The credibility crisis of African regional organizations in the face of coups

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The coups in Niger and Gabon on 27 July 27 and 30 August, respectively, mark the latest unconstitutional changes of government in Africa. Since 2020, there have been ten successful coups in Africa, with six of these taking place in member-states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and two in member-states of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Moreover, in the aftermath of these recent coups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan, not counting the Gabon and Niger events, coupists have weathered sanctions and other forms of external condemnation to maintain their grip on power.

To understand the coups in Gabon and Niger, it is perhaps imperative to look closely at the recent responses of coupists to international reactions from African regional organizations like ECCAS, ECOWAS and the African Union (AU). Responses to these recent coups raise questions about these organizations’ credibility as anti-coup forces and promoters of democracy. Despite condemnations, suspensions and sanctions, juntas continue to reign. African regional organizations must rethink their approach to threats to democracy and civilian rule and pursue policies that are not just reactionary following coups but also target incumbent regimes that undermine the tenets of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (Addis Ababa Charter).

Since the 2000 Lomé Declaration, the AU has reacted relatively harshly to most coups taking place in its member-states. Further strengthened by the 2007 Addis Ababa Charter, the AU has condemned coup events, suspended affected states from participating in the AU, and sanctioned perpetrators of coups. Rather than merely compelling coupists to restore civilian rule in cases such as Gabon’s and  Niger’s most recent coup, it is hoped that these responses have the additional benefit of deterring future coup attempts. Indeed, one study has suggested that even if relevant organizations fail to compel specific coupists to stand down, the costs imposed on those coupists could still reduce future coups by credibly signaling the high costs associated with them. In short, coups are less likely when would-be coupists believe the consequences will be severe.

The AU’s efforts have been complemented by other African regional organizations such as ECCAS and ECOWAS. Admittedly, ECOWAS has been a particular focus given the frequency of coups in West Africa. ECOWAS’s robust anti-coup framework, which includes the prospect of military intervention, fits this mold. ECCAS also has its own protocol outlining sanctions in cases of unconstitutional changes of government.  However, rather than illustrating a zero-tolerance policy, inconsistent reactions from the AU , ECCAS  and ECOWAS have perhaps undermined earlier efforts to prevent coups and promote democracy.

Concerted reactions from the AU, ECCAS, and ECOWAS to coups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, and Mali have not resulted in any meaningful steps towards the restoration of civilian rule. Each case saw an initial promise that the juntas would give way to civilian-led transitional governments. As we have written elsewhere, the most notorious military dictators in history, including Idi Amin, Joseph Mobutu, and others, regularly offer initial commitments such as these. And like those earlier military dictators, recent juntas have proven unwilling to return to the barracks. Initial optimism was followed by later coups, extended timelines, and, more simply, the entrenchment of military rule through maintaining prominent roles in government.

Juntas in the three West African countries have attempted to institute longer transition timelines. While ECOWAS and AU have remained adamant that longer transition timelines are unacceptable, these juntas have negotiated and accepted shorter timelines that have been followed by ECOWAS and the AU rolling back some punishments despite the juntas remaining in charge of the transition process.

By maintaining power during the transition period, these juntas have been positioned to influence the terms of the restoration of constitutional rule. In Mali, for instance, a new constitution has strengthened the presidency, currently occupied by the junta, and is silent on whether the ruling junta can contest the presidency in the future. As the juntas have remained isolated, they have been open to and have pursued partnerships with other actors, including Russia and the Wagner Group. Throughout these developments, the juntas in these three countries have withstood suspensions and sanctions from the AU, ECOWAS and other international actors.

AU and ECCAS responses to the unconstitutional change of government in Chad have been muted. Despite Mahamat Idriss Deby assuming power illegally following his father’s death, both organizations did not label this event a coup. This is in stark contrast to regional responses to a similar transition in Togo in early 2005. Unlike his contemporaries in West Africa, Deby has avoided isolation from ECCAS. Yet like the juntas in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, Deby has maintained power as the interim leader of Chad, enabling him to influence and, at times, delay the restoration of civilian rule. In the agreed 24-month transition, Deby is permitted to contest elections aimed at restoring civilian rule. 

The 2023 coups in Gabon and Niger have taken place at a time when responses from ECCAS, ECOWAS, the AU and other actors have not been enough to convince the military to return to the barracks. In the case of Niger, this is a context different from the one it faced following its February 2010 coup: Of the 12 military coups between 1999 and 2008, civilian rule had been restored in seven cases. The 2010 coup had occurred amid a constitutional crisis and attempts by incumbent president Mamadou Tandja to extend his rule, actions that had been condemned by ECOWAS.

Further pressure from AU and ECOWAS, along with the Salou Djibo-led junta’s commitment to constitutional rule, resulted in the restoration of civilian rule in April 2011. In the 2011-2023 period following this 2011 transition in Niger, Zimbabwe’s coup in 2017 was not recognized by the AU, Egypt’s Sisi—who had overthrown the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi in 2013—was eventually recognized by the AU as Egypt’s legitimate leader, and transitions have yet to take place following coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Mali, and Sudan.

Adding to the different context are the characteristics of the perpetrators of the coup in 2023. Unlike coups in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali whose perpetrators were middle-ranking officers, Niger’s junta is led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, who has led Niger’s presidential guard since 2011. Deputizing Tchiani in the junta regime is a former chief of staff of the armed forces. Their prominence in the political-military establishment makes it likely that the Tchiani-led junta is in a stronger position to negotiate terms of the post-coup political setting especially when compared to Burkina Faso’s Traoré, Guinea’s Doumbouya, and Mali’s Goïta.

