The African Union’s Hypocrisy Undermines Its Credibility

The AU’s double standard on lifelong leaders who reject term limits undercuts its moral standing to reject military coups.

ECOWAS mediator and former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan arrives to lead talks with West African envoys and Mali's military junta on Aug. 24 in Bamako, Mali.
ECOWAS mediator and former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan arrives to lead talks with West African envoys and Mali's military junta on Aug. 24 in Bamako, Mali. John Kalapo/Getty Images

On Aug. 18, following months of protests, elements within the Malian army took it upon themselves to remove President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from power. Keita subsequently resigned and dissolved parliament. 

The coup is the third in Africa in the past three years and has yet again demonstrated that, while the heyday of military coups may have passed, they are certainly not entirely out of fashion.  

The African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) condemned the coup, suspended Mali’s membership, and demanded a return to constitutional order—with ECOWAS also demanding Keita’s reinstatement. 

The AU and ECOWAS have a credibility problem—they are not denouncing those who flout laws to hold on to power; they complain only when the military seizes it.

Prominent Malians vehemently rejected the AU and ECOWAS responses, with the leader of the June 5 Movement coalition that spearheaded the protests defiantly proclaiming: “We are going to cross ECOWAS’s red line.” On Aug. 21, huge crowds descended on Bamako’s Independence Square to celebrate and applaud the coup leaders. 

Observers also defended the military intervention as a “corrective” or “democratic” coup, with an article in an influential South African newspaper sarcastically wondering if the AU’s job was “to protect people from authoritarian regimes or to protect authoritarian regimes from their people?” 

In the ultimate irony, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who is now officially running for a third term in blatant defiance of term limits, was dispatched to Mali as one of the ECOWAS delegates to demand a return to constitutional order. 

The AU and ECOWAS have a credibility problem—these organizations and their leaders are not denouncing those who flout laws to hold on to power; they complain only when the military seizes it. 

Coming on the heels of ostensibly legal maneuvers—that can be more accurately described as “constitutional coups”—in two of Mali’s southern neighbors, Ivory Coast and Guinea, where incumbent presidents are extending their terms without any rebuke from the AU or African leaders, the Mali coup has exposed Africa’s double standards in dealing with military coups and constitutional ones; both lead to the unlawful seizure or retention of power and both must be condemned with equal force. 

When the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the AU’s predecessor, was formed in 1963, its principal aim was to battle neocolonialism and foreign interference. This principle of noninterference meant that the OAU rejected even efforts to comment on political developments in its member states. Leaders were accepted as legitimate regardless of the manner through which they came to power or the way they treated their population. Indeed, most of the leaders either came to power through coups or sat atop brutal one-party states. 

The wave of democratization in the 1990s and prominence of the idea of human rights unsettled the foundations of the OAU. With the continent virtually free from colonialism and apartheid on the verge of collapse, domestic politics was no longer a no-go area. 

The OAU recognized peace and security as preconditions for economic development, and the denial of rights and lack of democracy were linked to insecurity. This led to the formal recognition of elections as the only path to power. 

Accordingly, in 1997, the OAU for the first time officially denounced a military coup in Sierra Leone. Three years later, it endorsed the 2000 Lomé Declaration on the Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government. 

The OAU and its successor, the AU, have since adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward coups. The AU Constitutive Act also recognizes the authority of the union to forcefully intervene in cases of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. 

Although military coups have not disappeared, even coup leaders now recognize the primacy of civilian rule, as they almost immediately proclaim themselves “transitional” and promise a return to civilian leadership. Indeed, the Malian junta has promised elections within a “reasonable” amount of time.

But today’s coups are not the same as those that took place in the Cold War era. Recent coups on the continent have become more complex, and the resilience of authoritarianism and consequent popular protests have created an opening for the military. 

Consider Africa’s three most recent military coups: Zimbabwe in 2017, Sudan in 2019, and Mali in 2020. 

In Zimbabwe, the military intervention was effectively an extension of internal struggles within the ruling party, with the military siding with the rebel faction. Rather than removing then-President Robert Mugabe, the military engaged in a show of strength and party manipulation to force Mugabe’s formal resignation, under threat of potential impeachment. The rebel faction and the military also orchestrated large demonstrations to pressure Mugabe to resign. 

The AU initially seemed to call the move a coup, but it subsequently walked back the characterization. Zimbabwe was never suspended from membership. Despite the AU’s reluctance, Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has effectively continued the authoritarian practices and heavy-handedness of his predecessor, as the recent massive crackdown on opposition voices demonstrates.   

The intervention of the Sudanese military was more clear-cut. Following months of massive protests against Omar al-Bashir’s regime, the military removed Bashir in April 2019. The AU did not immediately suspend Sudan, instead engaging in negotiations to ensure return to civilian rule. The country was suspended two months later and only after a bloody military crackdown on protesters that killed more than 100 people. 

