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  • Writer's pictureBJIL

The Collapse of the Coup-Proofing Mechanism of AU & ECOWAS

About the author: Weifeng Yang (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2025) is an Assistant Contributor. His interests include administrative law, EU law, and international and comparative law. Weifeng holds a B.A. in Government and History and a Master of Public Administration from Cornell University. Before law school, Weifeng interned at Human Rights Watch Asia Division. He is a native Mandarin Chinese speaker.

Joint military exercise of the U.S. and ECOWAS member states to increase the forces' capability to conduct AU/UN mandated Peace Operations. Image by U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, available here.

African Union and ECOWAS's reputation of coup-prevention

Polity in Africa is often considered unstable and plagued with coups in the popular imagination. As early as 1966, just years after most African states gained independence, the European characters in Ousmane Sembene's "Black Girl" would refer to governments in Africa as "come and go" and predict Senegal may soon follow suit (ironically, Senegal has never experienced successful coups). Such categorization bears some truth. Africa accounts for 106 out of the 242 successful coups since 1950, more than any other continent. 

However, the situation becomes very different when looking at the years after the formation of the African Union (AU) in 2002. A comprehensive research comparing instances of successful coups in Africa (1950-2014) before and after 2002 showed a 58% reduction in the occurrence of coups and attempted coups. Some studies attribute this decline to a post-Cold War global paradigm shift against unconstitutional methods in the transition of power, while others look to regional international organizations, such as the African Union, adopting more robust anti-coup mechanisms as the reason. 

Indeed, unlike the Cold War years of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), where coup leaders are regularly welcomed into the fold, the AU has an explicit anti-coup mechanism in place, culminating in the adoption of the "African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance," where Article 23 explicitly authorized the Union to draw "appropriate sanctions" against "any putsch or coup d'Etat against a democratically elected government." We have seen such suspension of AU membership regularly implemented in the intervening years, from Egypt after the 2013 coup to the recent Niger coup last year.  

Among the regions with the most drastic improvement is West Africa, where the vast majority of the successful coups during this period occurred. The regional grouping, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has emerged as a surprising success story in turning such a volatile region around. Under its auspice, ECOWAS conducted a series of largely successful military interventions of its member states to restore constitutional order in all forms of crisis, from intervening in civil wars (Liberia in 1990 and 2003, Sierra Leone in 1997, Ivory Coast in 2003), to coup prevention (Mali in 2013), and even to depose a sitting president who refused to vacate the office after losing the presidential election (The Gambia in 2017). Indeed, with the 2017 intervention that deposed Yayha Jammeh from the presidency, all member countries but Togo operate under a civilian-elected government. 

The Re-emergence of Coups: Two Prevailing Theories

The situation has significantly deteriorated since 2020. From the 2020 Malian coup, seven countries -Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan, and Gabon- have experienced nine coups, with Mali & Burkina Faso each suffering two, in 3 years. Four of these countries & six of these coups occurred within ECOWAS member states. Indeed, despite all countries except Chad having their AU & ECOWAS membership suspended, we still faced a historic and absurd number of suspended member states. 

This state of emergency is reflected in how ECOWAS, in reaction to the Niger coup, drew an initial hardline position that threatened military invasion as it sensed its reputation in coup-proofing had been exposed in abject failure. 

In reaction to these quick developments, two theories quickly emerged to explain this sudden failure in AU & ECOWAS's institutional ability to prevent military coups. The first theory is that civilian governments do not produce the "democratic dividend" many citizens of African states hoped democracy would bring. Years of incompetence in governance by longtime dictators in many of these countries were followed by democratization, only for the first generations of democratic leaders to be lackluster in their governance. In Guinea, following longtime dictator Lansana Conté's death in 2008, Alpha Conde, a leading opposition leader, was elected president in 2010, marking the first peaceful transition of power in Guinea's history. The newly-elected Conde, however, led a corrupt regime, amended the constitution to allow for a third term, and pursued such a term in 2020, only to be overthrown in a military coup the following year cheered by the crowds on the streets of Conakry. Similarly, in Burkina Faso, the security situation worsened significantly after the former dictator Blaise Compaore was deposed in the 2014 uprising. 

