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Unconstitutional Power Grabs Threaten African Democracy

By Peter Heinlein
Addis Ababa
14 September 2009

African democracy is in retreat. That is the conclusion of a number of scholars and analysts concerned by several recent coups, as well as by the number of African leaders who find ways to stay in office indefinitely. African Union is encountering growing indifference, if not outright opposition, to the principle that coups are, by definition, bad.

African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping told the organization's recent summit in Libya he sees unconstitutional power grabs as the scourge of the continent.

He says the AU is extremely concerned by the emergence of coups, which constitute a serious regression in the democratic process.

The past year has seen coups or attempted coups in Mauritania, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar. Just as troubling have been countries such as Niger, where President Mamadou Tandja overturned a constitutional provision to allow himself to stay in office for another three years.

Kathryn Sturman of the South African Institute of International Affairs counts President Tandja as the 12th African leader in a decade to engineer a third term in office.

Under the current AU chairman, Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, there has been a noticeable softening of the organization's commitment to multi-party democracy.

The AU Peace and Security Council routinely condemns coups and slaps sanctions on their leaders, but earlier this year Mr. Gadhafi challenged the Council's authority. After it denounced the coup in Mauritania, the Libyan leader flew to AU headquarters to chastise Council members.

He said events in Mauritania were none of the African Union's business.

"In the end it is an internal affair that is the concern of the Mauritanian people," said Gadhafi. "It is a fait accompli."

Scholars attending a conference in Addis Ababa on the resurgence of coups in Africa agreed that AU opposition to unconstitutional change of government lacks conviction.

On the day of the meeting, the AU Peace and Security Council passed a resolution condemning Madagascar's coup leader for unilaterally forming a new government. But diplomats said the resolution is unlikely to make a difference.

Issaka Souare of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria says sanctions available to the Peace and Security Council are meaningless.

"The effectiveness of the sanction depends on the strength of the party that imposes them," said Issaka Souare. "If you look at the African Union, unfortunately, it does not have an effective power of stick and carrot, so the sanctions are very symbolic."

African leaders, at a 2007 summit, approved a new charter on democracy, elections and governance. It was hailed as a sign of the continent's categorical rejection of unconstitutional changes of government. But to take effect, 15 of the 53 AU member states must ratify it. Nearly three years later, only two, Ethiopia and Mauritania have done so.

Emma Birikorang of the Kofi Annan International Center in Accra says it is unrealistic to expect African leaders to take a strong stand against unconstitutional power grabs when so many of them came to power by the gun.

"It is difficult to condemn them, especially for African states to condemn fellow African states," said Emma Birikorang. "Most of the heads of state have been in power for 20 to 30 years. And so when they go for AU heads of states meetings it is really difficult for them to condemn say [Robert] Mugabe or Gadhafi or [the late Lansana] Conte at the time when he was still alive, because they are very senior citizens who are supposed to be wise."

Delphine Lecoutre of the Institute of Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University says the trend toward unconstitutional change of government is likely to continue because in many countries, democratic aspirations remain unmet.

"These coups could multiply because for some of them it is the easiest way to make your voice heard," said Delphine Lecoutre. "Because if they cannot be a political opposition party or have access to election by themselves, they will access by military means. And there is other reason as well. In some African countries you have a long tradition in history of coups, so it belongs to the culture of the society that you can get access to position through coup as well."

Scholars attending the conference generally agreed there is rarely such thing as a good coup. Isaaka Souare of the Institute of Security Studies argued that most coup leaders come to power promising to do good things and ending up being as bad as the autocratic regimes they overthrew.

At the same time, many wondered aloud whether Africa might be returning to a time of extreme political instability, as citizens with no real chance to express themselves at the ballot box look for alternatives.

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