By Ebenezer Immanuel Obeng-Akrofi

The close to the consistent judgment of the insurrection in Guinea, followed by the renunciation of the Guinean constitution and further dissolution of Parliament by the military raises interesting questions about what constitutes unconstitutional changes of government in Africa.

As expected, various global and regional peace and security actors have in unison condemned the military’s takeover of September 5th, and indeed labelled it a rebellion. They likewise have called for a return to constitutional rule. What we might see next is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) threatening sanctions to pressure the junta out of power. Will this solve the root causes of what necessitated the coup?

In August last year, we witnessed a similar occurrence in Mali where the President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was ousted by the military. This was followed by similar condemnations by both the international community as well as the regional blocs. The ECOWAS and AU went further to issue targeted sanctions at the coup plotters to force them to relinquish power. This new hunger for sanctions from African associations appears to be astonishing, given the AU’s vociferousness in censuring sanctions against African states. Why has an unconstitutional change of government become the threshold of African legal standards on democracy and governance?

In the Lomé Declaration of 2000 and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) of 2007, some definitions of unconstitutional change of government are offered. These include a military coup against a democratically elected government; mercenary intervention to replace a democratically elected government; replacing a democratically elected government by dissident armed groups and rebel movements; or refusal of an active government to surrender power following loss in free, fair and regular elections.

The deliberate re-echoing of ‘democratically elected government’ represents both the specific circumstance and intent behind the Lomé Declaration. At the time, democratic constitutionalism was unarguably novel to Africa, it was to secure the authority of civilian political establishments from the ‘tyranny’ of military interventions.

Since their adoption, citizens’ discussions on democratic governance in Africa has drastically changed. The quality of electoral processes, the value of term limits, but also legitimacy, performance and accountability in political and economic governance have all become priorities to citizens when it comes to the practice of democracy and governance. Public dissatisfaction, generally articulated through demonstrations, have faced varying degrees of clampdowns, co-option and reinforcement of the status quo.

What we witness most often during these times is that regional organisations hold their tongues on critical governance issues, despite the development of an African Governance Architecture (AGA) in 2011. With only a few nations having signed and ratified the Charter, only ink-service is paid to the basic beliefs like responsiveness, transparency, accountability and civic responsibility.

If we would probe further into these recent coups and popular uprisings, we will discover that unconstitutional changes in governments are often triggered by inefficiencies in governance and power-drunkenness. Such governments are often characterised by greed, corruption, marginalisation, human rights violations, unwillingness to accept electoral defeat, manipulation of constitutions etc. Thus, we would notice that government policies and actions may lead to a resort to unconstitutional means to overthrow what would otherwise be described as an oppressive regime by those affected.

Despite this reality, in practice, however, the AU and regional organisations tend to reduce democracy to the holding of elections and selective respect for term limits. The popular rhetoric we hear is that these oppressive, corrupt and abusive regimes are sovereign hence cannot be dictated to. Meanwhile, we witness the quality of electoral processes often cited as a recurrent trigger point. Mali’s delayed and allegedly rigged March 2020 parliamentary elections is a perfect case to consider.

In recognition of these, when the notion of unconstitutional change of government prioritise a symptom-i.e. a coup or uprising, over addressing root causes such as legitimacy, corruption, manipulation of constitutions etc., the response by global and continental peace actors come into question and appears as though protection of incumbency.

Further, when such actors remain silent about government apathy on inequality, the rule of law and fair electoral governance, it puts them at odds with citizens of those countries. This may be attributed to the gradual normalisation of the legality of government actions over the legitimacy of sitting heads of state.

Africa’s tranquillity, security and governance standards are bound to be progressively tried by complex challenges. Independent and apolitical civil society organisations regularly accurately foretell governance failures. Without a political commitment to conflict prevention, global and continental peace actors will frequently if not always react rather than pre-empt such crises. It then, at that point turns out to be politically convenient to condemn a coup instead of taking bold steps to address the root causes of public disaffection to governments.

Emphasis on unconstitutional changes of government suggests a one-dimensional approach to governance crises. Hasty calls by global and continental peace actors to restore constitutional order are debatable, especially when the constitution is a part of the problem.

The situation in Guinea offers an opportunity to evaluate conflict prevention on the continent, especially with regard to governance issues. Rather than fixating on elections and unconstitutional changes of government, a comprehensive concept of democratic governance must be explored. Until then, banning unconstitutional changes of government risks being exploited by incumbents as a covet means of overstaying their legitimate tenure.

Photo credit: Alpha Ousmane Souare