Another reason proposed is that the "coup-proofing" strategy of AU and ECOWAS had been conspicuously selective in its anti-coup mechanism against only military but not "constitutional" coups. The term "constitutional coup” means mainly "self-coup": extra-constitutional measures, including outright abrogation or suspension of the constitutional order and radical changes to the constitution that break the democratic spirit made by the incumbent government rather than by mutinied soldiers. Examples include President of Tunisia Kaies Saied's action to dissolve the government and enact a state of emergency, presidential attempts at running a third term across the continent from Guinea to Rwanda and from Central African Republic to Zambia, and open attempt at electoral fraud to keep deeply entrenched authoritarian regimes from Angola's MPLA ruling since 1975 to Equatorial Guinea's President Obiang ruling since 1979. None of these actions were met with any sanctions from AU or ECOWAS. One out of nine coups in the past three years (Chad) did not face any suspension because it was perceived to be an effort to keep the power within the president's family after the unexpected death of President Idriss Deby, with his son Mahamat Deby succeeding him. Such hypocrisy eroded the legitimacy of AU & ECOWAS in coup prevention, as the populace will perceive them as merely part of a larger effort to support the status quo rather than for democracy. 

The Lack of "Supranational" Apparatus in ECOWAS and AU

Beyond the two theories above, I propose that ECOWAS and AU remain woefully un-supranational despite their seeming aggressiveness in enforcing norms beyond national sovereignty so that they remain principally more a "president's club" than a supranational union like the EU. In this way, they cannot enforce principle-driven policies beyond the interests of the executives of its member states. This applies both on an institutional and a personality level.

On the institutional level, neither AU nor ECOWAS has effective “union-level” institutions that make them true autonomous bodies regarding policy matters. At a glance, the AU Commission and the ECOWAS Commission seem similar to the European Commission, as all three Commissions are appointed by their respective head-of-state collegiate body, thus subjecting them to member state's leaders, while operating a full cabinet-like executive that, in principle, should serve Union rather than their own member state's interest. In practice, however, the European Commission has far more autonomy from the European Council than their African counterparts. Principally, the European Commission possesses exclusive lawmaking initiative like a cabinet in a parliamentary democracy, meaning that the collegiate Council acts more like a check on the European Commission's power rather than the lead in Union matters. This differs significantly from the institutional practice in AU and ECOWAS. The Assembly, AU's head of state collegiate body, dominates the agenda, while ECOWAS's Chairman of the Authority of Heads of State remains the operative lead in ECOWAS activities, demonstrated by then-Chairwoman and then-President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's leading role in the 2017 intervention of The Gambia, as well as the current Chairman and President of Nigeria Bola Tinubu's active role in the ongoing Niger intervention. In practice, the Commission of AU and ECOWAS act more like a managerial body, more akin to the UN Secretariat than a federal government. 

Indeed, the seemingly shocking power to sanction and militarily intervene in member states, as demonstrated by the various missions of AU and ECOWAS, projected a façade of supranationalism in these two organizations. In this writer's opinion, the establishment of the "Peace & Security Council (PSC)" in 2004, despite being seen by many as strengthening AU's intervention ability, is a step in the wrong direction. This UN Security Council-like institution comprises a smaller slate of member states elected among member states, with the institution possessing the decision-making power regarding these interventions and suspensions of membership when a coup occurs. The problem, however, is that the PSC remains firmly an organization led by member states rather than one based on Union interests. Thus, the PSC would, like the Security Council highlighting the powerlessness of all other UN institutions, further emphasize like-features in the AU. 

Indeed, despite significant improvements from the OAU years, AU remains a "president's club." No wonder AU and ECOWAS would lose credibility in coup prevention other than just maintaining their own power.

Further, we do not see a similar level of personality commitment towards the union process in AU and ECOWAS comparable with the giants in the history of European Integration. When the European Commission was first formed to head the then-European Economic Community, it was blessed with Walter Hallstein as its first president. Despite his origin as a German diplomat, Hallstein fully committed his first loyalty to the Commission, with a solid personal ideology to distinguish the Commission as an autonomous body from the member states' government despite numerous challenges from strongmen like de Gaulle during the "Empty Chair Crisis." Compared to the AU, where former Chairperson of the AU Commission Dlamini-Zuma was widely criticized as an absentee leader, the contrast is apparent.



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