As the African Union (AU) turns 20 this year, celebrations are under way under the motto: Our Africa, Our Future. At the heart of the transformation of what was the Organisation of African Unity to the AU was a shift from the principle of non-interference to one of non-indifference. That change towards more proactive responses was particularly aimed at stopping transitions of power by force.
Twenty years later, coups d’état are indeed rarer than they were, and – when they have returned to haunt countries in recent years – invariably provoke stern responses from the AU.
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However, the continental body has not stood up against another kind of coup – when incumbent presidents have manipulated constitutions, often to extend their terms as in Guinea (2020) and Ivory Coast (2020), or to simply suspend the constitution, as in Tunisia (2021). This stark contrast in its response when those in office abuse the system to stay on, as compared with when they are removed forcibly, has led to criticism of the AU as a club of – and for – powerful incumbents.
Now the AU must change, for this pattern of constitutional coups is spreading. Developments in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Senegal offer the body an opportunity to redeem itself and set the tone for Africa’s democratic future over the next 20 years.
In the CAR, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and his allies are attempting to write a new constitution with a view to reset the presidential term count and run for a third term. Currently, the country has a two-term limit. Similarly in Senegal, President Macky Sall is rumoured to be harbouring ambitions for a third term.
Conde organised a contested referendum in 2020 to adopt a new constitution and run for a third term. He was subsequently removed in a military coup. The AU said nothing to admonish Conde, but immediately suspended Guinea after the coup.
Ouattara, meanwhile, claimed that a new constitution adopted in 2016 reset the clock on term limits, allowing him to run again in 2020. He won more than 94 percent of the vote in an election boycotted by most of the opposition. Despite the fiasco, the AU largely remained mute.
Sall, if he decides to run again, would use the same arguments as Ouattara, and the AU’s past silence could embolden him.
To be sure, in both the CAR and Senegal, third-term attempts are already facing pushback.
Touadéra in the CAR does not have a stranglehold on the country’s Constitutional Court. On September 23, the court invalidated the attempt to rewrite the constitution. It reminded the president that he had taken a public oath to respect the constitution and not seek a reversal of the ban on third terms. If Touadéra were to accept the court verdict, it could pave the way for a possible peaceful transition in the CAR in 2026, a massive achievement that the country can be proud of.
In Senegal too, Sall knows that he would face strong resistance from the public, civil society and opposition groups if he tries to run for a third term. Notably, his former ally, ex-Prime Minister Aminata Toure, has left his ruling coalition and has emerged as a strong critic, including in opposing a third term.
Even if Sall were to overcome political resistance, he would also need to convince the country’s Constitutional Council that a constitutional change in 2016 effectively reset the term count. While this is possible, it is not inevitable.
Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that either Touadéra or Sall will play by the rules.
Touadéra’s supporters have accused judges of treason. They have even attempted to storm the court premises and were stopped only by United Nations peacekeepers. He is now trying to force the president of the court and the president of the National Assembly – who has indicated that he agrees with the court decision – to retire early, likely to allow Touadéra to re-table the reforms.
If Touadéra goes ahead and seeks a constitutional amendment – either by simply ignoring the court’s decision or after removing the court’s president – he will likely have the support of top allies who know that their positions, too, would be precarious without him at the helm.
There’s also a wild card in the mix in the CAR, in the form of Russia and President Vladimir Putin. The notorious Putin-linked Wagner Group is providing security support to Touadéra – reportedly in return for access to the country’s natural resources. Through the group has not made an express show of political support to Touadéra, he could leverage the militia’s armed clout to strengthen his ability to withstand domestic pressure.
While the court, civil society organisations and opposition groups can still tilt the balance against Touadéra’s plans, the destabilising potential of his very move is significant, particularly given the fragile political and security situation in the CAR and its neighbourhood.
Senegal’s Sall has clout too. Alongside Ouattara’s Ivory Coast, Senegal recently blocked efforts by the Economic Community of West African States to revise its Democracy Protocol to limit presidential terms to two in all member states. Senegal also banned a recent gathering and concert promoting term limits across Africa.
This is disconcerting: Senegal is considered a beacon of democracy and stability in Africa and Sall is currently chair of the AU. It is also ironic because Sall won his first election on a campaign of opposition to a third term for his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, in 2012.
AU must step up
Yet, precisely because Sall currently heads the AU, the organisation’s credibility is even more on the line.
Sall and Touadéra could set a strong positive example for future leaders by respecting term limits. But the broader AU, by ensuring that they do so, could also set an important precedent and redeem its reputation.
It should engage in proactive, if quiet, diplomacy to lean on these leaders to do the right thing for their countries and for Africa. In the case of the CAR, it should put the country on the agenda of the AU Peace and Security Council, the body responsible for keeping a check on factors that can destabilise nations. The AU should also send a prominent delegation to the CAR to insist to Touadéra that the decision of the Constitutional Court be respected, with the threat of suspension from the AU and even sanctions for failure to comply.
In Senegal, while Sall’s chairmanship of the AU makes public rebukes difficult, it also creates channels of direct communication for the organisation to try and convince him. In any case, Sall’s chairmanship will end in January 2023.
These interventions will be in the immediate interest of stability in these countries and their neighbourhoods.
For the long term, the AU is working towards developing guidelines to prevent constitutional abuses. If adopted, the guidelines would formalise the power of the AU to suspend countries and sanction incumbents engaging in constitutional coups.
But these would take time to adopt, and there is no guarantee that they will be effective.
Instead, the AU should engage more aggressively to detect and prevent instability that results from incumbent attempts to cling to power. Senegal and the CAR represent a test for all of Africa. It’s a test the continent and its top body must not fail.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.