With the recent spate of coups d’état in Africa, it is time to examine the complex interplay between coups and the delicate realm of transitional justice, writes Bobuin Jr Valery Gemandze Oben.

Africa has recently borne witness to a sequence of coup d’états that has reignited debates about governance, stability and the elusive pursuit of justice. This opinion piece examines the complex interplay between coups and the delicate realm of transitional justice on the continent.

In many of the countries that experienced coups in the last few years – Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Niger – the military had been given priority and privileges in terms of state expenditure. This preferential treatment was likely to lessen any motivation by the military to attempt a coup. However, it could also increase the likelihood of success if a coup was attempted, as the military would already be in a strong position and in possession of sufficient resources to consolidate its putsch.

This was particularly true under the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The very military he created to maintain his grip on power was responsible for the coup that ousted him. This is also true in the Sahel region, where militaries received considerable funding and a good portion of state resources on the premise of fighting radicalism and violent extremism.

Since 2017, there have been 17 coups recorded globally and all but one occurred in Africa. This indicates that the institution on which many African regimes depend for their preservation and survival has now become their greatest threat.

These abrupt shifts in political power have thrust significant obstacles into the path of establishing effective mechanisms for transitional justice across the continent. Many of these countries are still recovering from conflicts, while others are dealing with radicalism and extremist insurgencies.

This opinion piece delves into the profound impact these sudden upheavals have on conflict and post-conflict societies and their quests for accountability, reconciliation and lasting harmony in the African context. I start by looking at the immediate effects of coups on transitional justice endeavours. I then address the recent coups’ implications for society from a socioeconomic perspective, and their resulting influence on transitional justice.

Transitional Endeavours and the Disruptive Ripples of Military Coups

Coups are considered the most frequently attempted method of changing government. Many fall under what Huntington classifies as guardian coups, such as occurred across the Sahel region. In such cases, the putschists claim to be driven by the need to end government corruption, restore public order and tackle insecurity. Another category is the breakthrough coup, such as occurred in Burkina Faso. This type of coup is more like a revolution and results in the overthrow of the traditional bureaucracy and the introduction of a new bureaucratic elite. It tends to be led by junior military officers or non-commissioned officers.

Ikome classifies coups as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ An argument is even made that in transitional societies, where democratic institutions cannot work effectively, the army is best suited to drive the state forward. This is based on their perceived structure, discipline and cohesiveness, qualities which some argue make them better suited to deal with crisis. Welch holds a dissenting view, claiming citizens must overtly demonstrate their dissatisfaction with government in order for the military to seize power. In this view, a people-led revolution would justify a coup, and not the insecurity or corruption concerns shared by the military.

Coups – often characterised by jarring shifts in authority and dominance – cast disruptive ripples across the fragile trajectory of transitional justice initiatives. These endeavours, meticulously designed to tackle historical grievances and human rights violations, and possibly address radicalism and violent extremism, inherently hinge upon political stability and the uninterrupted flow of political change. The eruption of coups destabilises the governance bedrock, rendering the frameworks of transitional justice susceptible to stagnation or, even worse, abandonment. For instance, since the coup in Sudan, most of the gains made regarding reconciliation and nation-building have been lost and the transitional process will need to be restarted.

In this volatile shuffle, as regimes experience metamorphosis, the vigour to apprehend wrongdoers can dissipate, leaving the environment primed for disillusionment among victims fervently seeking justice. More so, in several cases, the multifaceted roles of the military in coups present puzzling paradoxes which must be juggled delicately, and which further deepen the intricacies with transitional justice.

For instance, in the early 2000s, a notorious militia, the Janjaweed, was created by the government of long-ruling President al-Bashir to support the army in putting down a rebellion in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Janjaweed provided on-the-ground fighters in isolated areas. During this war, which continued to 2008, over 300,000 people were killed. International Criminal Court prosecutors accused government officials and militia commanders of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Nonetheless, in 2013 al-Bashir gave this group an institutional character by transforming it into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Since then, the RSF is alleged to have continued orchestrating numerous human rights abuses.

