The African Union and the Dilemma of ‘Popular Uprisings’
May 24, 2019

By Ndubuisi Christian Ani, PhD

Since the ‘Arab Spring’ began in late 2010, the African Union (AU) has witnessed seven (7) different forms of popular uprising leading to the overthrow of ruling governments. This includes the situations in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, Burkina Faso in 2014, Zimbabwe in 2017 as well as the recent cases in Algeria and Sudan in 2019.

The instability, government crackdown and the role of the military in popular uprisings have often raised concerns about the AU’s apparent indecisive role. Critics have also accused the AU of favouring incumbent regimes during popular uprisings. In Sudan for instance, critics accuse the AU of not responding to government crackdown but was quick to condemn the military overthrow of President Omar Al-Bashir and has threatened to suspend the Sudanese Junta from the continental organisation if it fails to hand over power to a civilian administration.

While the AU’s approach is consistent with the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) which frowns upon military coups, the absence of a policy on popular uprising in its normative frameworks raises uncertainty about the AU’s commitment to democracy. This raises the need for the AU to urgently develop a policy relating to the conduct of governments as well as military institutions and relevant stakeholders in situations of popular uprisings.

Popular uprisings are remarkable expression of people’s power in a continent where some long-term authoritarian leaders rule at will. The existence of mass grievances upon which people revolt is the key focus even if such protests are laden with allegations of conspiracies. In Sudan, civilians protested unwaveringly for five (5) months until President Omar Al-Bashir was ousted.

While overthrowing dictators is good for democracy, most protesters do not have coherent idea of what leadership structures should come next. The situation in Libya remains a telling reminder of what ill-conceived uprising could lead to.

The AU, on its part, respects internal transitions, but is worried about stability and the need for civilian-led administrations. In the past, the AU have faced criticisms for propping up military governments during the era of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Since it was transformed from the OAU in 2001, the AU has consistently condemned ‘outright’ coups in Africa as part of its commitment to democracy. The AU has not relented in suspending military-led states including Egypt, Mali, Madagascar, Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. This is in line with Article 30 of the Constitutive Act which stipulates that ‘Governments which shall come to power through unconstitutional means shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the Union’.

The AU’s approach has undoubtedly led to a significant reduction in military coups in Africa. The Zimbabwean military officials, for instance, were cognisant of AU’s non-tolerance to coups when they pressurized the former President Robert Mugabe to resign in response to the civilian protests in 2017. They quickly rallied behind a civilian leadership and averted AU’s response.

To be sure, the AU’s Charter prohibits:

1. Any putsch or coup d’Etat against a democratically elected government.
2. Any intervention by mercenaries to replace a democratically elected government.
3. Any replacement of a democratically elected government by armed dissidents or rebels.
4. Any refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party or candidate after free, fair and regular elections; or
5. Any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.

Beside AU’s obvious stance on coups, the other significant aberration to democratic transition include the refusal of incumbent regimes to relinquish power after elections – a principle that led to regional action against The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh in 2017.

Another major infringement is the constitutional amendments to elongate power in line with Article 23.5 of the AU Charter. Indeed, constitutional amendments are not problems in themselves. Rather, the problem is that incumbent regimes use their leverages and patronage networks in fragile states to ensure that the adjustments and the subsequent electoral process favours them.

Successful amendments have been witnessed in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Chad, Djibouti and Equatorial Guinea thereby paving way for the re-election of incumbent strongmen. But the subtle and seemingly-democratic nature of the process makes it difficult for the AU to respond. The AU is yet to assess any of the constitutional processes as it should.

While the AU envisages an orderly and democratic transition of power, the acquisition and maintenance of power has not always been democratic and orderly.

Furthermore, the Charter is silence about the overthrow of governments by peaceful protesters. Hence, the AU’s response is only triggered when the military intervenes to overthrow a government and assume leadership of the country.

In Tunisia for instance, the AU did not react because the military did not interfere in the civilian protests leading to the resignation of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
In Zimbabwe, Egypt and Sudan however, the military played vital roles in the overthrow of the incumbent regimes. As indicated earlier, the Zimbabwean military officials averted AU’s response by rallying behind a civilian leadership. Egypt was suspended because the military assumed power following series of civilian protests.

In the recent case of Sudan, the military leveraged the popular uprisings to usurp leadership of the country. The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), on 15 April 2019, threatened to suspend the Sudanese Junta, within 15 days, if it fails to hand-over power to a civilian administration in line with its Charter.

The Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who also serves as the AU Chairperson for 2019, convened a Summit on 23 April 2019 that called for the extension of the deadline to three months to enable the military to hand over power adequately.

It is arguable that Egypt’s move could be driven by the fact that Al-Sisi regime was once subject of AU’s suspension following the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in response to series of anti-government protests between 2011 and 2013.

Some commentators have attributed AU PSC’s threat of suspension to Sudan, to a proclivity to protect incumbent state regimes in line with its predecessor, the OAU. Undoubtedly, the AU often fails to interfere decisively in internal crises in a way that lets states regimes get away too easily. But the continental body respects home-grown and civilian-led transitional processes as long as they are not led by the military or armed groups – at least in the outright sense of it.

Yet, the absence of a policy on popular uprisings makes it difficult to understand the AU’s perspective and intervention frameworks on such situations.

In 2014, the AU PSC called for a special summit of the AU Assembly to provide guidance on issues relating to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes by popular revolt. The summit was never held.

With the increasing number of popular revolts on the continent, it is imperative that the AU holds a Summit to develop a coherent stance on promoting peaceful and democratic transfer of power. The AU should also ensure that opportunists and military/armed officials do not exploit the legitimate grievances of civilians.