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Mali lessons for African leaders

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PHOTO: ANNIE RISEMBERG / AFP

Recent events in Mali — which saw massive popular protests culminating in a military coup on August 18 — have invoked the spectre of the return to power in Africa of “men on the horseback.” Yet as I explained on this page on February 2, 2017, there are three retarding trends to the democratic transition in Africa. These are unconstitutional changes of government; tenure elongation beyond constitutional limits; and ignoring electoral outcomes. Of three retarding trends, a coup is the most flagrant breach of democracy. Even so, tenure elongation and vote-rigging can have very corrosive effects on democracy. Africa has robust normative frameworks for deterring unconstitutional changes of government and for advancing democracy, election and governance. These are respectively codified in Article 30 of the African Union Constitutive Act, 2002; and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, 2012. In practice, the provisions of these normative frameworks have increasingly been honoured more in the breach than in observance.

Regional and global responses to the coup in Mali followed a predictable pattern. ECOWAS, the African Union, and the United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the coup. They also called on the military to reinstate the deposed leaders and restore constitutional rule. ECOWAS and the African Union suspended the membership of Mali. ECOWAS cut off transport, trade and financial links with Mali and imposed sanctions on the coup leaders. Recognising the gravity of the Mali situation early on, ECOWAS engaged the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, when street protests first erupted in reaction to the manoeuvres that resulted in overturning the opposition’s March 2020 parliamentary electoral gains and dissatisfaction with heightened insurgency. Former President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria was dispatched, as Special Envoy, to Mali, both before and after the coup. In the end, the political impasse created by the coup was resolved with mutual agreement on: releasing the detained president; accepting a Transition Charter committing to a transitional government led by a civilian President and Prime Minister for a duration of 18 months; dissolution of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP); and lifting of sanctions after the inauguration of the Transition President and Prime Minister.

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Low as the expectations were that military coups would be deterred by Article 30 on unconstitutional changes of government, the experience has been worse. Though coups have become less frequent in Africa, there have been 18 coups in 13 African countries between 2002 and 2020. This translates to an average of one coup per year, since the Constitutive Act was adopted. These occurred in Burkina Faso (2015); the Central African Republic (2003); Egypt (2013); Guinea (2008); Guinea-Bissau (2003, 2004, 2012); Madagascar (2002, 2009); Mali (2012, 2020); Mauritania (2005, 2008); Niger (2010); São Tomé and Príncipe (2003); Sudan (2019), Togo (2005) and Zimbabwe (2017). Equally, any hope that elections in all African countries would strictly conform to the letter and spirit of the African Charter remains largely unrealised.

Meanwhile, the number of African countries, where the leaders have used various legal devices and political manoeuvres to extended their tenures beyond two terms since 2012, now stands at 13. African leaders who over stay their tenure argue that they provide political stability needed to buttress economic growth and development. Those countries’ performance rarely validates such claims.

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The 18 coups can be classified into two categories: those that rode on the back of popular protests—reflecting deep popular dissatisfaction with the incumbent governments— in Burkina Faso (2015), Zimbabwe (2017), Sudan (2019) and Mali (2020); and those that did not. In Mali, the leaders of the coalition of civil society and opposition (June 5 Movement-RFP), believe the military helped to “complete the struggle”. This calls to mind President Kennedy’s famous remarks in 1962: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Peaceful political changes rely mostly on campaigns with civil resistance and rallies, including various forms of non-violent protests. Peaceful protest is second only to voting as a vehicle for expressing popular will in the political process. And yet, many African governments that wear the label of democracy harshly clamp down on peaceful protests in their countries, thus drastically reducing avenues for airing legitimate grievances.

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African leaders – and the relevant regional institutions – need to learn three important lessons from the Mali experience. First, African regional institutions are paying insufficient attention to the flaws in the electoral processes in their member states. There is a growing sense that the AU and the regional economic communities are more interested in endorsing the positions of incumbent governments, on electoral outcomes, than in holding them to the principles and codes enshrined in the African Charter. If the citizens of African countries come to believe that African institutions reflexively side with incumbent governments, regardless of how flawed their national elections are, how badly their countries are governed, and how repressive their leaders have become; they would conclude that African institutions assign higher premium to the interests of the state over those of the people. Second, the resulting disconnect between the precepts — set out in the normative frameworks — and democratic practice in Africa, will create a credibility gap that will be harmful to mediation efforts by African regional institutions. Third, in order to overcome the growing evidence of double standards relative to tenure elongation and coups, the African Union must apply the sanctions clause in Article 23 (5) of the African Charter as vigorously and consistently as it does in invoking Article 30 on unconstitutional changes of government in the African Union Constitutive Act. Failure to do so will put the democratic transition in Africa in great peril. Overall, the best antidote to coups and popular protests is responsible governance anchored on economic equity, social justice and rule of law.

Otobo is non-resident senior fellow at Global Governance Institute, Brussels, Belgium.

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