An early indication of the junta’s leverage is the current chief of Niger’s defense forces, General Abdou Sidikou Issa, pledging the army’s support for the coup despite initial defiance. This leverage may further be evident in the Tchiani-led junta’s interactions with the AU and ECOWAS. Facing suspensions, sanctions, and the prospects of an ECOWAS-led military intervention, Tchiani’s junta has remained unmoved. Instead, the coupists have attracted and sought partnerships with juntas in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Chad. Burkina Faso and Mali pledged their support for Niger if it came under attack from ECOWAS forces. The prospects of Niger’s junta establishing ties with the Wagner Group also appear likely: The coup has been endorsed by the Wagner Group that has gone ahead and offered its services to Niger.

The events in Niger point to ECOWAS and the AU facing credibility challenges. ECOWAS’ ultimatum for Tchiani to restore the ousted president Mohamed Bazoum has now passed. Although the organization has officially decided to ready troops to restore Bazoum, there is still no indication whether the use of force will actually take place. In fact, the AU’s Peace and Security Council and some regional actors appear hesitant to support the use of force to restore civilian rule in Niger and the junta continues to maintain its position and generate popular support.

On the day ECOWAS heads of state authorized the use of force, Tchiani announced a new government. Although Tchiani is now open to negotiations with ECOWAS, the junta appears to be pursuing the same strategy as those in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali in proposing longer transition timelines. Given responses of the AU and ECOWAS to the recent coups, it is increasingly more likely that Tchiani will remain in power and shape the eventual transition.

The Gabon coup highlights the challenges that the AU, ECCAS and other regional organizations in Africa face when they do not respond to other threats to democracy and human rights. Having assumed power following the death of his father, Omar Bongo, in 2009, Ali Bongo was viewed as a continuation of his father’s 42-year rule. Term limits had been abolished in 2003, which meant that Bongo could contest a third term in the August 2023 elections. In the aftermath of the previous, 2016 elections that some observers noted were marred by malpractices, mass protests against Bongo’s victory were forcibly suppressed, highlighting the questionable democracy credentials of Gabon.

Since 2016, Bongo further watered down any appearance of democracy in Gabon. Reforms in 2020 empowered the president to nominate 15 senators, further entrenching Bongo’s party’s dominance in this legislative branch.  Electoral reforms instituted before the 2023 elections reintroduced the single round system, eliminated term limits for all political offices, harmonized the dates of presidential and legislative elections, and required votes to choose presidential and legislative candidates from the same party on a single ballot. These changes guaranteed that Bongo would prevail in elections by a plurality of votes and that his party would be in a position to influence the outcome of legislative elections.

Despite fitting the Addis Ababa Charter’s definition of an unconstitutional change of government–amendments aimed at undermining the practice of democratic power transfers– the AU did not respond to these reforms. In fact, the lack of response to such constitutional amendments has been highlighted previously as a major challenge for the AU in addressing this type of democratic backsliding. ECCAS, on the other hand, does not explicitly address these types of threats to democracy and did not take any action against Bongo’s government despite civil society organizations arguing that the reform process lacked legitimacy.

It is in this context of AU and ECCAS inaction that the coup in Gabon took place. Immediately after results were announced proclaiming Bongo the winner of the August 26 elections, the armed forces led by the head of Gabon’s Republican Guard, General Brice Oligui Nguema, ousted him. Prior to the putsch, the united opposition rejected the results and alleged that the elections were marred by irregularities. Appearing to follow the script of a popular coup, the coupists stated that the elections lacked credibility and that the country was poorly governed. There have been mass celebrations welcoming the coupists although opposition leader Albert Ondo Ossa condemned the power grab as a palace coup.

Both the AU and ECCAS responded immediately by condemning the coup and suspending Gabon’s participation in both organizations. The Nguema-led junta has claimed it intends to restore civilian rule, although they have not stated a clear timeline. The junta has also appointed a civilian and former opposition leader as the interim prime minister, an approach similar to recent coups in West Africa. While events continue to unfold, the AU and ECCAS responses to the coup event and not the preceding institutional deficiencies that undermined democracy are unlikely to strengthen constitutionalism in Gabon even if the junta does organize elections to restore civilian rule.

The way forward for ECCAS, ECOWAS and the AU is to enhance their credibility through coordination and consistency. Coordination, particularly between the AU and the two regional economic communities, could be enhanced. This would ensure that coupists face concerted and similar pressure to relinquish power and restore civilian rule. In the Niger case, for instance, while ECOWAS responded almost immediately with punitive measures, the AU suspended Niger almost four weeks after the coup event.

Moreover, coordination between the AU and RECs, as well as outside actors such as major security and economic partners of the country that has experienced a coup can ensure that the coupists’ channels of maintaining diplomatic linkages are limited. Without such coordination, a junta would be able to obtain recognition, political, and material support that minimizes the impact of pressure from ECOWAS and AU.

Alongside coordination, the AU, ECCAS, and ECOWAS can improve their credibility by consistently responding to threats to democracy and human rights as envisioned in the Addis Ababa Charter. Not responding to some unconstitutional changes of government such as the 2017 Zimbabwe coup or the 2021 illegal power transfer in Chad, accepting coupists as legitimate leaders like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2014, and threatening the use of force in some coup cases but not others raise questions among the public about the seriousness of these organizations in promoting democracy.

Consistency can demonstrate to citizens that these organizations are genuinely interested in promoting democracy and good governance. The popular legitimacy of these organizations is weakened when they only respond forcefully to some coups while neglecting other human rights violations happening in member-states or actions of incumbent governments that seek to entrench their rule at the expense of strict adherence to constitutionalism.

Mwita Chacha (@chacha_republic) is an Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Birmingham.

Jonathan Powell (@prof_powell) is an independent researcher.

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