When is a coup a coup?

The African Union has made it a policy to challenge unconstitutional transitions of power. Why not in Zimbabwe?

Image credit Philimon Bulawayo (Reuters)

In recent times when militaries in Burkina Faso, Egypt, Madagascar and Mali suspended civilian rule, they were subsequently suspended by regional actors. From a continental standpoint, these suspensions were in line with the African Union’s (AU) mandate to challenge unconstitutional transitions of power. Then came Zimbabwe.

On November 21st, 2017, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe stepped down from the presidency after 37 years in power, a landmark moment for Zimbabwe. The events leading up to his ouster, had all the hallmarks of a classic coup d’état. Though Mugabe’s regime had been in crisis for a while, the events of late 2017 were instigated by the Zimbabwean military. Tanks filled the streets and soldiers took over policing as the military commandeered the state broadcaster. Mugabe was held under house arrest. At one point, Mugabe flanked by generals read out a statement which was supposed to be his resignation. What was striking, however, was military spokespeople appearing on television to assure the population that it “was not a military takeover,” during this period of uncertainty. Not surprisingly, it left many to scratch their heads. “Zimbabwe’s military takeover was the world’s strangest coup,” read a headline on CNN. On the Washington Post, an “explainer” by one of its reporters tried to explain “when a coup is not a coup.”

One institution whose response remained under-analyzed was the AU.

Considering that the AU is legally bound to support member state governments in such situations, why did it not intervene in Zimbabwe even when the Chairperson of the Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, expressed concern at the situation and the Head of the AU, Alpha Condé, stated that the crisis “seem[ed] like a coup”? One reason may be that there was a difference of opinion among AU bureaucrats. The AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, pronounced that what had transpired was “not a coup according to African Union rules.” Chergui further stated that the situation in Zimbabwe, with its lack of violence and Mugabe having “left in honor”, did not qualify as a crisis or an extraordinary situation. Namely, the transition was seen as the outcome of political dialogue that did not warrant AU intervention.

Still, the AU’s Constitutive Act, expresses the organization’s “condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments” and it is clear that concerns were raised regarding the military’s role in this transition. Therefore, even if the organization chose not to categorize this “guardian coup” as an unconstitutional change of government, despite what is mandated in Zimbabwe’s constitution, the lack of conversation surrounding this change in power is worrying.

The initial reaction harkens to the privileged position that Mugabe held within the AU, but the lack of action on the AU’s part, suggests an implicit support for a military that was able to do what the AU has been unable, or unwilling, to on multiple occasions in the past.

As alluded to earlier, the August election in Kenya was problematic but considered relatively credible and fair according to a number of international election observers, including the AU and its more established counterpart, the EU. While the AU is often challenged on its positions regarding elections due to its purported biases in support of fellow member states, the EU is often recognized for its objectivity in election observation missions. Still, both organizations, considered the election to be in line with accepted electoral protocols. However, soon after it was held, the election was nullified by the Kenyan Supreme Court calling attention to the failed nature of the process. Its familiarity with the Kenyan situation should have given the AU a substantial edge over its Western counterparts and enabled it to call attention to irregularities in the process rather than endorse an election that was clearly not up to par. But the AU did not.

Both the Kenyan election and the Zimbabwean ‘non-coup’ raise questions as to the AU’s role in supporting democratic processes the continent. The AU is acutely aware of the fragility of its position and has expressed the need for reform if the organization is to succeed in undertaking its mandate. In January 2017, a Report on the Proposed Recommendations for the Institutional Reform of the African Union prepared by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame highlighted that the AU’s inability to consistently implement its decisions, along with the issues at the leadership level, has led to “a dysfunctional organization in which member states see limited value, global partners find little credibility, and our citizens have no trust.” So, while the acknowledgment of these shortcomings is laudable, such efforts are overshadowed by the failure to act on crucial political matters. The AU’s inability to undertake its current commitments raises concerns regarding its ability to reform. The handling of the events that transpired in Kenya and Zimbabwe contribute to the lack of trust in the AU’s capacity to ensure that African countries are truly able to speak with one voice.  One problem with the advice is that the messenger himself, Paul Kagame, bended rules himself to stay in power for a long time; in his case probably till 2034.

Further Reading

Father of the nation

The funeral of popular Angolan musician Nagrelha underscored his capacity to mobilize people and it reminds us that popular culture offers a kind of Rorschach test for the body politic.

A city divided

Ethnic enclaves are not unusual in many cities and towns across Sudan, but in Port Sudan, this polarized structure instigated and facilitated communal violence.

The imperial forest

Gregg Mitman’s ‘Empire of Rubber’ is less a historical reading of Liberia than a history of America and racial capitalism through the lens of a US corporate giant.

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


It’s not common knowledge that there is Iran in Africa and there is Africa in Iran. But there are commonplace signs of this connection.

It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.