In Hindsight: The Security Council and Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa
There has been a string of military takeovers in Africa in the last two years. Since August 2020, power has changed hands unconstitutionally six times in five countries: Burkina Faso (January 2022), Sudan (October 2021), Guinea (September 2021), Chad (April 2021), and Mali (August 2020 and May 2021). Two other African countries saw thwarted coup attempts in this period, Niger in March 2021 and Guinea-Bissau in January 2022, the latter of which led to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) deploying a force to the country.
The African Union held an extraordinary summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on 28 May, which focused on unconstitutional changes of power and the ongoing threat of terrorism in Africa. At the summit, African leaders discussed possible measures to address the significant increase in military takeovers on the continent based on the outcome of an AU Reflection Forum held in Accra, Ghana, from 15-17 March, which recommended an in-depth analysis of gaps in the AU normative frameworks on unconstitutional changes of government. The forum recognised the deeper structural problems faced by some African countries, including governance and socioeconomic difficulties and challenges related to terrorism.
Speaking to the media on 26 October 2021, following the military takeover in Sudan, UN Secretary-General António Guterres spoke of “an epidemic” of coups d’état and pointed out the lack of “effective deterrence” from the Security Council, noting that the Council has “lots of difficulties in taking strong measures”.
Several patterns have developed over time in the Council’s efforts to address unconstitutional changes of power. One is that it appears easier for the Security Council to discuss a coup d’état when the country concerned is already on its agenda, such as in Mali, which hosts a UN peacekeeping operation, or Guinea-Bissau, which had a UN special political mission when the military carried out a coup in April 2012. Some members tend to be wary of discussing issues not already on the agenda, justifying this by citing the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. For example, the Council did not discuss the coup d’état in Guinea—which is not on its agenda—even though the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) expressly called on the Security Council to support the ECOWAS decision for the restoration of constitutional order in that country. In the case of Guinea, it appears that a Security Council member from the region was sensitive about such a discussion, even though the position of the African members (A3) is generally in line with AU decisions.
When an African country that has experienced a coup d’état is not on the agenda and the Council does decide to engage, it has tended to use one of its broader agenda items such as “Peace and security in Africa” or “Peace consolidation in West Africa” to consider the situation. This appears to be a useful way of discussing abrupt unconstitutional changes of power without the perceived stigma associated with naming a country as an agenda item. For example, Council members held consultations on 8 February to discuss the coup d’état in Burkina Faso under “Peace consolidation in West Africa”.
In addition, the Council has at times discussed coups d’état under “any other business” in closed consultations, which bypasses the use of an agenda item altogether and avoids any mention of the issue on the Council’s monthly programme of work. After the military takeover that followed President Blaise Compaore’s resignation in 2014 and the subsequent coup attempts against the transitional authorities, the Council held several meetings on Burkina Faso under “any other business”.
There is no general practice discernable in the type of outcome the Council adopts following coups d’état. Products have ranged from press statements, a relatively weak instrument in the Council’s toolkit, to stronger outcomes such as presidential statements and, in one case, a resolution imposing sanctions. The resolution adopted after the April 2012 coup in Guinea-Bissau remains among the Council’s most robust such responses in Africa, and established a travel ban that would be applied against leading officers involved in the coup. According to Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo, who spoke at the 7 February Security Council debate on general issues related to sanctions, these punitive measures are believed to have contributed to facilitating the eventual restoration of constitutional order (elections were organised in the spring of 2014) and to have had a deterrent effect on military intervention during subsequent political crises in the country. Renewed concerns about the military’s role in Guinea-Bissau surfaced in the aftermath of the disputed outcome of the 2019 presidential election, in addition to this year’s attack on the presidential palace.
The Council is often supportive of regional and sub-regional organisations’ responses to military takeovers. This has been notable in West Africa. ECOWAS has often led international responses to unconstitutional seizures of power in the region in ways that the Security Council has largely supported, also coordinating its messaging with the subregional body and the AU. Following the August 2020 coup d’état in Mali, after issuing an initial press statement expressing strong support for ECOWAS and AU initiatives and mediation, the Council adopted a presidential statement in October 2020 backing ECOWAS-brokered arrangements for an 18-month national Malian transition. Renewing the mandate of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in June 2021 and the Mali sanctions regime in August 2021, the Council reiterated its support for ECOWAS’ role and an 18-month transition period.
The Council’s broad support for ECOWAS and the AU in response to military takeovers can vary, however, depending on the strategic interests of influential Council members and their interpretation of these changes in power. For example, since the end of last year, the Council’s support for ECOWAS with regard to the political situation in Mali has shifted, as Russia has become closer to Mali’s transitional authorities. The result has been less clear messaging from the Council. After ECOWAS imposed new sanctions on the country in January over delays in organising elections, Council members were unable to agree even to press elements, which simply provide a verbal account of a Council meeting, following their quarterly meeting on Mali. Russia and China reportedly blocked the press elements, unwilling to back some of ECOWAS’ positions, including with regard to sanctions on Mali.
Reflecting shifting dynamics in the Council, its statement in February did not condemn the coup in Burkina Faso but, “expresse[d] serious concern about the unconstitutional change of government” and only took note of the decisions of ECOWAS and the AU. This struck a notably different tone from the Council’s past endorsements of ECOWAS efforts in Burkina Faso in 2014 and 2015 (when Council members issued five press statements) and its initial response to the August 2020 and May 2021 coups d’état in Mali.
The Council’s reaction to last year’s military takeover in Sudan was also less assertive than that of the AU, reflecting differing interpretations of the crisis among Council members. Following the events of 25 October 2021—when the military suspended the transitional institutions, declared a state of emergency and detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilian members of the transitional government—the AUPSC suspended Sudan until the civilian-led transitional authority would be restored. When the Security Council met to discuss the situation on 26 October 2021, a legal debate ensued during which some permanent members questioned whether the developments in Sudan could be characterised as a coup d’état. Council members issued a press statement on 28 October 2021, which expressed serious concern about the military takeover but did not condemn it, even as they also called upon Sudan’s military authorities to restore the civilian-led transitional government.
Security Council members are broadly united in their concern over the threat of terrorism, which can affect the Council’s response to military takeovers. In the case of Chad, both the Security Council and the AU were aligned in their recognition of the country’s important counter-terrorism role. Following the AUPSC’s lead, the Council did not respond to the unconstitutional takeover of power by a Transitional Military Council after the death of President Idriss Déby on 20 April 2021 during fighting with rebels. Instead of suspending the country from the AU, the AUPSC stated in its communiqué of 14 May 2021 that it was mindful of Chad’s pivotal role in fighting terrorism in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel regions. While this approach apparently reflected the views of countries of the central Africa region, some analysts criticised the AUPSC’s selective criteria and the Security Council’s subsequent inaction for sending the wrong signal to militaries across the continent.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council went for two years without a visiting mission, taking away one tool that it can use to understand the political dynamics in countries going through delicate political transitions. In October 2021, the Security Council visited Mali. Members conveyed messages on the need for the country to return to constitutional order, though this was also when early signs of fissure in Council support for the ECOWAS position began to surface. As the Council struggles with consistent messaging around coups and coup attempts, first-hand information about developments on the ground will remain important—if not necessarily decisive.