On the evening of February 15, 2022, there were reports of senior police and military officials being placed under house arrest in Djibouti, apparently for fear of a coup.
It is the latest in a series of coups or coup attempts in Africa – from Mali to Madagascar and from Guinea to the Central African Republic (CAR).
The popularity accompanying some of these coups, coupled with the perceived inability of the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to stem the tide of democratic ebbs and insecurity, has caused a crisis that requires a fundamental reconsideration of the values, role, mandate, capacities and resources of these institutions.
The Djibouti incident happened just 10 days after a summit meeting of AU Heads of State and Government . In its final statement , it deplored the “wave” of coups and generalized insecurity on the continent.
Since its last face-to-face summit in early 2020 (meetings were held virtually in 2021), successful military coups have been perpetrated in Mali (twice) , Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Sudan, and coup attempts, in Madagascar, CAR, Niger, Guinea-Bissau and possibly Djibouti.
The continent has also witnessed constitutional coups : rulers fiddled with constitutions to extend their tenure as happened in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire (2020). In Tunisia , the incumbent president rules by decree, without any institutional checks on his power.
Africa has also faced new conflicts and seen others expand. Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, has been spiraling into the largest and deadliest conflict in African memory . The AU appointed a special envoy for the Horn of Africa and opted for “quiet diplomacy”, which has yet to bear fruit.
In the Sahel, the area of insecurity – resulting from insurgencies and Islamic jihadists – has expanded. It has trapped and caused thousands of deaths, displaced millions and caused immense suffering. In doing so, the legitimacy and capacity of nascent democratic regimes has been compromised.
And in northern Mozambique, a rebellion , sparked by lack of government interest and a sense of dispossession, turned into an Islamist insurgency. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and the country’s security forces have been overwhelmed.
Persistent instability in South Sudan, Libya and Somalia has changed little. Again, the AU stayed completely on the sidelines, despite its military presence in Somalia.
Each of these events takes place in a unique context, however, they stem mainly from a lack of democracy and the inability of governments to ensure freedom, peace and development. These failures of symbolically elected governments have deprived leaders – as well as the democratic system – of a forward-thinking grassroots base.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also wiped out the economic gains of the past decade . It left behind an avalanche of unemployed youth and increased public debt burdens in almost every country, depriving incumbent rulers of the economic rents they could redistribute to appease the population and control and silence the key civilian and military officials.
The structural conditions that made coups and insecurity possible in these various countries prevail in the vast majority of African countries. Moreover, the successes and apparent popularity of some coups have set a precedent that may inspire others to emulate imitators.
However, an impoverished, insecure and coup-prone Africa is not inevitable. This continent continues, in fact, to witness the resilience of democracy in Malawi and Zambia, among others.
To tackle these evils and embark on the path of peace, freedom and sustainable development, two essential things are missing: first, a mental paradigm shift; second, bold measures to promote the economic, security and political integration of the continent.
From rejection to introspection
Both the AU and ECOWAS have rejected military coups. The AU has suspended four countries in one year, a record since its creation in 2002. For its part, ECOWAS operates with 20% fewer of its members: three of its 15 member states are suspended. It also imposed severe sanctions on Mali after the second coup and the lack of agreement on an acceptable transition timetable.
But the AU has not been totally consistent; for example, it did not suspend Chad following a military putsch in the country. Instead, it set preconditions for a relatively quick transition, national dialogue, and the exclusion of transitional leaders from running for office.
She remained very silent on Tunisia as well, despite the anti-democratic developments there.
ECOWAS did follow the procedure on military coups but did not publicly criticize the constitutional coups in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.
These inconsistencies have given rise to accusations of hypocrisy. Some have gone so far as to accuse the two institutions of merely serving as protection for their club of incumbent leaders .
If the AU and ECOWAS are to be taken seriously, they must engage in soul-searching and stand up for constitutional democracy, whoever the perpetrators are – be they incumbent leaders or men in military fatigues. .
And this time, they have a chance to redeem themselves with a few quick wins. The current presidents of Senegal (Macky Sall) and Benin (Patrice Talon) are serving their second and final term. Still, some fear they are resorting to dubious democratic maneuvers and even considering manipulating the constitution to stay in power.
The AU and ECOWAS should proactively engage with these leaders to get them to publicly commit to stepping down at the end of their term and perpetuating their countries’ recent gains in peaceful change of power. .
From crisis to opportunity?
Taking the full measure of the crisis should encourage the AU and ECOWAS to act. The ECOWAS Heads of State and Government instructed the ECOWAS Commission to expedite the implementation of the process of revising the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance . This is an opportunity to strengthen the capacity of ECOWAS to react to the constitutional and electoral manipulations of the power in place, in particular by reintroducing the limit of two presidential terms, abandoned in 2015, at the level of the region.
In addition, the AU should strengthen its capacity to monitor constitutional changes made by governments, as well as the undemocratic exercise and retention of power.
It must also accelerate the dynamics of institutional reform, for example by striving to strengthen the Peace Fund . A well-resourced fund would enable the AU to prevent political instability from escalating into full-scale conflict and insurgency.
The experiences of coordinated responses to the insurgency in northern Mozambique, involving soldiers from the Southern African Development Community and Rwandan forces, could serve as concrete examples. Consideration should be given to measures to address the root causes of poor governance, exclusion and gratuitous exploitation of natural resources.
In the long term, the AU, ECOWAS and other regional economic communities should strengthen economic security and integration, to some extent ensure that nascent democracies. This would allow, to a certain extent, the emerging democracies to ensure freedom, stability and constantly improve the economic situation of the populations.
It is essential to set up the African free trade area and apply the protocol on the free movement of people.
Regional organizations should also strengthen their anti-corruption mechanisms and address issues of mismanagement of resources.
Ultimately, the primary responsibility for preserving stability, prosperity and freedom rests with national authorities. But if African leaders wish to benefit from the protection of the AU, ECOWAS and other sub-regional communities, they must strengthen these institutions.
The ambitious mandate and expectations of these institutions require that they first be equipped with instruments, powers and resources.
The security of the leaders in place may lie in the sharing of power: tackling horizontally the curse of politics based on the “win-win-take-all” mode by associating the opposition with the management of affairs; and vertically, by strengthening regional and subregional organizations.
Africans must, of course, be the masters of their own destiny, but external partners such as the United Nations, the United States and China must support their efforts to strengthen the continent’s stability and economic progress.
Source: The Conversation Media Group Ltd