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Toothless AU incapable of navigating Continent’s conflicts

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A French Army military vehicle belonging to a convoy of French troops is seen crossing the Lazaret district in Niamey on October 10, 2023. The withdrawal of the French troops had been demanded by Niger’s generals shortly after they came to power in a coup at the end of July, and French President Emmanuel Macron announced their departure at the end of September. The latest case of the growing trend was witnessed a week ago when the defence forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) thwarted an attempted coup, the writer says. – Picture: AFP

By Sizo Nkala

Military and constitutional coups are certainly back in vogue in Africa.

The latest case of the growing trend was witnessed a week ago when the defence forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) thwarted an attempted coup led by a disgruntled opposition politician, Christian Malanga, who was calling for the overthrow of President Felix Tshisekedi and his government.

On May 19, Malanga led a group of armed men in military gear and attacked the prime minister’s and the defence minister’s houses. The house of another prominent politician, Vital Kamerhe, who is set to become the speaker of parliament, came under siege but his guards managed to repel the attack.

The group also managed to break into the presidential palace where Malanga led chants calling for the downfall of Tshisekedi, accusing him of corruption and incompetence. Just like in other cases we have seen across the Continent, the coup plotters in the DRC based their actions on the failures of government.

However, the presidential guard was able to push back, killing six people, among them Malanga, in a shoot-out. Malanga was reportedly trying to evade arrest. It is suspected that his group might have been working with internal and external forces who stand to benefit from Tshisekedi’s ouster.

The DRC coup attempt comes hard on the heels of another attempted coup in Burkina Faso in January. It was foiled by the authorities before it was put in motion. The west African country is ruled by a military government that itself seized power through a coup in 2022. Mali, Niger, Sudan, Gabon and Guinea have also seen violent military takeovers in recent years.

Regimes in countries like Togo, Rwanda, Chad and Uganda have executed constitutional coups by amending their constitutions to lengthen their stays in power, in most cases against the will of the people. In Senegal, former president Macky Sall attempted a constitutional coup when he suggested the postponement of elections, which were eventually held in March after public pressure forced him to abandon his plans.

It is disappointing that 64 years after the inception of the Organisation of African Unity, constitutionalism and respect for public institutions is yet to take root in Africa.

It is high time Africans seriously reflect on the causes of the increasingly widespread coups and how to arrest the trend. There are many contributing factors to coups but the lack of constitutionalism is one of the most important. Constitutions serve as embodiments of a social contract that regulate the acquisition and the exercise of power.

While all African countries have beautifully written constitutions, only a few governments, if any, faithfully abide by their countries’ constitutions. The ruling classes behave as if they are absolute monarchs, with no limits to their powers. While most of them often claim legitimacy on the basis that they have been elected into office, most of the elections in African countries are conducted under unfree environments.

Electoral processes have been reduced to meaningless five-year rituals meant to retain the incumbents in power against all odds. Constitutionally protected protests, based on legitimate grievances, are often violently crushed and democratic spaces are closed.

The 2024 Freedom House Index showed that only 7 percent of Africa’s 1.2 billion people live in free countries while an overwhelming 50 percent live in countries described as not free, where civil rights and political liberties are quashed. In the countries, the ruling elite usually relies on a pliant military to repress public dissent and protect its rule.

As such, because much of Africa’s politics is mediated by violence in which the military plays a central role, it becomes easy for the military to seize power since it has the capacity for the most effective violence. Hence, African governments brought down by military coups are not innocent victims. By relying on the military to protect their power base through suppressing opposition, they create a Frankenstein monster against which they cannot defend themselves.

The wave of coups we have seen across Africa is also attributable to lack of strong and stable regional and continental institutions. It seems the continental body, the AU, has no effective answer to unconstitutional seizures of power in its member states. The suspension of countries where the military has seized power from the AU does not seem to be an effective deterrent for those in the military contemplating to usurp power.

The body does not have the power to impose strong sanctions on military governments. The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which was adopted to spread and reinforce democratic norms in the continent, is only honoured in the breach. The AU has preferred to maintain silence in the face of human rights abuses and misgovernance and, sometimes, appears at home endorsing the outcomes of questionable electoral processes.

However, it would be disingenuous to lay the blame on the AU and other regional organisations for the democratic erosion being experienced in Africa. The AU cannot give itself powers. It was deliberately made weak to avoid creating a layer of accountability that would expose their misrule.

Hence, as long as the ruling elites in the AU member states do not respect their own countries’ constitutions and as as long as they commit egregious human rights abuses under the cover of sovereignty, there is little the AU can do to stop the wave of military coups.

I bet it will not be long before we see a repeat of what happened in the DRC happening again in another country, if not in the DRC itself.

Dr Sizo Nkala Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies