The recent coup in Sudan is the fourth completed military takeover on the African continent in 2021, after Mali (May), Chad (May), and Guinea (September). This is a blow not only to the democratic aspirations in these countries, but also to the African Union (AU), which has invested a lot of prestige in – and received a lot of praise for – its zero-tolerance approach to coups. The events that unfolded in Khartoum on 25 October 2021 followed a typical recipe for a coup d’état. Leading civilian politicians were arrested, troops were deployed across the capital, internet was blacked out, flights to and from the international airport stopped, and the dissolution of the transitional government was announced on state television. The next day, the AU’s 15-member Peace and Security Council (PSC) convened in Addis Ababa. The outcome of the meeting was unsurprising: Sudan’s membership in the AU was suspended with immediate effect. This is the 22nd time that the AU takes such action in reaction to an “unconstitutional change of government”: AU lingo for illegitimate regime changes that in practice mostly have been equated with military coups. The AU is thereby the most active of all regional organizations in imposing sanctions against members.
As I have explored elsewhere, the AU’s in-group sanctions have a crucial comparative advantage over out-group sanctions used as foreign policy tools: they are imposed within a community on the basis of mutually agreed standards of behaviour. Whereas the contractual link does not suffice for targets of sanctions to accept their predicament, it makes it harder for them to frame sanctions as illegitimate external interference. Moreover, AU sanctions deliberately combine with strategies for positive engagement. Typically, some interactions between the AU and the member state in question increase rather than decrease following sanctions, as mediation teams, fact-finding missions or emissaries are sent to engage with local stakeholders. In essence, the policy is envisaged as a kind of peer-review which aims at quickly resolving the urgent crisis and reuniting all 55-members under the pan-African umbrella. But what is the point of these theoretical advantages, if the wrongdoing – in this case the coup – anyway reoccurs?
The Power of Predictability
A first answer to that question is that the AU’s continental voice is an important complement to the choir of external actors that are involved in African politics. Most external sanctions in the world target African countries, a practice that the AU is highly critical of, alongside its own activism. AU sanctions present an alternative to the much-despised external intervention. Suspension after coups has become one of few concrete policy incarnations of the African ownership that the AU seeks to promote ever since its conception. There is nowadays an expectation that the AU will suspend states that undergo an unconstitutional government change. Even putschists themselves probably guess that suspension will follow. The predictability and automatism of the AU’s sanctions mechanism are non-trivial achievements for a 55-member organisation, especially considering that pre-AU African regionalism was negatively defined as freedom from interference in each other’s affairs. Moreover, although genuine normative progress is notoriously difficult, AU sanctions leave an imprint on the post-coup political landscape, pushing stakeholders to navigate if not to follow the PSC’s set of demands. Discussions about a new power-sharing deal are reportedly already under way between Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, in house arrest since the coup, and coup-leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Even if these talks lead out of the current impasse, the appetite for a reinvented mixed military-civilian rule is limited among Sudan’s pro-democracy movement. As noted by the Institute for Security Studies, “there is no indication that the army ever planned to hand over power to civilian leaders”. Given these circumstances, expectations that AU sanctions will lead to complete or sustainable civilian rule must be kept at bay, at least in the short term.
Second, it can be argued that the AU’s institutionalised, systematic disapproval of coups is in any case preferable to the de facto main alternative: continuing as if nothing happened. All sanctions have a basic feature in common: they modify some aspect of normal relations between the sender and the target. In the case of AU sanctions, the core measure altering ‘normality’ is suspension of all membership rights. To abstain from sanctions is thus no neutral stance, but would in practice constitute active endorsement of a regime through cooperative interactions. Consequently, to refuse fresh coup-makers access to AU headquarters in Addis can be seen a matter of safeguarding the organisation’s integrity.
Thresholds for lifting
Third, reoccurring coups raise the question of appropriate thresholds for lifting sanctions. The praxis at present, with some variation between cases, is to lift suspension as soon as detained leaders are freed and a “civilian-led Transitional Authority” is in place. With this arguably modest compliance threshold, countries are readmitted at an early stage of vulnerable transition. Moreover, in practice this has meant acceptance of a continued military influence over politics, as power-sharing agreements have become the dominant solution. Since the AU’s sanctions policy rejects unconstitutional changes of government, re-establishing constitutional rule would appear a more logical threshold. The complication, though, is that coups mostly occur in already frail and ambiguous political situations where stable popular democracy is absent. Thus, to reinstate the pre-coup situation can be both infeasible and undesirable. When Omar al-Bashir was ousted by the military in April 2019 following popular mass-protests, the PSC did not explicitly ask for him to be reinstated but called for a transitional civilian-led political authority to take over. The PSC recognised the democratic aspirations of the people and chose to wait with suspension, instead issuing first a 15-day and then a 60-day deadline for handover of power. Two months later, in view of the lack of progress and after security forces had committed a massacre killing more than a hundred civilian protesters, Sudan was suspended from AU activities. In 2021, the AU no longer grants the Sudanese military the benefit of the doubt. This time, the coup “threatens to derail” the transition that the AU approved when readmitting Sudan in September 2019. Therefore, the PSC now explicitly calls for “the effective restoration of the civilian-led Transitional Authority” for suspension to be lifted.
Ceci n’est pas un coup
Fourth and finally, the interface between popular protest and military action is blurring the normative edges of ‘the coup’. As put by Jonathan Powell, “Coup leaders almost invariably deny their action was a coup in an effort to appear legitimate”. The invention of prefixes such as the ‘liberal coup’ in Egypt (2013), the ‘non-coup coup’ in Zimbabwe (2017), and the ‘dynastic/covert coup’ in Chad (2021) reveals that also outside observers acknowledge ambiguities in military takeovers. On the one hand, the fact that Zimbabwe and Chad, but not Egypt, escaped sanctions can be seen as cracks in the AU’s alleged total rejection of any unconstitutional change of government. On the other hand, the AU is increasingly torn between contextual flexibility and strict adherence to its non-coup norm. The PSC’s communiqué on Chad is highly illustrative in this regard, openly weighing stability considerations and support for return to constitutional order. Yet, the AU sought to avoid precisely such balancing acts by narrowing down the scope of sanctions to unconstitutional changes of government. In contrast to foreign policy sanctions, which are imposed in reaction to a variety of norm violations and tend to be politically contested, AU sanctions were created to be used automatically. As discussed by Closa and Palestini, the shadow of the future – the possibility to one day oneself be the target of sanctions – shapes the content and scope of regional sanctions regimes. By focusing on punishing situations of regime change, the AU established a policy that protected rather than threatened the many long-term leaders on the continent with weak democratic mandates. The AU has reformed its sanctions doctrine to soften this conservative leaning and potentially include also situations in which leaders cling-on to power with unconstitutional means. However, every step it takes towards including situations other than the prototypical coup will further increase normative contestation.