AU and UN co-operation crucial for security of nations

Supporters of Burkina Faso’s new junta leader Ibrahim Traore demonstrate near the national radio and television headquarters in Ouagadougou on Thursday. Captain Ibrahim Traore was named as the new leader of Burkina Faso this week after the West African country’s second coup in less than nine months. Picture: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

Supporters of Burkina Faso’s new junta leader Ibrahim Traore demonstrate near the national radio and television headquarters in Ouagadougou on Thursday. Captain Ibrahim Traore was named as the new leader of Burkina Faso this week after the West African country’s second coup in less than nine months. Picture: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

Published Oct 9, 2022


By Welile Nhlapo

There have been a string of military takeovers of governments in Africa in the past two years. Since August 2020, power has changed hands unconstitutionally seven times in five countries: Burkina Faso (January and October this year), Sudan (October last year), Guinea (September last year), Chad (April last year) and Mali (August 2020 and May last year).

Two other African countries saw thwarted coup attempts in this period – Niger in March last year and Guinea Bissau in January this year. The events represent a sharp rise in such contested political transitions over the previous 10-year period and indicate the possibility of further instability on the continent.

Over the past two decades, the AU and Regional Economic Communities(RECs)/Regional Mechanisms (RMs) have made significant efforts in addressing the situation of unconstitutional changes of governments on the continent.

Member states have deployed efforts in promoting democracy and good governance, including free, fair and transparent elections. These also included upholding term limits, as per their constitutions. African citizens have increasingly come to rely on elections as a foundation for demanding change, accountability and responsiveness from their governments.

Still, the recent rise in military coups if not addressed, might undermine progress made over the past three decades in the promotion of constitutional order. This indicates that continental frameworks and mechanisms have failed to deter the overthrow of sitting governments by the military.

With the aim of addressing the recurring phenomenon, the department of Political Affairs, Peace and Security of the AU Commission, hosted a “Reflection Forum on Unconstitutional Changes in Government in Africa”, in Accra, Ghana, from March 15 to 17.

The forum was attended by members of the Peace and Security Council, representatives of AU member states, Regional Economic Communities/ Regional Mechanisms, relevant AU organs and institutions; African Peer Review Mechanism, African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, AU Development Agency-Nepad, security practitioners, civil society, African think tanks, academia, youth and women groups and professional organisations.

The forum, among other things, urged member states to work collaboratively in insulating national and local strategic institutions, underscored the need for the AU and RECs/ RMS to synergise their interventions in addressing the issues of unconstitutional changes of government, and called for consideration of the establishment of a stakeholder mechanism on democratic governance to facilitate the consolidation of constitutionalism in Africa through stakeholder engagement.

“It also called for a comprehensive framework establishing different categories of sanctions that may be gradually applied in accordance with the gravity of the violation or threat to the constitutional order, without compromising the well-being of ordinary, and especially vulnerable, citizens.’’

The forum’s outcome was presented to the Extraordinary Summit on continental security issues which took place in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on May 28 last year. On April 27, during the 71st session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, a panel discussion on “the Prevention of Unconstitutional Changes in Government in Africa” was held.

The panel aimed to reflect on the challenges of unconstitutional changes in government, their structural causes, strategies and solutions to address them, as well as the role of the commission and other stakeholders in promoting constitutionalism, democracy and inclusive government to enhance peace, security and stability in Africa.

In their deliberations, the panel made the following observations:

◾ Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso have rectified the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance but it did not prevent military coups in these states.

◾ In case of a military coup, the constitution is suspended, with a direct impact on the suspension of all state institutions, thereby limiting fundamental rights and freedoms.

◾ The concept of unconstitutional change of government in Africa needs to be improved as the definition in texts does not conform to the realities on the continent.

◾ The changes in government are linked to the nature of the postcolonial states, thus the question of the transformation of African states is important because as long as this is not achieved, a crisis would not be prevented.

◾ The unconstitutional change of government should not be seen in isolation; we need to bring sustainable solutions, with a holistic approach, to the crisis and other problems like terrorism and population uprisings.

The paralysis of the UN Speaking to the media on October 26 last year, following the military takeover in Sudan, UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke of an “epidemic” of coups d’état and pointed out the lack of “effective deterrence” from the Security Council, noting that the council had “lots of difficulties in taking strong measures”.

The following are observations on the response of the Security Council on unconstitutional changes of government in Africa:

◾ It appears easier for the Security Council to discuss a coup d’état when the country concerned is on its agenda, for example, Mali in August last year. The council did not discuss the coup d’état in Guinea because it was not on its agenda, with some members citing the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.

◾ When a country experiencing a coup is not on its agenda and the council decides not to engage, it has tended to use one of its broader agenda items such as “Peace and Security in Africa” or “Peace consolidation in West Africa”, as in the case of Burkina Faso on February 8, 2020.

◾ The council has, at times, discussed coup d’états under “any other business” in closed consultations, which bypasses the use of an agenda item altogether and avoids any mention of the issue on the council’s monthly programme.

◾ There is no general practice discernible in the type of outcome the council adopts following coups d’état. Products have ranged from press statements, a relatively weak instrument in the council’s toolkit or stronger outcomes such as the presidential statements and, in one case, a resolution imposing sanctions.

◾ There have been instances when the council supported the positions of regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States and the AU.

These are just some of the weaknesses in the approach of the UN Security Council that the UN secretary-general was referring to. This is partly because of the conflict of interests between mainly the five permanent members. The former colonial powers wield a lot of influence on issues affecting their interests and take the leading role in these matters.

That’s why the cooperation and co-ordination between the UN Security Council and the AU Peace and Security Council are crucial. Above everything else is the reform of the Security Council and further deeper changes in its methods of work.

For the AU and its member states and institutions is a need to implement rigorously and consistently its decisions and declarations. Civil society organisations and the populations must put pressure on their governments to implement the decisions.

The nexus between peace, security, stability, and development must guide us in the prevention, management and resolution of the scourge.

* Nhlapo is a former ambassador and national security adviser to the president of South Africa.