The Mali coup imitated the Sudanese and Zimbabwean script. The military intervention followed months of protests against Keita. ECOWAS’s efforts to find a negotiated solution failed, as it did not have the mandate to support the opposition’s insistence on Keita’s departure, instead proposing a compromise unity government. A mutiny on a military base on the outskirts of Bamako quickly morphed into a coup and succeeded in apprehending Keita and securing his formal resignation. 

Nevertheless, unlike in Sudan and Zimbabwe, the AU immediately suspended Mali. The strong response likely occurred because the AU expected a strong ECOWAS response and needed to avoid divergent approaches. Regardless, the inconsistencies in the AU’s response to power grabs undermine its credibility. 

The AU has repeatedly condoned constitutional maneuvers effectively establishing life presidencies, while rejecting the military removal of authoritarian regimes. Many African leaders have reversed concessions in the 1990s that sought to check presidential powers, notably through presidential term limits. 

In recognition of the new trick in authoritarian toolboxes, the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance prohibits “any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.” This vague standard was a compromise following the rejection of a proposal to specifically impose a two-term limit on presidencies across the continent. 

Despite this normative standard, the AU has yet to seriously confront an incumbent president for manipulating constitutional rules to entrench their regime, other than a failed AU Commission effort challenging the former Burundian president in 2015.

The AU has yet to seriously confront an incumbent president for manipulating constitutional rules to entrench their regime.

Just a few weeks before the Mali coup, Ivory Coast’s Ouattara (who is 78) announced that he would make a “real sacrifice” to run for a third term, and a few days later the Guinean ruling party officially asked President Alpha Condé (who is 82) to run for a third term.  

Condé’s maneuver was particularly revealing. The 2010 Guinean Constitution specifically banned amendments to the provision imposing two presidential term limits. Despite the prohibition, Condé orchestrated this March the adoption of an ostensibly new constitution, in preparation for planned elections in October. The most consequential part of the new constitution involves its silence regarding whether terms served before its adoption count toward term limits. 

Ouattara had similarly overseen the adoption of a new constitution in 2016. He promised not to seek a third term, but the new constitution didn’t mention prior terms served. After claiming that the new constitution had reset the term count, allowing him to run for two new terms, and months of equivocation, Ouattara instead announced a successor in March. 

The unexpected death of that designated successor in July brought back the third term temptation, to which Ouattara succumbed. Despite these highly questionable moves, the AU and ECOWAS have been silent.

Constitutional coups have been just as destabilizing as military coups; one need only compare the public’s relative welcoming of the Malian coup with the protests and instability in Guinea and Ivory CoastConstitutional coups have been just as destabilizing as military coups; one need only compare the public’s relative welcoming of the Malian coup with the protests and instability that the constitutional coups in Guinea and Ivory Coast have generated. Nevertheless, the AU and ECOWAS’s zero-tolerance policy toward the military option coexists with a permissive policy toward the constitutional route. 

Even as Guineans continue to protest and brutal security crackdowns have claimed several lives, there was no official rebuke. Ivorians have also taken to the streets, and many have been killed. The protest fever is likely to continue as Election Day approaches, and there is fear that ethno-religious and regional tensions that precipitated the short civil war there in 2010 could return. 

This double standard, hypocrisy, and inconsistency have exposed the AU as a “Club of Incumbents,” protecting their own grip on power while undermining the AU’s moral standing to reject popularly supported coups.   

The AU has failed to address this issue despite a range of meetings, studies, and reports. The stark contrast of the situations in Mali and its southern neighbors should provide it with a new impetus to engage in deep soul-searching to put an end to its double standards and defend democratic norms. 

First, the African Union should flesh out key elements of the prohibition against constitutional coups. It could start with a resolution banning any attempts to amend constitutions to run for additional presidential terms. Despite past failures, the resistance to such an effort could be overcome, as there are now few countries without constitutional term limits. A red line across Africa would insulate the standard from future efforts to create lifelong presidencies.  

Second, the determination of whether there is the threat of unconstitutional change or retention of government power lies with the AU’s Peace and Security Council, a purely political organ. A semblance of predictability and consistency requires the deployment of an autonomous technical body to assist the council in systematically monitoring, determining, and tackling threats to and violations of the prohibition against unconstitutional change. 

There is no place for military putsches in 21st-century Africa. But the AU’s zero-tolerance policy toward army-led coups must be applied with equal fervor against democracy-stunting constitutional coups. Anything less will fail to restore the AU’s legitimacy among ordinary Africans. 

Adem K. Abebe is an advisor and commentator on democratic governance and constitution building, particularly in Africa. Twitter: @AdamAbebe

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