The crisis in Zimbabwe shows the inconsistency of African intergovernmental organisations

Supporters of vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, symbolized by a crocodile toy, celebrate the end of the Mugabe era in Harare on November 22. Stefan Heunis/AFP

The initial confusion about the nature of the events in Zimbabwe on November 14 was resolved the following day by the army’s declarations. They left little doubt that what had happened was indeed a military takeover and included a call for the resignation of the country’s 93-year-old president, Robert Mugabe. A week later, on November 22, Mugabe indeed resigned, reportedly in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The facts indicated that it has been a coup d'état, so why not call it one? The answer lies somewhere between the strategy of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and the incoherence of African elites and the continent’s political bodies.

The Zimbabwean “putschists” certainly feared, in accordance with Article 30 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, a suspension and potential sanctions from the AU, something all member states are bound to apply. And given that Mugabe, in power for 37 years, had once been hailed by his peers as a “tireless militant for the independence and dignity of Africa”, they were likely to line up behind him.

Of unconstitutional changes of government

In fact, there is a broad consensus – including and especially from many African authoritarian regimes – against coups d'état or “unconstitutional changes of government”.

Article 3(10) of the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) calls for “the condemnation and total rejection of unconstitutional changes of government.” Although only 10 countries have signed and ratified this charter so far, the principle is “endorsed” by African sub-regional bodies, including the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Zimbabwe is a member state.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also endorses the charter and has recently used it as a basis for pushing out former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh.

It was on this basis that Alpha Condé, current president of the AU, currently made up of 55 member states, demanded “a return to constitutional order” and asserted that the organisation “will never accept a military coup d'état” in Harare. Jacob Zuma, current SADC chairman, also expressed his organization’s repulsion for unconstitutional changes of government.

It is difficult to deny the negative impact that military coups have on a country’s social and political stability. An emblematic case is the Central African Republic, which has experienced at least 20 putsches or attempted coups and continues to languish in a paralysing instability.

The initial condemnation of CAR putschists by regional organisations did not prevent them from accepting the given state of affairs and to participate in the process of “constitutionalisation” of Michel Djotodia’s ephemeral regime.

Regional institutions have a mandate to ensure better political and democratic governance and support their member states in that endeavour. In reality, however, they remain rather timid.

Incoherent application of principles

The charter (ACDEG) also contains the following principles:

“Respect for human rights, holding of regular, transparent, free and fair elections, transparency and fairness in the management of public affairs, and condemnation and rejection of acts of corruption, related offences and impunity.”

For African regional organisations, however, some violations appear to be less reprehensible than the military overthrow of a corrupt and authoritarian regime.

For example, on the issue of constitutional amendments for electoral purposes – as happened in the Republic of the Congo – and the accompanying violence, African regional organisations have been, to say the least, passive.

With tensions surrounding the constitutional amendment period, the AU merely urged political actors to “find a solution to their differences through dialogue”, but later appealed for the respect of the Constitutional Court’s ruling validating the presidential election, thus endorsing elections and regimes that have very little democratic credentials.

At the same time, can one be president of the African Union and criticise one’s own undemocratic wanderings, as was the case for Chadian president Idriss Déby?

This paradox is inherent to the structure of African intergovernmental organisations. The AU’s supreme body, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government (AHSG), has full powers, while the Pan-African Parliament (which convenes twice a year) is a purely consultative body, pending ratification of its 2014 Malabo Protocol.

South African president Jacob Zuma (left) with Angola’s João Lourenço (centre) and Zambia’s Edgar Lungu (right) at an SADC meeting concerning Zimbabwe on November 21 in Luanda, Angola. Ampe Rogiero/AFP

This criticism can, to a certain extent, apply to the United Nations Security Council, the supreme world body on issues of international peace and security – where the so-called P5 members hold a disproportionate power (with a veto authority), while the General Assembly, which brings together the organisation’s 193 members, can only make recommendations and decisions that serve as guidelines.

In the case of the AU, this situation shows that the organisation is dysfunctional. However, the supremacy of the AHSG is also due to the desire of member states to protect their national sovereignty – though preserving national sovereignty should not be inconsistent with upholding the rule of law.

The gap between the principled position of African organisations on coups d'état and the violation of human rights, electoral fraud and opportunistic constitutional changes by many African leaders, shows the inconsistency of their stance.

How can one reject the putsch in Zimbabwe and declare it unconstitutional, while turning a blind eye to the same regime’s undemocratic practices? How can one advocate for the absolute respect of constitutional order, yet tacitly approve the continued quasi-unconstitutional perpetuation of the Kabila dynasty in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

The spin zone

After waving the “constitutional magic wand” to try to retain power, Mugabe ended up “resigning”, according to the speaker of Parliament. A period of transition thus begins in Harare, which will be led by Emmerson Mnangagwa. The coup de force having been legitimised by Mugabe’s resignation and popular mobilisation, the new Zimbabwean authorities are not at risk of any sanctions by the AU or SADC.

However, with Mnangagwa ascending to power with the army’s help, it is not necessarily the beginning of a brighter future for the country and its people. The “crocodile”, as he is nicknamed, is 75 and a pure product of the system he helped to build and maintain. Similarly, while the army played a salutary role in Mugabe’s fall, it is now aware of its ability to decisively weigh in on Zimbabwean politics.

Will the new government make the necessary reforms, particularly in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election?

This is a critical question because the ZANU-PF, the (former) party of Mugabe and his “son” Emmerson Mnangagwa, will probably retain power. What is certain is that Zimbabwe has assuredly entered the “spin zone”.

In the end, the current events in Zimbabwe could also be seen as the closing of an era for African independence leaders, which Mugabe embodied in his country. As a nation, Zimbabwe is just 37 years old, and will undoubtedly experience further turbulence in its journey towards consolidating its structures.

It remains to be seen whether African regional organisations will adapt to the profound mutations that may emerge with the symbolic death of yet another of Africa’s founding fathers.


Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French

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