Military intervention in politics …How the AU got it wrong on Zim

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Happyton Bonyongwe,Constantine Chiwenga and Robert Mugabe

FOR the first time in more than two years — the longest stretch since the late 1950s — a coup d’état rocked a country in Africa. Late on the evening of November 14, the Zimbabwe military seized control of the capital, Harare, and placed former president Robert Mugabe under house arrest.

By Philip Roessler

The coup was vehemently denied as such by its perpetrators, but the military’s doublespeak could not alter the reality: after 37 ruinous years in power, Zimbabwe’s liberator-turned-dictator faced an ignominious exit at the hands of his comrades.

Surprisingly, the coup also confounded the African Union (AU) and threatened to damage one of its major policy successes since its founding in 2002 — zero tolerance for unconstitutional changes of government out of the barrel of a gun. Why, in contravention of its anti-coup dictum, did the AU accept the coup in Zimbabwe? What implications will this have for ending politics by force in Africa?

For decades, coups — in which a faction within government uses its partial control of the state apparatus to (forcibly) remove the ruler from power — wrought havoc in countries across Africa, undermining democracy, fomenting instability and civil war and impeding economic growth.

Between 1950 and 2010, 169 coup attempts took place in Africa, of which 51,5% were successful. For most of this period, the continent’s coup epidemic was exacerbated by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)’s capital city rule, whereby whoever controlled the capital, no matter how he/she came to power, was recognised as the sovereign representative by other states.

As events played out in Zimbabwe, the AU faced a conundrum: condemn the coup and the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF)’s de facto seizure of power, but be seen (once again) to be shielding Mugabe from his political reckoning; or accept the ZDF’s military intervention to absolve Zimbabwe — and the AU — of Mugabe’s dictatorial reign, though at the risk of legitimating the use of force in politics.

African regional organisations and their member states only began to shed their indifference to forcible seizures of power and to rethink the capital city rule around 1996-1997, after coups in Burundi and Sierra Leone toppled elected governments and destabilised conflict management efforts.

This resulted in the landmark Lome Declaration by the OAU in 2000, in which African states collectively denounced coups as grave threats to peace and democracy on the continent.

The founding of the AU in 2002 consummated the renunciation of the capital city rule.

The AU’s Constitutive Act included a provision to decertify governments that come “to power through unconstitutional means”. The AU empowered its Peace and Security Council (PSC) — the key enforcement organ of the regional organisation — to use sanctions and suspensions to police unconstitutional changes of government.

Over the last 15 years, the AU has suspended no fewer than 11 member states when groups within violated its anti-coup rule. Moreover, the PSC has been quick to sanction such transgressions, usually acting within 24 to 48 hours of a coup.

Despite these gains, there are significant loopholes in the AU’s anti-coup regime. For one, anti-incumbent forces can still use coups to unseat rulers; it is just less viable for coup perpetrators to accede the throne and gain sovereign recognition. Two, the AU has been much weaker in holding incumbents to account for undermining constitutionalism than their rivals who try to seize power via coups d’état. This imbalance is not due to a lack of rules, but a lack of will.

The AU, in the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, empowered the PSC to police incumbent “infringements on the principles of democratic change of government” (Article 23, Section 4) as it would coups (Article 23, Section 1). Yet, not once has the AU invoked Section 4 — despite innumerable incidences of incumbents transgressing principles of democratic change of government.

The contradictions plaguing the AU’s regime of constitutionalism were laid bare in Zimbabwe over the last fortnight when a power struggle within the ruling party exploded into a pitched battle for control of the executive.

The ZDF, responding to the dismissal of one of its key allies, then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, direct threats to its commander General Constantino Chiwenga and fears of losing even more power and influence if Mugabe’s wife, Grace, succeeded the 93-year-old president, launched “Operation Restore Legacy” to eliminate its rival faction and assume de facto power.

After years of turning a blind eye to Mugabe’s subversion of democracy, the AU was staring at a situation in which a coup had the potential to usher in a political transition in Zimbabwe that was popularly supported domestically and in the region.
Moreover, quite shrewdly, the ZDF avoided crossing the AU’s red line of seizing executive power — instead deferring to formal, constitutional procedures for the removal and replacement of Mugabe as president.

A sounder approach would have been for the AU’s PSC to condemn the de facto coup — as it would a de jure coup — and threaten to suspend Zimbabwe from the AU until the military released Mugabe from house arrest, handed over power to a transitional post-Mugabe government, and returned to the barracks.

In stark contrast to the PSC’s immediate and forceful rejection of nearly every other coup since the AU was founded in 2002, the AU tacitly supported the forcible removal of Mugabe from power — a position that the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), which the AU was happy to defer to in managing the crisis, also held. To justify its inaction, the AU ultimately declared the ZDF intervention did not constitute a coup d’état, after at first suggesting the opposite.

The AU, in alignment with Sadc, got it wrong and missed a valuable opportunity to strengthen and expand its anti-coup regime to include both de jure and de facto coups.

