African Union Not Doing Enough to Push for Term Limits, but Moves to Reject Coups

On October 2020, the African Union and the Economic Community for West African States, the regional bloc, deployed an election observer missions to Guinea as then president, Alpha Condé, was running on a controversial third term.

Two days after the election, opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo declared himself winner even before the official results had been announced. He was condemned by the government, the electoral commission, Economic Community for West African States (Ecowas) and African Union (AU) election observer groups.

The observers had declared the election fair and transparent, and rejected Mr Diallo’s unilateral declaration. That may have granted President Condé a smooth way back into the presidency, but in hindsight, it sowed the seeds of the current military coup.

President Condé served two terms after being in the opposition trenches for nearly two decades. His stab at a third term was ignored by the AU which ironically, has a long-running policy against “unconstitutional changes in government.”

Recently, the AU Peace and Security Council rejected the coup, and said it was deeply concerned with the situation in Guinea.

“The Council condemns and rejects the coup d’état,” it said in a dispatch. “Calls on the military to immediately release President Condé and all those arrested alongside with him; urges the military to return to the barracks and for restoration to constitutional order.”

This was the fifth time that the council had condemned a coup in West Africa alone in the past 10 years. The continent has had nine coups in the past decade, although there may have been up to 18 attempts.

At a meeting of Ecowas heads of state and governments last week on Wednesday to discuss Guinea, Liberian President George Weah argued that the frequency of coups was somewhat linked to the disregard for constitutional term limits.

“Is it possible that there could be a correlation between these events and the political situations where constitutions are amended by incumbents to remove term limits through referendums? Or could this be a mere coincidence?” he posed to his peers.

“If the removal of term limits is serving as a trigger for the overthrow of constitutionally-elected governments, then perhaps we in Ecowas should exert our best efforts to ensure that the term limits in the constitutions of all member states should be respected”

President Weah might have been blaming Ecowas, but the problem lies with the AU.

Since 2007, the AU has generally relied on its policy against unconstitutional changes in government including coups or coup attempts.

Bankole Adeoye, the AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security (PAPS) said last week on Wednesday there will be “zero tolerance” to coups. “Military coup is totally unacceptable. The African Union can’t tolerate power from the barrel of guns.”

There have been exceptions, however, when the continental body looked the other way after a leader was toppled, if the junta plays by a definite rule of transiting to civilian rule.

In July 2013, Mohammed Morsy, an Egyptian president linked to the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled following days of street protests against his rule. The AU responded by suspending the country from the bloc’s businesses. It later appointed a High-Level Panel of former Mali President Alpha Oumar Konaré, Festus Mogae of Botswana, and former Djibouti prime minister Dileita Mohamed Dileita to look into ways of preventing such events in future. Meanwhile Egypt established an interim government that excluded Morsy’s allies.

A year later in 2014, the AU leaders gathering in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea all but created a window for “good” coups. They endorsed the Konare-led recommendations to subtly support changes to the government if it was so authoritarian that its legitimacy was lost, that there are no clear constitutional procedures to effect changes in government, attracts massive peaceful protests to have it removed for being unpopular or low arms involvement.

Sometimes this policy has succeeded, as in Egypt when the continent quietly helped remove sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The AU also quietly endorsed the removal of Robert Mugabe in 2017 by the military. In Sudan, the AU did not threaten sanctions when the military switched sides to back a civilian protest movement and seized power from former president Omar al-Bashir.

The policy failed in Mali, which has had three coups in 10 years and Guinea Bissau. The continental body is currently watching events in Mali and Chad, which are currently under military transitional administrations.

Last week on Wednesday, Ecowas suspended Guinea from its sessions. But Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo argued that there must be more to stop coups. “What happened in Guinea is a brazen disregard for the provisions of Ecowas Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which clearly states that every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent election,” he said after the extraordinary summit of Ecowas on Guinea.

“We are sliding back to the infamous 1960s. Our zero-tolerance for coups is important, but clearly insufficient. Are there further steps that we can take to prevent coups d’état?” he said referring to the dirty decade in West Africa where almost all Ecowas members, except Senegal, experienced coups or coup attempts.

Ecowas has had four coups in the past one year, in Francophone countries.

Yusuf Lecky, a Nigerian professor of Political Science told The EastAfrican that the coups prevalent in Francophonie West Africa were an indication that France is losing its grip on its former colonies, which could eventually be good for the continent.

“Africa should not lose sleep over the issue because the French countries are finding their levels because their independence is just manifesting,” he said adding, “Their Africa culture is taking over from the colonial one and France knows that it will sooner or later leave these states to administer themselves.”

In both Mali and Guinea where coups have been experienced recently, the masterminds were French-trained commanders, signalling that the influence for coups may be something else.

Simon Alade, a lecturer at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria, said the Francophone countries were “yearning for modernity and democracy.”

“There would be no coup if France allowed democracy to thrive through well-articulated people-oriented constitutions. Where is it done that a leader will perpetually remain in power and keep shifting the goal posts because he enjoys the support of France?” said Prof Alade.

In the meantime, Ecowas said the region must work out “an understanding” with other international organisations to toughen penalties against coup plotters.

Yet Prof Alade also argued for sufficient support for those in transition, including Guinea to ensure they return to order.

“Ecowas must use its regional mechanisms efficiently to engage the military junta and if necessary, provide support for them to return the country to normalcy and democratic rule,” added Prof Alade.

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