In 2019, the RSF contributed to the coup which ousted al-Bashir. The group’s position at the helm of the state makes it a gargantuan task to enforce accountability for its abuses. It therefore seems that in the event of a post-conflict scenario or coup that brings military forces to power, there is little likelihood that accountability measures will be instituted to address their crimes. In addition, it is well known that military regimes are often accompanied by the shrinking of civic space, which strangles the prospects of an effective transitional justice process.

Transitional justice’s core aim is to shatter the shackles of impunity, ensuring that those culpable for heinous crimes are held to account. But, as seen in Sudan, the tumultuous aftermath of a coup casts an eerie echo – an echo riddled with accountability gaps. These abrupt power transitions provide a haven for perpetrators of human rights violations to evade justice, veiled in the shadows of shifting power dynamics. This unsettling consequence affords former regime elements the freedom to evade prosecution, eroding the bedrock of accountability and the quest for truth.

Accountability and truth-telling are thus swept under the rug, because they are not in the best interests of the military regime. Time and pretence, however, do not necessarily contribute to oblivion, and individuals are less likely to forget their past experiences. As a result, the intricate task of identifying and prosecuting culprits is further convoluted, ensnaring the hopes of victims in a maelstrom of disillusionment and thwarted justice.

Furthermore, some coups involve the military as both initiators of the upheaval and potential subjects of the transitional justice initiatives they may be tasked with implementing. This dual role of military actors introduces another paradox: these forces, responsible for inducing political tumult, paradoxically assume a role critical to ushering in an era of democratic governance and accountability.

This aligns with what is currently en vogue on the continent – the so-called transitional period, managed by a transitional government. This is most times a military-led coalition with civilians to oversee the governing of the country for a set period, following which there ought to be a full handover to a civilian government. It is often seen as a return to normality and the beginning of reconstruction and other post-conflict activities, but quite wrongly so.

The Deceptive Dilemma: Military-led Transitional Periods in African Nations

Recent events in Sudan bring into question the sense in backing the military to lead a transitional period for a situation it intentionally created. Following the 2019 coup in Sudan, military leaders presided over the Sovereign Council, a joint military-civilian transitional government that was to be replaced by a civilian administration after 21 months. Instead, at the prescribed time, the military orchestrated a second coup and disbanded the Sovereign Council, breaking the agreement. In hindsight, international backing for a military-led transition was unwise and quite possibly emboldened generals with questionable intentions to continue to push beyond the limits of the initial agreement. Today, Sudan is engulfed in intense violence and conflict, headed by those who were in charge of leading the transitional process.

Similarly, since 2020, Mali has been under a military-led transitional government, which ought to last until February 2024. A civilian president was appointed, but the coup leader kicked him out of office and assumed the position himself. A referendum on a new constitution was planned for March 2023, but it was delayed. A new military-designed ‘civilian’ constitution was then approved by voters in June 2023, which, according to analysts, gives pride of place to the military and creates an extremely strong presidency alongside weak other institutions. These manoeuvres indicate that the putschists intend to remain in power well beyond 2024 – once more showing the downside of allowing a military to direct a transitional period and the much-needed justice initiatives therein.

Burkina Faso and Guinea are similarly under military-led transitional governments. Burkina Faso’s President Christian Kaboré was overthrown by the military in January 2022, and in September of the same year that regime was ousted in another military coup. There is a February 2024 deadline for handing over power to a civilian government. Guinea has a similar deadline in 2025. As seen in Sudan and potentially Mali, however, it is not wrong to think that as the transition period ends, the militaries will manoeuvre to thwart the process, especially given the restricted civic space in those countries.

Moreover, following the coup in Niger, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has not ruled out the use of force to restore the democratically elected president. Quite unsurprisingly, Mali and Burkina Faso have pledged support to the putschists in Niger in the event ECOWAS uses force. This of course brings into question their commitment to fully adhere to the framework of the transitional period. In this context, the full potential of transitional justice initiatives cannot be fully unleashed.

