Revisiting the 15th of November 2017

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President Mnangagwa and VP Chiwenga are proving to be a reflection of Former President Mugabe and his Wife
President Mnangagwa and VP Chiwenga are proving to be a reflection of Former President Mugabe and his Wife

By Daniel Chigudu.

FROM the time the African Union (AU) was founded in 2002, the supranational body has capitalised in the construction of an administration of constitutionalism that outlaws politics by force and strengthened democracy. While the AU frequently invokes the laws to police military coups, it has never condemned incumbents for carrying out ‘constitutional coups.’

An explanation with regards to this discrepancy and its import for democracy and accountability in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular is required.

Coup d’états have been dealt a serious blow in Africa because forceful usurpation of power is no longer the route to sovereign power as it used to be. This is quite a significant development although, sadly, politics still plays out in the shadow of violence.

The decrease in the number of coups is one of the most momentous policy achievements of the AU based on the Lomé Declaration approved by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), its predecessor. But this decline has been counteracted by ‘constitutional coups’ that have emerged and are on the rise.

In spite of espousing the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance in 2007, which committed to sanction military coups, not a single thing has been done by the AU to that effect. Viewed from this lens, the administration of constitutionalism built by the AU is a reflection of political interests that has been nicknamed a “club of incumbents” that is made up of regional organisations.

This is an incomplete but important explanation, because I do not intend to dwell on the AU’s preferences on member states since its inception. Was the change of administration in Zimbabwe a coup or not?

While my contention is not to support Mugabe’s regime, particularly his continued clinging on to power despite losing elections to the opposition many times as alleged and his misrule leading to a comatose economy, his exit from power has been received with mixed feelings. With the burgeoning of research on violent forms of power take-over in recent years, the volume of cross-national research on coups is relatively thin. As a result, there has been little discussion as to what really constitutes a coup. This has a broad impact on our understanding of a topic related to coups. For instance, the coups in Mauritania and Thailand suggests that coups can derail the democratic consolidation process characterised by civil wars like one that occurred in Bangladesh in 1975, sparking 25 years of violence. The question that begs an answer is: What if there is no derailment of democratic consolidation?

Due to a lack of a clear definition of a coup, one is forgiven to believe that where there was no violence in a power take over, no matter by whatever means, there was no coup, though this may be interesting and strange.

Dictionary definitions have not helped either, making the concept complex. Perhaps we should be informed by previous researches to consider if it is merely the overthrowing of a Head of State and Government (the Chief Executive of a country). That principle may separate coups from less extreme mechanisms of exerting pressure on the leadership, which is a mutiny.

An example of a mutiny would be when, for instance, some of the Nepalese police revolted against their senior officers over poor food rations, even though Prime Minister Koirala was not directly held responsible. Suffice to say, a coup is undertaken by State apparatuses, whether they are securocrats or civilian members of a government.

Arguably, what happened in 1979 in the fall of Idi Amin at the hands of Tanzanian military was not a coup as such, because the primary actors were foreigners. The tactic to overthrow the Head of State must be illegal to constitute a coup.

In Zimbabwe, the Head of State and Government is the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence forces, and is empowered to deploy the army. It is not clear in this case if such powers can be delegated to army generals or not.

In my view, it is the aspect of illegality which constitutes a coup, as opposed to political pressure and the freedom to organise.

In 2008 when there were massive protests in Thailand, General   Anupong had to plead with the Thai Prime Minister Somchai to step down. This does not constitute a coup  as it was perfectly legal to influence the politics of that country. It is also agreed that a universal criterion for a coup is that it must be violent free. So what creates civil wars and violence is an attempted coup that gets foiled and fails.

By nature, coups are likely to derail the process of democratisation as they seem to have done in Mauritania. Or they may have the opposite but positive effect of removing a longstanding authoritarian leader from power. Rumblings by the Zimbabwean military during  Zimbabwe First Lady’s interface rallies before the 15th of November 2017 could have suggested that Mugabe’s long-awaited exit was likely to be the result of a coup.

In 2002 and 1991 the US efforts to depose Cha´vez in Venezuela and Hussein in Iraq respectively serve as examples underpinned on the view that force is sometimes the best way to bring about positive regime change. In the case of Zimbabwe, therefore, I posit that it was indeed a coup, albeit one to which the national and international community have all benefited, except Mugabe’s inner cabal. The biggest beneficiary is yet to be seen after the 2018 harmonised elections.

Why the African Union Did Not intervene ?

An explanation to this policy of intervention  is more clear than muddled. The AU needs to reduce the apparent ambiguity surrounding its rules against constitutional coups.  When the drafting of the African Charter was underway, architects calculatedly blurred the lines prohibiting ‘constitutional coups’, ostensibly to constrain the AU from excessive interference. The AU’s administration of constitutionalism fails on this aspect and gives a free pass to the perpetrators, who then strategically position themselves, and in this case it is the Zanu-PF partisan army ahead of elections.

It further argues that this is in part a result of a lack of political commitment and a function of the ambiguity that cloaks Article 23, subsection 5 of the African Charter. Article 23 provides that: “State Parties agree that the use of, inter alia, the following illegal means of accessing or maintaining power constitutes an unconstitutional change of government and shall draw appropriate sanctions by the Union”, and  Subsection 5  states that: “Any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government.”

When the Lacoste-Zanu-PF aligned army (though not all of them) influenced the exit of Robert Mugabe through duress or otherwise under the guise of “Operation Restore Legacy”, it is inconceivable how subsection 5 above could have been invoked by the AU to operationalise Article 23 given that subsections 1-4 are clearly not applicable.

It is only prudent that the AU sharpens its proviso for term limits as was proposed by ECOWAS. ECOWAS adopted a universal two-term limit for all member states, a function which should be picked by the AU and cascaded across the continent. In the absence of such clear cut measures, incumbent despotic rulers can always re-set their clocks of tenure and extend suppression and exploitation of the masses.

Daniel Chigudu is a Zimbabwean who is an Associate Professor in Good Governance and a Research Associate at the University of South Africa in the College of Economic Management Sciences. He is also the Executive Director of the Fiscal and Monetary Research Trust. Disclaimer: The ideas in this article are personal and not linked in any way to the University of South Africa or the Fiscal and Monetary Research Trust.

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