Constitutional Crises Challenge African Union’s Democratic Agenda and Conflict Prevention

A chair intended for the Africa Union representative sits empty at the celebration of the 53rd anniversary of Burundi's independence on July 1, 2015, that same day that six people, including a policeman, were killed in gun battles. (Marco Longarim/AFP/Getty Images)

It is proving to be a trying year for the African Union’s democratic agenda and emerging conflict prevention architecture. Since the first months of 2015, it has been preoccupied with the unfolding situation in Burundi, where President Nkurunziza pursued and got a third term despite the violent domestic unrest and subsequent international condemnation it generated. Following Nkurunziza’s inauguration in August, the situation in Burundi has escalated from street protests and suppression to targeted assassinations and continued violence and widespread displacement within and outside Burundi’s borders.

And in what to a large extent caught many off guard, despite growing concerns, Burkina Faso, which was meant to host elections next month as part of its return to constitutional order following the 2014 uprising and subsequent military takeover, experienced a military coup of the transitional authorities.

These two cases highlight the varying considerations at play in the AU’s approach to dealing with constitutional and electoral crises, but also the increasing efforts to coordinate with and speak with one voice with the UN and the relevant regional bodies.

In the case of Burundi, the AU has allowed the East African Community (EAC), which is plagued by its own regional leadership dynamics, to take the lead. Its own role has been complicated by the fact that it is a guarantor of the 2000 Arusha Accord, but also relies heavily on the Burundian contingent which makes up a sizable proportion of its peace support operation in Somalia, AMISOM. Interestingly, it refused to observe elections, citing concerns that the environment was not conducive for free and fair elections; a first, since it had gone ahead with observing Sudan’s elections earlier the same year, despite recommendations by the AU Commission’s technocrats to the contrary. It activated the good offices of the Special Representative of the Chairperson of the Commission for the Great Lakes Region in support of the region’s mediation efforts coordinated through the Joint International Facilitation Team (JIFT), comprising of the EAC, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the AU and the United Nations (UN), while also deploying its own human rights observers and military experts in-country.

Since 2014, the AU had been engaged in the transitional process in Burkina Faso through the International Support and Follow-up Group for the Transition in Burkina Faso (GISAT-BF), comprising of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the UN and AU (through its regional representative). The unexpected military takeover prompted a rather decisive suspension of Burkina Faso by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) as well as the immediate imposition of sanctions, and it is important to note that a representative of the AU Commission was in country to engage with transitional authorities and other stakeholders ahead of the October elections on issues of emerging concern.

These developments need to be seen within the broader context of a series of democratic and peace and security challenges and normative and institutional opportunities that have coalesced at the continental level in the past 3-5 years. On the democratic and governance side, the coming into force of the Charter on Democracy, Elections and Good Governance in 2012 presented a solid basis for the AU’s democratic agenda, alongside the 2011 establishment of the African Governance Architecture (AGA)-the political, institutional, and normative framework for promoting the good governance agenda through interaction and synergies among AU organs and other stakeholders to produce shared governance agendas.

The AU’s programmatic engagement in elections is also evolving from a short-term to a long-term observation, with greater focus on electoral risk assessment; from purely political missions to those that are more technical in nature; as well as recognizing the need for strategic and targeted support and assistance to electoral bodies. The North African Spring challenged the fitness for purpose of the AU’s doctrine on and definition of unconstitutional changes of government (USG), stretching the AU’s treatment of cases of “popular uprisings.” This was not a new phenomenon per se, but rather what we are beginning to witness on the continent with increasingly frequent and complexity, from traditional coups, to amendments to constitutions and third-termism, to reversals of transitional processes, breakdowns of post-conflict political settlements, to various forms of electoral violence and conflict.

The more longstanding African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) has then also tried to play catch up with these trends. The PSC then has taken the issue of conflict prevention more seriously, requesting regular briefings on upcoming elections and other situations of concern. This preventative stance is complemented by the strengthening of analytical and forecasting capacity at the Commission level, including in the recent development of tools such as structural vulnerability assessments; professionalization and better resourcing of Special Envoys and Representatives; as well as more field missions and joint and coordinated action with the UN and regional bodies.

These collectively, it is hoped, can bring new thinking and impetus to the ongoing challenge of bridging and bringing coherence to the AGA and APSA-which member states have called for since AGA’s establishment, but is yet to be realized. It is clear that current events and trends present the opportunity for a productive dialectic between the AU’s long-term democratic consolidation agenda and programs under AGA with the conflict prevention orientation of APSA and the implementation of a broad set of innovative tools. If the lesson of Burkina Faso is to be found, it is that post-mediation and agreement on transitional measures, sustained institutional support and engagement with transitional authorities, as well as concerted vulnerability assessments and political monitoring are key in preventing reversals. Surely then AGA and APSA, and their respective tools, are and should be complementary, and feed off each other—and it is only once these synergies are realized that progress can be made on breaking the cycle of violence and move towards democratic consolidation on the continent.

Semiha Abdulmelik is an alumni of the African Leadership Centre. She has worked for local and international NGOs, as well as the UN, with a focus on governance, civil society, and human rights programming in Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia as well as policy and advocacy in the area of humanitarian affairs, conflict, and post-conflict reconstruction at the African Union level. She tweets at @SAbdulmelik.