Africa’s war on coup d’etats

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Africa is getting tougher on tyrants, as the African Union responses to the upheavals in Guinea, Niger and Madagascar show. But according to many observers there is still a long way to go.

Not long ago, Africa’s coup makers and autocrats felt confident they could get a pass from their fellow rulers. In recent months, however, as military officers and authoritarian presidents from Guinea to Niger and Madagascar are discovering, Africa is saying “no” — and starting to mean it.

That stance is notable. For decades, most African countries were ruled by military or one-party regimes. In response to popular agitation, much of the continent shifted to multi-party systems in the 1990s. Yet many of Africa’s newly elected leaders were reluctant to criticize less democratic peers.

‘Respect constitutions’

Now that is changing. When the Organization of African Unity transformed itself into the African Union in 2002, the new organization included among its principles “condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of government.”

“Today the norm is that people should respect constitutions,” the UN special representative on West Africa, Said Djinnit, told Africa Renewal. “Whoever makes a move that is unconstitutional should be condemned. And not only condemned, but subject to sanctions.”

But he acknowledges that progress along that road has not been easy or straightforward. Parliaments, political parties, court systems, civil society organizations and other institutions that could defend democratic practices remain weak.

For their part, Africa’s continental and regional bodies are also struggling with the question of how to uphold the principles of democracy. The recent upheavals in Niger highlight the challenges.

Niger: Coup against a coup

In Niger, the initial turn to unconstitutional rule came from within an elected civilian regime. President Mamadou Tandja was first elected in 1999, and then re-elected in 2004, providing a decade of relative stability after years of turbulence.

According to Niger’s constitution, Mr. Tandja should have stepped down when his second term expired in November 2009. But early that year he claimed that he needed a three-year extension, prompting an outcry from the opposition. The Constitutional Court ruled that any change in the presidential term limit would be illegal.

Mr. Tandja reacted by arbitrarily dissolving the court and the National Assembly and arresting many critics. With opposition suppressed, a referendum approved his new constitution, extending his term by three years, and allowing him to run for yet another term. In October the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Niger, the AU demanded a return to the previous constitutional order and several key donors cut financial aid.

Amidst a tense stalemate, military units detained Mr. Tandja and most of his cabinet and assumed power on 18 February. Thousands of citizens hit the streets to express their support for the new authorities. ECOWAS and the AU condemned the coup on principle. But together with the UN, they also promptly sent a joint delegation to Niger under the leadership of Mr. Djinnit to press the officers to follow through on their pledges to restore democracy.

Within days the soldiers had appointed a civilian prime minister and began consultations on a new constitution and elections. Seeking to reassure the sceptics, the de facto president, Salou Djibo, signed into law a ban on any member of his junta running for office. “The era of autocratic regimes,” he said, “is well and truly over in this country, which has no other wish but to be democratic.”

‘Unfinished business’

As an unconstitutional change of government, Niger seems relatively straightforward: a president arbitrarily scrapped a constitution in defiance of existing institutions. But other situations are less clear, where ruling parties use repression or fraud to influence elections as in Gabon, Togo and Zimbabwe. In such cases, other African leaders have not always agreed on how to respond.

One common target of manipulation has been the presidential term limit. According to H. Kwasi Prempeh, a Ghanaian expert in constitutional law, the adoption of such limits was an important gain for Africa’s pro-democracy movements, designed to prevent incumbents from using their power and wealth to stay in office indefinitely. By 2005, 33 African constitutions contained provisions limiting the number of presidential terms.

Some leaders tried to modify those limits but were defeated by intense domestic opposition. Some succeeded, however, including in Chad, Cameroon and the Congo Republic.

In 2007, an AU summit approved a new African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Once it comes into force it will shift Africa further in the direction of “the universal values and principles of democracy and respect for human rights,” the charter’s basic objective. Among other provisions, it recognizes “the supremacy of the constitution” and stipulates that constitutional changes be based on “national consensus.” It prohibits any “perpetrators” of unconstitutional changes from participating in subsequent elections and even warns that coup makers may be tried before an African court.

So far 29 African governments have signed the charter. But only three (Ethiopia, Mauritania and Sierra Leone) have ratified it, notably short of the 15 ratifications needed to bring it into force.

A number of African pro-democracy activists and commentators have expressed skepticism about the ability of the continent’s official organizations to push forward on their own, noting that the gains so far have taken considerable popular mobilization.

Given the number of sitting leaders in Africa who have violated basic democratic norms, commented Adama Ouédraogo Damiss in L’Observateur Paalga, an independent daily in Burkina Faso, “One can legitimately ask whether the AU is really able to face up to this repeated problem of constitutional fiddling.” In West Africa, remarked Senegalese economist Mamadou Ndione, a democratic revolution will not likely come from official bodies like ECOWAS. “It must come from the people.”

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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