Rethinking ‘Coups’ in Africa: Beyond Military Takeovers

by Abdul Tejan-Cole

by Sierraeye

The term ‘coup’ on the continent has historically been synonymous with military takeovers of democratically elected governments. However, as we navigate the complex landscape of African politics, it becomes increasingly evident that the definition of ‘coups’ needs to evolve. It must encompass not only military interventions but also instances where civilian leaders manipulate elections, amend constitutions, and extend their rule against the will of their citizens.

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, specifically in Article 23, outlines illegal means of accessing or maintaining power that constitute unconstitutional changes of government. These include military coups, interventions by mercenaries, replacement by armed dissidents, refusal to relinquish power after free and fair elections, and amendments to the constitution that infringe on democratic principles. While this framework is a step in the right direction, it does not explicitly address electoral manipulation, ‘third-termism,’ and other non-military forms of unconstitutional power grabs.

Consider the case of Guinea, where former President Alpha Conde’s attempt to manipulate the constitution to extend his rule serves as a stark example of ‘third-termism.’ While the 2010 Constitution stipulated that Conde should have left office in 2020 after two five-year terms, he explored avenues to run for a third term, thus circumventing constitutional limits. This maneuver ignited protests and instability, ultimately leading to his overthrow. Guinea’s situation is unique because the 2010 Constitution explicitly prohibits altering presidential term limits. Conde’s attempt to create a “new” constitution as a pretext to extend his rule must be unequivocally rejected by the African Union (AU). Such a stance would not only redeem the AU’s credibility but also ensure that the situation in Guinea does not deteriorate further.

Cote d’Ivoire and Rwanda witnessed similar patterns when Presidents Ouattara and Kagame altered their respective constitutions to secure third terms. In Niger, questionable elections raised concerns, while in Gabon, military intervention became necessary due to election irregularities. The recent Zimbabwean elections have garnered criticism for its significant flaws, with Southern African Development Community (SADC) and other international electoral observation missions highlighting issues related to transparency, independence, fairness, and credibility throughout the entire electoral process. Astonishingly, none of these constitutional changes or electoral controversies were met with the stern condemnation one might expect from regional champions of democracy.

The AU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have been notably silent on ‘third-termism,’ which has led to criticism that they often serve the interests of incumbent leaders. Such silence undermines the democratic alternation of power. It is high time we extended the existing framework against unconstitutional changes of government to explicitly address constitutional manipulation.

The implications of inaction are far-reaching. It sends a disheartening message that constitutional manipulation, a direct affront to the democratic will of the people, is tolerated or at least met with indifference by those tasked with upholding democratic values in Africa. This apathy inadvertently signals to power-hungry elites that they can exploit legal loopholes to stay in office indefinitely, all without facing substantial repercussions.

To safeguard the democratic aspirations of African nations and prevent the recurrence of military coups, it is imperative that we address these constitutional manipulations head-on. It’s not enough to define ‘coups’ merely in military terms. We must redefine ‘coups’ in Africa to include non-military forms of unconstitutional power grabs, thus strengthening our commitment to democracy.

Recent celebrations by African of coups on social media have outraged many older intellectuals, but it’s essential to understand that this support for military intervention does not necessarily stem from contempt for democracy. Rather, it is a response to years of electoral fraud, corruption, and oppression.

Africans have experienced a dilution of democracy, where elections are marred by irregularities, repression, and political show trials. Leaders who manipulate elections and consolidate power strip citizens of basic freedoms and human rights. We are no longer reaping the dividends of democracy. Many see military intervention as regrettable and unfortunate as it is, as the only way to break free from this oppressive cycle.

Redefining ‘coups’ in Africa to encompass non-military forms of unconstitutional power grabs is imperative for safeguarding democracy on the continent. The AU and ECOWAS must confront ‘third-termism’ and other constitutional manipulations head-on. Furthermore, gaining insight into the frustrations and motivations of Africans is essential for rebuilding the foundations of democracy. It is high time for African leaders, intellectuals, and institutions to engage in a more inclusive dialogue that mirrors the evolving political landscape on the continent and takes concrete actions to protect democratic values. Ultimately, a universal commitment to applying the same level of global outrage and condemnation to third-termism and fraudulent elections is necessary, recognizing that all these actions fundamentally constitute unconstitutional changes of government and pose significant threats to democracy.

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