On April 11, after months of intensifying street protests, Sudan’s military ousted president Omar Hassan al-Bashir after nearly 30 years in power. The African Union, like other international bodies, responded by expressing dismay at the unconstitutional overthrow while calling for a calm and restrained transition to civilian, democratic rule.
In theory, the African Union is committed to rejecting unconstitutional changes in government. How strong is that commitment — and practically, what can and will the African Union do when there’s a military overthrow?
When will the AU reject military overthrows?
The Organization of African Unity, the AU’s predecessor, advocated for popular participation in government by African citizens. To clarify this, the OAU passed the Lomé Declaration, which emphasized the continent’s respect for constitutional governance, the rule of law and human rights.
The AU’s Constitutive Act takes the Lomé Declaration further, stating that the organization condemns and rejects all unconstitutional changes of government and also gives the group the right to intervene in a member state under “grave circumstances” (Article 4.h).
Through the Charter on Democracy and Good Governance, the AU has the authority to sanction member states after a coup against or rebel overthrow of a democratically elected leader, or if an incumbent leader refuses to leave after losing an election. Political scientist Thomas Tieku’s research finds that the term “unconstitutional changes” is open-ended enough to give the AU some flexibility in concluding whether a situation is unconstitutional or nondemocratic.
The Lomé Declaration, the Constitutive Act, and the Charter on Democracy and Good Governance together create and normalize standards of democracy for African countries — and give the AU tools to compel states to comply.
But in 2011, events in Egypt tested the AU’s commitment to that mandate.
Government transitions in Egypt helped the AU evolve on responding to coups and crises
After 18 days of mass protests in Egypt in 2011, President Hosni Mubarak resigned and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces took power. A year later, Egypt held its first democratic election. Despite fears that Egypt’s Mubarak-appointed judges would annul the ballot count and declare the ruling military’s preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafik, the winner, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as president on July 30, 2012. After Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers, spurring mass protests, military officers toppled him in July 2013.
In response, the AU’s Peace and Security Council declared that overthrowing a democratically elected president was not in line with the Egyptian constitution — and that the July 2013 overthrow was an unconstitutional change of government. The AU suspended “the participation of Egypt in AU activities until the restoration of constitutional order,” and reinstated Egypt after the 2014 democratic election of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
But the military deposed Morsi after mass protests about his unconstitutional actions — which could arguably be considered, if not democratic, then at least representative of popular will. How does the AU decide when and under what conditions a country is suspended and reinstated — and hold to those principles consistently?
To answer this question, in 2014 the AU High Level Panel on Egypt released a report that shows the detailed steps it took to get to the decision to recommend lifting sanctions on Egypt. The report acknowledged that the AU must consistently apply its standards to all members, including comparatively power AU members such as Egypt, rather than only taking a strong stance against unconstitutional changes on “weaker” members such as Madagascar in 2010 and Guinea Bissau in 2012. In both cases, suspension was swift and definitive, with both countries quickly moving to transition to civilian rule.
And yet the AU has not responded consistently to military overthrows and other unconstitutional changes in government
The AU seemed to follow its guidelines when responding to coup attempts in Burkina Faso (2014) and in Burundi (2015). Former AU chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma condemned the Burundian attempted coup “in the strongest terms.” When Burundi’s president returned to the country amid claims that the coup had “failed,” the AU sought to mediate the political crisis, urging an inclusive dialogue, rather than discussing the circumstances that led to it. Similarly, the African Union unequivocally condemned a military overthrow in Burkina Faso and threatened to sanction junta leaders and impose a travel ban.
But after Zimbabwe’s military removed Mugabe from power, the AU initially condemned those actions — and then swiftly retracted that statement. Instead, the AU’s commissioner for peace and security, Smail Chergui, argued that “just a dialogue between the leadership of the country and the president” led to Mugabe’s resignation. The AU’s reaction to Mugabe’s removal was much less forceful than with Burkina Faso and Burundi.
Similar to the Zimbabwean case, in Gambia in December 2016, the AU refused to recognize former president Jammeh after he refused to step down after losing his election to Adama Barrow. Still, the AU didn’t take action; rather, it left it to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to engage in “coercive diplomacy” to remove Jammeh from power. Here, the AU took a back seat to ECOWAS and did not suspend Gambia from the union.
Since the African Union is inconsistent in responding to coups and constitutional crises, what will it do in Sudan? Citizens have continued to call for an immediate civilian government — a request that the military council denied Sunday. In response, the AU Peace and Security Council released a communique stating unequivocally that Bashir’s overthrow qualifies as an unconstitutional change in government and demanding that the Sudanese military hand over power to civilians within 15 days or else it will be suspended from the AU.
But will it? Given the AU’s past inconsistency, it remains unclear whether the union will leverage its capacity and mandate to offer strong support for the will of Sudanese citizens.
Emmanuel Balogun (@ea_balogun) is an assistant professor of international relations at Webster University and author of “Convergence and Agency in West Africa: Region-Building in ECOWAS” (Routledge, forthcoming 2019).
Anna Kapambwe Mwaba (@annakapambwe) is a lecturer in government at Smith College. Her research focuses on the role of African international and regional organizations in election observation and democracy promotion in Southern Africa.