/ 8 February 2022

Burkina Faso’s most recent coup proves the African Union is a toothless bulldog

Bfaso Unrest Coup
Demonstrators gather in Ouagadougou to show support to the military while holding and waiving a Russian flag and an anti France banner on January 25, 2022. (Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT / AFP) (Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images)

The recent coup in Burkina Faso that deposed Roch Marc Kaboré may be a consequence of the president’s many failures. But it also reflects the continued failure of the African Union (AU) in preventing specific problems in member states from degenerating into coups.

When military officers in the former Upper Volta dismissed pioneer president Maurice Yameogo from office on January 3, 1966, the public was thrown into a frenzy in approval of the coup, and rightly so. Yameogo had brutally cracked down on labour union activists protesting against the sudden austerity measures that included a hike in tax rates. 

The Organisation of African Unity was unable to influence Yameogo from pursuing anti-social policies and committing atrocities until they culminated in the 1966 coup. 

Fifty-six years on, Roch Kaboré’s removal received similar public acceptance, while the AU, yet again, had hitherto ignored Kaboré’s violent repression of peaceful protesters who were demanding security reforms.  

As was the case in 1966, the only tangible response from the AU to Kaboré’s removal is a call for the military to return the country to civilian rule. This passive approach to coups, which has remained relatively unchanged since the 1960s, is perhaps the most significant external factor encouraging coups in Africa, and it must change.

But can one infer that the AU is an architect of many of the recent coups on the continent? 

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. This is partly because, since its creation in 1966, the organisation has continued to provide a cover of democratic legitimacy for despotic African leaders. 

Many among the recently deposed African heads of state held major positions in the AU at the peak of their atrocities back home. For example, Guinea’s Alpha Condé was elected as the AU chair in 2017 in the midst of accusations of human rights violations and a public outcry for economic and security reforms. Also, Ibrahim Keïta was appointed to lead the AU’s arts, culture and heritage initiative in 2019 while facing similar problems in Mali. And Roch Kaboré’s appointment as the AU champion on eliminating female genital mutilation in 2019 came as his government wallowed in multiple murders and kidnappings accusations. 

The occupation of these AU positions, even as some of them may not immediately convey political benefits going by their titles, signifies two political gains for the concerned African leaders. The first is that these appointments express an acceptance of the leadership of the African leaders by the AU. The second is that the occupation of such positions legitimises the leaders before the world and silences the importance of whatever political, economic, or leadership problems engulfing their countries. 

If the AU continues to legitimise African leaders with questionable policies and actions, it would only prevent itself from having the will to sanction such leaders should their actions become overbearing or criminal. 

To address this issue, the AU must establish a framework for dealing with despots who have clearly lost popular support. Grounds for this framework already exist in the AU’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Articles 6 and 7 of the Charter, respectively, provide that member states recognise their peoples’ rights to security and to freely express grievances to state organs. Articles 10 and 11 strengthen these provisions to include the right to association. 

As such, one may suggest that should the leader of a member state face credible allegations or charges in violation of these articles, they should get a tentative suspension from holding any position within the AU. And if found guilty by a competent court of law, the AU must provide statements of condemnation and impose strong sanctions on such leaders. These are responses that should not only emerge from the AU against coup leaders, as recently seen in Sudan, Mali and Guinea. But must be enforced whenever an African leader, democratically elected or not, grossly violates the AU Charter.

Another reform that should closely follow the aforementioned is for the AU to ratify the Malabo Protocol adopted in 2014. 

The protocol had merged the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Court of Justice of the African Union, which were the AU’s main legal instruments for dealing with crimes committed by member states. Both courts had remained ineffective in providing justice in crucial criminal cases. But the proposed unified court, the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, never took off because no member state has ratified the protocol. 

Meanwhile, as the “main judicial organ” of the AU, the new court is proposed to participate in “the interpretation and the application of the African Charter”, as established in the former’s Article 28. This provision, in effect, provides a legal avenue for allegations of human rights violations and abuse of power, such as those that triggered protests and the resulting coups in Sudan, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, to be handled by an AU agency. But the non-ratification of the Malabo Protocol means that severe accusations against the leaders of AU member states rest at the table of the AU executive council, which the same leaders control. 

It is from this provenance that two questions beg answer from the African leaders in charge of the AU. Are they ready to hold each other accountable? If so, would they be willing to create an AU court that takes away a significant portion of their power in the interest of saving Africa from future coups?