Between August 2020 and October 2021, the African continent has witnessed 5 successful military coups; 2 in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021); one in Chad (April 2021); one in Guinea (September 2021) and one in Sudan (October 2021).The resurgence of military coups in Africa raises questions as to whether the reaction by the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities including ECOWAS, and the international community as a whole is effective and commensurate with the scale of the problem.
The African Union
The AU has adopted a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to military coups through the Ezulwini Framework of 2009. The organisation has also put in place a comprehensive Framework to respond to military coups and other forms of unconstitutional change of government. The major instruments which the AU relies on in this regard are the Constitutive Act, the Peace and Security Protocol, the Lome Declaration, and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance. All these instruments provide for the possible imposition of sanctions and suspension from the organisation’s activities following a military coup. In response to the military coups in Mali, Guinea and Sudan, the AU moved swiftly to condemn the coups, call for the unconditional release of political leaders who had been detained by the military, and suspend the respective countries from the organisation’s activities until they had taken concrete steps to return to democratic rule.
For Mali, in both cases the suspensions were lifted following the formation of an interim government, and Guinea and Sudan are still under suspension. In all three cases, the AU chose not to impose sanctions. Joseph Siegle and Daniel Eizenga have argued that the reluctance by the AU to impose sanctions sets an undesirable precedent for military coups as a viable means by which to ascend to power in Africa. The AU has however displayed lack of consistency in the case of Chad. The organisation simply expressed serious concern at the military’s move to install the late President Idriss Deby’s son as President despite section 81 of the Constitution providing that the President of the National Assembly should act as interim President and elections should be held within 45-90 days. The AU refrained from suspending Chad or imposing sanctions, citing the peculiar circumstances of the situation, that Chad was under attack allegedly from terrorists in Libya. The Central African Community was also against the suspension of Chad as there were fears that this would further destabilize the Central African region.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)
The response by ECOWAS to the military coups in Mali and Guinea sends a strong message that military coups are not tolerated in West Africa, and this can be attributed to the fact that West Africa has experienced more military coups than any other region on the continent. In responding to the coups in both Mali and Guinea, ECOWAS relied on its Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and went further than the AU, imposing sanctions on the two countries in addition to suspending them from its activities. Following the August 2020 coup in Mali ECOWAS immediately imposed economic sanctions on the country. In the aftermath of the May 2021 coup the regional organisation refrained from immediately imposing sanctions. Instead, ECOWAS imposed restrictions targeted at democracy and good governance, including not supporting candidates put forward by Mali for representation at international organisations, and blocking the country from hosting ECOWAS meetings notwithstanding its continued liability to pay money due to ECOWAS. In September 2021 the organisation announced that it would impose targeted sanctions on the military leaders following their announcement that they would not be able to meet the February 2022 deadline for holding democratic elections. These targeted sanctions took effect on 7 November, on the same day that the sanctions against Guinea took effect. Both suspension and sanctions can be effective tools in restoring democracy following military coups. In 2020 the imposition of sanctions by ECOWAS was one of the main reasons why the Mali military leaders moved to form an interim government, due to the crippling effect of the sanctions on the economy. Even in the absence of economic sanctions before ECOWAS decided to impose sanctions on Mali in September, the country’s suspension from the AU hindered its representatives from taking part in beneficial initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area and would therefore have an adverse impact on the economy.
The United Nations and the European Union
The UN Security Council has been consistent in condemning all the military coups under discussion here. Following the 2020 Mali coup, the Security Council renewed travel ban and assets freeze sanctions initially imposed in 2017 to 31 August 2021, and in 2021 these were renewed for a further 12 months until August 2022. The European Union in December 2020 amended its sanctions regime to enable it to impose sanctions on individuals it considers to be a threat to peace in Mali, independent of the UN. Following the 2021 Mali and Sudan coups respectively, the World Bank announced that it would halt payments for operations in Mali and that it would freeze aid to Sudan. Individual countries have also resorted to their sanctions regimes in response to military coups in Africa. In December 2020 the United Kingdom adopted regulations to ensure the UK would continue to meet its obligations under the UN sanctions regime with respect to Mali, following its exit from the EU.
Although sanctions can be an effective tool against the repeated occurrence of military coups, they do not always have the desired effect on the targeted individuals. A case in point is when the military leaders in Guinea expressed that they were not perturbed by the sanctions imposed by ECOWAS, as the soldiers’ work was in Guinea, and they had no accounts to be frozen. The prevalence of military coups despite the existence of different sanctions regimes is evidence that there is need to adopt a proactive approach to the problem of military coups in Africa. This can be achieved through the AU coming up with a framework to prevent the occurrence of coups by addressing the root causes of coups including the reluctance by African leaders to leave office.