In narrowly focusing on the removal of the sitting head of state as the defining feature of a coup rather than the unconstitutional use of force to coerce elected leaders to relinquish power, it sets a dangerous precedent that threatens to undermine the strong gains the region has made to move beyond politics by the gun.

Such a policy response would have delivered a similar outcome as what transpired — ridding Zimbabwe and the AU of the Mugabe problem — while strengthening, rather than weakening, the region’s anti-coup norm. Instead, the AU endorsed a factional coup by the Zimbabwe military and its former vice-president that now sees the coup perpetrators in key positions in the post-Mugabe government in direct contravention of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

There is another important lesson for the AU from the Zimbabwe case. It would not have faced the unpalatable choice of greenlighting the forcible removal of a sitting head of state if it committed to building a more balanced regime of constitutionalism, in which incumbent subversions of democracy are addressed as vigilantly as coups by anti-incumbent forces.

Through the violation of term limits, the emasculation of free and fair elections and the persecution of their opponents, rulers are eviscerating the institutions that are essential to building a new political equilibrium in which the use of force is not needed to hold incumbents accountable.

Only by fixing the loopholes that currently plague the AU’s regime of constitutionalism — rejecting de facto and de jure coups and ending the double standards that let incumbents, but not their rivals, off the hook for undercutting democracy — will the region finally escape politics by force.

Roessler is associate professor of government at the College of William and Mary in the United States.

7 thoughts on “Military intervention in politics …How the AU got it wrong on Zim”

  1. Richard ka Gabadeli says:

    A coup is narrowly defined as the use of state influence to eject a ruler from the seat of power.

    Zimbabweans celebrated, not the elevation of ED into power, but the removal of a dictator who had repeatedly robbed them of their victory.

    It is important to note that Mugabe lost the March 2008 elections and it took the army six weeks to conjure up a story to sell to the electorate. This led to a re-run in June of the same year. To this day, June 27 represents untold crimes against humanity perpetrated on innocent unarmed civilians by Mugabe and his cohorts. To me, that was the first coup against the people by the military

    In 2013, Mugabe stole the election using his Israeli agents, Nikuv. In reality, Mugabe long long lost his agency from the people. He has all along relied on force to masquerade as a people’s leader.

    All along the army knew, the owl has no horns. Once they too withdrew their support, the poor old man was left high and dry.I deplore coups, but will celebrate the removal of Mugabe by any means necessary

    Professors, please come and meet the people and you will write more eloquently then.

  2. dennis says:

    you can do anything with bayonnettes, except sit comfortably on them……..

  3. dennis says:

    treason doth not prosper,/ what’s the reason?

    if it doth prosper

    none dare call it treason.

  4. Charles Frizell says:

    The root of the problem is that the AU and SADC turned a blind eye to the way Mugabe and Zanu subverted democracy. Neither Mugabe nor Zanu has actually “won” an election since before 2000.

    And then in 2008 again the AU and SADC sat on their hands while Mugabe was busy stealing that election that Tsvangirai and the MDC had won by a landslide. They let the creepy little Thabo Mbeki see that all effective power went to the losers of the elections.

    I do not think that Zanu has suddenly developed a love for democracy, but as others have said, almost anything is better than Mugabe.

  5. SHIBOBO says:

    Well said Charles. This debate will go on for ages, but all those who may be condemning the “coupe that was not a coupe”, what other solution were they proffering to remove Mugabe who was taking Zimbabwe down and was even prepared to let it burn and rule over the ashes??? True, military intervention should not be tolerated/encouraged, but what solution was there in Zimbabwe, when the AUs and the SADCs, as well as the UN, were complicit in Mugabe’s dictatorship and downright abuse of office and personalizing Zimbabwe to the extent that almost everyone in Zanu PF who dared stand in his way would be history? The tragedy is that Mugabe was not removed by people who hated him, or his enemies. Mugabe was removed by people who loved him, some of whom even worshiped the ground on which he walked. He then abused that love and adoration, which should be a lesson to any leaders with the same tendencies. I do not particularly like the ZDF and its leadership, but in this case, thanks to you for removing the tyrant you helped create. Hopefully, you have leant your lessons too!!!!

  6. machakachaka says:

    Grace Mugabe, Jonathan Moyo, Saviour Kasukuwere had effected a coup, by stealing the President and allowing a non-State actor, Grace Mugabe to illegally exercise executive functions. It would have been a spectacular neglect of duty if the army had allowed this to go on. All what the army did was to block Grace from being a co-President, when the constitution provides for one president. There is nothing coup about the army’s action, but there is everything coup about the G40 criminals. The AU read the situation correctly, and decided not to fight the people of Zimbabwe for the benefit of five criminals.

  7. Gold Ruyondo says:

    The army in Zimbabwe will always be blamed,for they were part and parcel of the genocide in Matabeleland,the have been with Mugabe in suppressing the opposition ,If the former guerillas now masqueraded as liberators plus their stooge MNANGAGWA want the world to listen to them and may be give them a fair trial let them tell us the full story of gurukundu/the murder of the Ndebeles

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