Opinionista Michael Khorommbi 15 April 2019

Right or wrong: Controversy over the AU condemnation of Sudan’s military coup

From 1952 to 2019, Africa has experienced 93 successful military coups. There have been 26 coup attempts since 2010. Prior to the ‘third wave of democratisation’ in the early 1990s, coups had become the primary mode for political transition and regime change. The recent reincarnation or re-emergence of coups in countries such as in Zimbabwe (2017) and Sudan (2019) illustrates that the continent’s democratisation progress is still under serious attack.

Paradoxically, one would think that the subject of coups being undemocratic or a threat to democratisation process is quite straight-forward. However, the controversy, unified hostility and opposition that arose after Chairperson of the African Union Moussa Faki condemned the military coup in Sudan shows that the subject remains controversial.

A number of African citizens took to social media platforms to display their discontent by highlighting that the African Union tends to be vocal when authoritarian rulers and elites are toppled and yet remains indifferent to the injustice, repression, unaccountability and unresponsiveness that characterise their regimes.

On 11 April 2019, Faki, in a press release which has been circulating on the internet and social media, criticised the military coup in Sudan on the grounds that it was “not the appropriate response to the challenges facing Sudan and the aspirations of its people.”

Furthermore, he advised all the stakeholders involved (civilian representatives, government, military personnel, civil society organisations, political parties, and non-government organisations) should “engage in an inclusive dialogue to create the conditions that will make it possible to meet the aspirations of the Sudanese people to democracy, good governance and well-being and restore constitutional order as soon as possible.”

The statement came after Sudan’s First Vice President and Minister of Defence, Lieutenant-General Awad Ibn Auf’s announcement of a three-month state of emergency, suspension of the constitution, the dissolution of the National Assembly and the establishment of a military-led transitional government which would rule for two years. What is of significance in Faki’s statement is his citing of the three key African Union policy instruments which meticulously describe the concept or phenomenon of “unconstitutional changes of government in Africa”.

The first policy instrument is the Lomé Declaration, adopted in 2000 in Lomé, Togo. The second is the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, adopted in 2007 in Addis Ababa. Last, the third instrument which seeks to address the issue at the continental level is The Constitutive Act of the AU, signed in 2000 at Lomé, Togo. A country cannot formally become a member of the AU without signing and ratifying the act.

Summarily, all three instruments point out to three situations which would give a directive for the organ on elections, peace and democracy, which is the African Union Peace and Security Council to convene in order to take the appropriate decisions.

The circumstances that qualify as unconstitutional changes of government are as follows:

  • coup d’état against a democratically elected government carried out by the military or any non-state actors such as militias or rebel armed groups;

  • foreign military intervention to forcibly eliminate a democratically elected government; and

  • the rejection by an incumbent government to hand over power to the victorious political party after free and fair elections.

Since military coups in Burundi (1996) and Sierra Leone (1997) which toppled democratically elected governments, the AU has condemned — with some biases of course (for example, Zimbabwe in 2017) — any member state whose political transition or regime change is/was characterised by any of the above conditions.

And with every military coup, the continental body seeks to reinforce its “zero tolerance”, and this also applies to other violations of democratic standards.

Interestingly, since Thursday 11 April, I have been reading a few comments on Twitter from African citizens, arguing that “what does he know about the aspirations of Sudanese?” and “what about the plight of Sudanese before the ousting of Bashir?”

It is indisputable that the AU’s Assembly of the Heads of State and Government has over the years been comprised of leaders whose terms of office have been questionable — ethically and morally, as they were characterised by political repressions such as murder, forcible imprisonment, torture and rape. For instance, prior to his downfall, Bashir was accused by the ICC of war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities committed in Darfur, Sudan. In 2009, the AU heads of state collectively criticised the ICC’s attempts to prosecute one of their own and co-operatively decided that they would not to extradite him to the Hague even when he travelled to their countries.

In many ways, the continental organisation’s indifference to the plight of many of the citizens who are at the receiving end of the political repression by some leaders is a fine example of why Faki’s determination to speak against coups is dismissed by many African citizens.

Faki has never mentioned leaders who are implicated in issues of corruption, gross human rights violation and authoritarian tendencies, such as being unwilling to face criticism or open political debate. How can the AU have the moral ground to speak against a coup that toppled a despot if it struggles to cultivate a culture of integrity and ethics?

As opposed to the blind admiration for the military toppling of Bashir, I think Faki’s censure is directing attention to the fact that a military coup in itself threatens Sudan’s democratic transition. In addition, it is also important to understand that the coup is also taking place at a time when the AU has relevant mechanisms and policy/legal instruments which can identify unconstitutional changes of government.

There has been a lot of criticism directed towards the ineffectiveness of the continental organisation to implement its well-articulated policy frameworks. Regardless of overseeing a volatile, complex and uncertain continental political landscape, its zero tolerance — and meaning it — should be considered as the true measure of progress in terms of implementation.

Furthermore, the chairperson’s functions and roles regardless of his/her biases is to promote and popularise the African Union’s objectives. At the end of the day, it is Faki’s overall responsibility to be vocal when there are unacceptable developments such as military coups on the continent, especially considering that in order to achieve socio-economic development, as envisioned in the Agenda 2063, we have to commit ourselves to the respect of the rule of law grounded on peoples’ aspirations, which are expressed through the ballot and not by rifles and tanks.

Thus, Faki’s criticism seeks to point out that the “resurgence” of military coups, irrespective of the ousting of a tyrant, derails the continent’s democratisation process. The improbability of military coups after 56 years since the first military coup in sub-Saharan Africa, which took place in Togo on 13 January 1963, is symptomatic of the dysfunctionality of the post-colonial African state and its failure to build institutions and practices that sustain democracy.

The unified hostility towards Faki’s condemnation of the military coup in Sudan is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, but seeks to illustrates that democracy in Africa is finding itself at the crossroad of the growing democratic coup d’état movement arguing that a military coup such as Zimbabwe (2017) and Sudan (2019) can serve the function of toppling a dictator and establish democratic rule. Within this movement there is also an anti-African Union movement arguing that the continental body is an exclusive club for brutish despots, hence it is only vocal when they are toppled.

On the other hand, there is also an African Union movement which argues that any unconstitutional political transition of an African Union member should be condemned and also subjected to sanctions. The question that I am grappling with concerns the legitimacy or justification of this zero tolerance, taking into consideration the pessimism I observed on social media from African citizens. In response to popular criticism on social media, I stand in defence of Faki, on the grounds that the military coup was not part of the aspirations of the Sudanese protesters, in light of the renewed protests.

A military coup, regardless of whether its primary objective (to topple a tyrant or despot or dictators like Bashir or Mugabe) is moral or legitimate, is in itself an undemocratic event. In the case of Sudan, the undemocratic nature of the coup is illustrated when the military is not assuming power through elections, but by the threat of force.

Ozan Varol in his book The Democratic Coup D’Etat (2017) considers coups with democratic potential. He argues that they are examples of coups that have toppled dictators and installed democratic rule (as in Guinea-Bissau, Portugal and Colombia). Summarily, he argues that not all military coups are threats to democracy.

Could the Sudan coup be one of those that would have helped build democracy? The protesters seem to disagree, and this is reflected in the renewed protests that are calling for a civilian government to administer the country during the transition. During Bashir’s 30-year authoritarian rule, the military as a state institution was not isolated from Sudan’s political landscape.

Sudanese protesters are arguing that the military cannot guide the two-year transition process to democracy, and champion democratic elections and transfer of power to a civilian government. DM

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