In the 35th African Union Summit held on February 5-6 at Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, the key concerns were the rising wave of military coups in the continent, especially in West Africa, and the lack of COVID-19 vaccines in the continent. An unprecedented number of member states had recently been suspended from the 55-member bloc — Guinea, Mali, Sudan and most recently Burkina Faso — for military putsches that had occurred in those countries.
Just a few days prior to the summit, Burkina Faso was suspended by the AU after President Roch Marc Christian Kabore’s regime was toppled by soldiers. This set of recent coups in the continent reversed a falling trend in military coups over the years. A report in the BBC quoted research by Central Florida and Kentucky Universities to point that the number of successful coups fell from 26 in the 1960s to 18 in the 1970s to 22 in the 1980s to 16 in the 1990s to eight in the 2000s and eight in the 2010s. But between 2020 and 2022, there have already been six successful military coups. The corresponding numbers for failed attempts were 15 in the 1960s, 24 in the 1970s, 17 in the 1980s, 23 in the 1990s, 14 in the 2000s, nine in the 2010s and three so far between 2020 and 2022.
Clearly the AU has been alarmed by the increasing frequency of military coups in the continent and have raised concerns about the rising number of suspensions of countries that have experienced these.
The reasons for the coups that occurred recently in two of the three countries — Mali and Burkina Faso — are related. In Burkina Faso, the military takeover in late January 2022 took place after days-long unrest due to anti-government protests demanding the resignation of President Kabore. A report by the International Crisis Group detailed that after these demonstrations took a violent turn in Ouagadougou and Bobo Diolasso, the country’s two largest cities, a group of soldiers demanded the replacement of the chief of staff and director of the National Intelligence Agency. They also pressed for more troops to fight against jihadist groups that had wreaked terror in the region and demanded relief and care for wounded soldiers.
Within a couple of days, these actions by the soldiers turned into a putsch forcing President Kabore to sign a handwritten resignation letter, and the formal takeover of power by a new junta called the Patrotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (MPSR). These moves were similar to what transpired in Mali where armed forces staged a mutiny and captured power from President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020.
The unrest in Burkina Faso has been attributed as a direct fallout of the violent conflict organised by jihadist groups in Mali that began in 2012 that has since escalated and engulfed the Central Sahel region, encompassing Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The fact that pro-coup crowds gathered in Ouagadougou to support the junta suggested that there was deep discontent with President Kabore’s regime and the Army waded in to capture power.
President Kabore’s regime sought to use the military to quell the jihadist groups in the country that included both local and regional militias, but with several instances of militant abuse and violent massacres happening, the jihadist threats only grew with some civilian support. After a lull in the violence following a ceasefire with two major jihadist groups, the violence returned in a brutal fashion with one outfit, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) in particular being responsible for it. With several people affected by the violence and security forces complaining about the lack of adequate government support, the regime’s popularity waned and this soon led to the coup.
The Guinean coup d’état occurred on September 5, 2021 when forces led by military leader Mamady Doumbouya captured the President Alpha Conde after gunfire in the capital city, Conakry, and announced the dissolution of the government and the Constitution. In Guinea’s case, Mr. Conde, the country’s first democratically elected President, had changed the Constitution by referendum to allow him to continue for a third term. This move had precipitated protests in the country, led to a government crackdown on the protestors and also led to an economic crisis. Yet again, the military took advantage of a crisis to capture power and announced the dissolution of institutions and the Constitution.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced severe sanctions on Mali on January 9, seeking to discourage further coups, but this did not deter the coup in Burkina Faso. Experts believe the three new military regimes in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso will now seek to coordinate ties among themselves to resist pressure from the ECOWAS and other international actors.
The suspensions by the AU were also to put pressure on the juntas to call for a return to democratic institutions and a constitutional order. While the AU showed alacrity in announcing the suspensions of the four countries, critics pointed out that the coup in Chad went unacknowledged. After the death of former President Idriss Deby on the battlefront in April 2021 against rebels, his son was appointed as successor following the dissolution of Parliament, government and the suspension of the Constitution. Yet, the AU has refused to acknowledge this as a coup.
The position over Chad was not any aberration. The AU has set up institutions such as the 15-member Peace and Security Council on the same lines as the UNSC, and empowered them to intervene in the case of military conflicts. But even if this has meant that the AU is more effective than its predecessor organisation, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), its record in enforcing a consensus on unconstitutional regime changes and conflict resolution has been mixed.
The rise of jihadist organisations in Mali and their spread across the Sahel region in West Africa, and the lack of institutionalisation of democratic values of governance to the tune expected by the AU’s founders (such as former South African president Thabo Mbeki) has reduced the effectiveness of the regional collective.
The other major issue that has plagued the continent is the lack of adequate vaccine access. Only 11% of the continent is fully vaccinated with supplies still remaining low. The AU’s newly established African Medicines Agency, which was set up to facilitate medical regulation across the Union will now be empowered to increase vaccination rates. With the international COVAX initiative running out of money though, and the fact that African countries import 99% of their vaccines, the recent development in South Africa where a company claimed that they had nearly completed the process of reproducing the Moderna mRNA vaccine against COVID-19 should be an encouraging one. The AU must push for the WTO and other bodies to agree to an intellectual property rights waiver for COVID-19 vaccines, and that should enable greater availability in the continent.
Critics have argued that the AU is never short of ideas or institutional planning, but lacks adequate implementation even as it suffers from inconsistency in implementing interventions in the case of conflict. For example, as the summit was happening in Addis Ababa, the AU special envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obesanjo was still setting up mechanisms to mediate between the Ethiopian government and rebels in Tigray, where the government is accused of massive human rights violations.
Crisis, as they say, provides opportunities. If the AU succeeds in its mission to address the health and food crisis in the continent, it will have further legitimacy to achieve the goal of institutionalising reforms on constitutional governance across the continent through regional intervention and diplomacy.