As seen from the above, striking a balance between ensuring justice and navigating the imperative of democratic consolidation becomes an intricate tightrope walk. External actors have often wrongly and naively assumed their own narratives of the desired or appropriate political outcome of transition. Most times, the eventual power-sharing agreement rewards those who engaged in the coup and allows them to enter politics in the hope that they will be co-opted by the political system.

Balancing Polarities: Coups and Their Socioeconomic Implications

The essence of transitional justice lies in fostering reconciliation in societies torn by conflict. However, coups inject a discordant note into this harmony, amplifying existing divisions and fuelling latent animosities. The toppling of leaders and the upheaval of regimes have the unintended consequence of polarising societies along lines of politics, ethnicity or ideology.

Generally, the first act of a military regime is the suppression of civil and political rights. There is a belief that a military government and a more militarised response is better suited to addressing the phenomenon of violent extremist insurgencies in the Sahel. However, time has proven the contrary. Militarised responses rarely have the intended effect, as most times they come at the expense of human rights, which can further radicalise the population.

Cameroon is an example, as seen in the negative consequences of the current military response to the Anglophone crisis. This was also evident during the United States’ global war on terrorism and its military response in Afghanistan. This is where transitional justice tools shine – communal dialogues, institutional reforms, accountability mechanisms and reparations could be key alternatives in addressing violent extremism long term.

Furthermore, using the Sahel as an example, coups threaten the socioeconomic context of existing and future transitional justice initiatives. The countries in this region are among the poorest globally, and largely depend on foreign aid and loans. Following coups, the international community usually responds with serious economic and financial sanctions, suspension of security cooperation, political isolation, closure of borders and sometimes the institution of a no-fly zone. For a very poor country, this almost or actually cripples the economy, plunging citizens into widespread poverty and suffering.

Such a context is highly unfavourable for effective transitional justice, as the funds to support such processes are unavailable and citizens prioritise their own survival over the prospect of justice measures. More so, military and law enforcement resources become depleted and insufficient to maintain peace and stability, including by containing extremist insurgencies, which were supposedly the motive for the coups in the Sahel. In such cases, personal interests are more likely to supersede communal ones, allowing for the creation of a highly volatile society. Huaraka further stresses that underdevelopment hinders the enjoyment of human rights, particularly in societies frequently considered the poorest globally.

It is now evident that the socioeconomic and political polarisation that often follows a coup strikes at the heart of reconciliation efforts, imperilling the objectives transitional justice seeks to accomplish.

New Opportunities

While coups may unfurl daunting challenges, they concurrently present avenues for recalibrating the compass of transitional justice strategies. The urgency spawned by political convulsions can galvanise civil society, the international community and local communities into vocal advocates for justice and accountability. Coups, paradoxically, can act as catalysts for re-evaluating and strengthening the frameworks of transitional justice, amplifying their adaptability, inclusivity and resilience amid the tempestuous throes of political upheaval.

In view of the recent frequency of coups, the role of the African soldier in shaping society becomes very much highlighted and “in this regard a thorough grounding in human rights will better prepare the African soldier to use his military force with constraints and caution, if not to refuse to use it, in a military coup situation.”

As coups shatter governance foundations and cast shadows upon transitional endeavours, they simultaneously underscore the paramountcy of resilient, context-sensitive frameworks capable of enduring the tremors of abrupt transformation. The challenges catalysed by coups underscore the indispensable role of international cooperation, durable governance structures, and innovative methodologies that can adeptly navigate the labyrinthine connections between political instability and the relentless pursuit of justice, reconciliation and enduring serenity across the vast expanse of the African continent.

Bobuin Jr Valery Gemandze Oben
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Bobuin Jr Valery Gemandze Oben is an Advocacy Specialist at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

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