Law & Justice

Bringing an end to: Unconstitutional change of governments in Africa


Since the birth of the AU, Africa has seen a dramatic decline in coup d’état, once its landmark. But the journey to a coup d’état freecontinent is not finished yet 

Kiya Tsegaye

Between the Egyptian revolution in 1952 and 1998, there were 85 violent or unconstitutional changes in government, 78 of which took place between 1961 to 1997, according to Van der Linde M., who wrote ‘Emerging Electoral Trends in the Light of Recent African Elections’. This is due to the OAU’s consideration that these acts were essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of its member States.

In its Declaration on the Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government adopted in 2000 (Lome Declaration), the Assembly of Heads of State & Governments agreed on the following definition of situations that could be considered to be unconstitutional changes of government: military coup d’état against a democratically elected government, intervention by mercenaries to replace a democratically elected government, replacement of democratically elected governments by armed dissident groups and rebel movements, and the refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair and periodic elections.

In 2007, in Addis Ababa, under the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, manipulation of constitutions and legal instrument for prolongation of tenure of office by (an) incumbent regime was also considered unconstitutional change of government.

The Act provides among the fundamental principles of the AU established by Article 4 that the Union ‘shall function in accordance with: respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance; respect for the sanctity of human life, condemnation and rejection of impunity and political assassination, acts of terrorism and subversive activities; and condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments.’  Specifically, Article 30 of the AU Constitutive Act, which took a huge leap from that of its predecessor the OAU, states that “Governments which shall come to power through unconstitutional means shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the Union”

Udombana N., in his research titled ‘Human Rights and Contemporary Issues in Africa’, argues that the prohibition of unconstitutional changes in government by the Constitutive Act may be seen as a “distinct African recognition of a right to constitutional democratic governance in international law.” “Democratic governance has emerged as a human right under general and particular international law…. Dictatorship in every … manifestation, has become a taboo in Africa.”

Although the practice of coup d’état throughout the continent have now become a rarity rather than a common occurrence, as was the tradition before the creation of the AU, the journey to a continent free of unconstitutional change of government is a long way ahead as AU’s response to unconstitutional changes of governments still shows a number of irregularities. In 2008 a coup d’etat in Mauritania saw President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, ousted. President Abdallahi came to power after a 2005 coup d’etat ended the 21 years in power of President Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.  The same year Cameron’s National Assembly passed a bill amending the Law (96/06) to allow the president Paul Biya immunity from prosecution and the right for unlimited re-election, and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria systematically manipulated the national parliament to adopt a change of the constitution to allow him a third term in office.  In all cases, the African Union did not give adequate attention.  To its credit, the AU, however, played a constructive role both in Mauritania and in Niger in 2009 in forcing the military in power to adopt democratic principles.


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