for a fifth term and is now working behind the scenes to cling on beyond the current constitutional age cap of 75.
Why then would anyone be surprised at the determination of the DRC’s Joseph Kabila to stay for the third term in power beyond his constitutional time limit in December 2016? Prospects for a peaceful transfer of power, on which the country’s stability depends, look increasingly remote, as he has postponed the elections planned for December 31st of this year to 2019.

If these are not coups, “constitutional coups”, against the people of Burundi, Uganda, and the DRC (and there are other cases elsewhere on the continent), how shall we term these? By constantly manipulating the constitution in their favour, are African leaders not waging war against the people they are supposed to be leading? When these constitutional coups become the norm, how shall not military coups be seen as an alternative?

I am not encouraging military coups. Absolutely not. Neither am I encouraging constitutional ones! The AU’s discouraging of military coups is to be hailed. But the regional body has been much less effective when it comes to preventing “constitutional coups.” Even in cases where leaders have claimed landslide victories in elections through rigging, the AU is often mum.

Interestingly, in his book, “What is Africa’s Problem?” Museveni wrote: “the problem of Africa in general and Uganda, in particular, is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.” Luckily, ordinary people across Africa are increasingly less accepting of the idea of a president serving for life, just as they have become less accepting of military coups. Clearly, a new era beckons for Africa. An era which will see Africa bid farewell to over-staying leaders in parts of the continent, including those whose ascent to power was through military coups, and to coups, whatever adjective precedes them.

For now, my eyes are on Zimbabwe.
Nuff said!

Hubert Kinkoh

Hubert Kinkoh currently works with the African Leadership Centre, Nairobi, as Fellowship Administration Intern and Research Assistant. He is a holder of an MA in Peace Studies and International Relations (with Honors) from Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations, Nairobi-Kenya. His thematic research interests span everything Africa; forced migration and human security; women, peace and security; youth, peace and security; transitional justice in post-conflict societies; and the political economy of conflict. Geographically, Hubert’s research interests include the Horn of Africa, East Africa and the African Great Lakes Regions.

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