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THE resurgence of military coups, with the latest taking place in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, and the growth of political arrangements after disputed elections unfortunately coincide with a weakening of Pan-African leadership. The reversal of democracy, which needs a strong response from Africa’s major political actors, happens when Africa’s big states are not united and energetic.
The tiff between South Africa and Nigeria as well as weak leadership at the African Union Commission means anti-democratic tendencies have a chance of entrenching themselves, spreading to all parts of Africa. Sadly, as the forces of dictatorship succeed in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Madagascar, they will embolden opportunists and kleptocrats in more countries. Before long, we may see a wave of reversals from which hardly any country will be safe.
This will be very bad for South Africa, Africa and even the world. Just as the wave of democratisation that hit Africa in the early nineties encouraged positive political reforms in almost every African country and bolstered the international democratic agenda, the anti-democratic tendencies could also tilt the balance of forces in favour of dictatorship. For this reason, united action by leading African countries, the AU and the United Nations is vitally important.
The manner in which the UN and other organs of the international community of states are dealing with this seriously disturbing trend says a lot about the limitations of the UN and multilateralism.
The collective wisdom and actions of the 194 members of the UN are desirable in helping the world deal with major challenges. This was as true of the democratisation wave that hit Africa in the early nineties as the recent reversal of this trend, with the re-emergence of coups and forced post-electoral arrangements. The AU and regional bodies have since played a vital role in setting in place a policy framework that consolidates democracy and development efforts in Africa. Working with the UN, they have a duty to ensure that the expectations of ordinary Africans, who have a hunger for democratic and developmental progress, are met.
A fortnight ago, a small group of soldiers led by a captain and frustrated by shortage of military supplies and support in their desperate fight against the Taureq rebels and other armed groups in the north of Mali, took matters into their own hands by arresting the president and some of his ministers and suspending the constitution. Thus the discontent in the barracks became a coup.
West African states through their organisation condemned the coup and the UN and the AU followed suit. Since then, the coup has all but been legitimised now that there is a mediation led by the president of Burkina Faso. France, which almost single-handedly helped get the UN involved in Côte d’Ivoire last year, refused to be involved, saying the matter must be left with the west African region.
A dilemma for the UN was that the Mali crisis was directly linked to the controversial Nato campaign in Libya, which led to the execution of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan Taureqs escaped the Nato campaign with lots of arms that had been dumped in Libya and joined forces with Malian Taureqs, thus tilting the balance of power against the Malian military.
So, for the UN, a robust response would also require it to confront questions about the Nato campaign and the ignored warnings that such a military intervention would destabilise the entire Sahel region. Officials of the UN Political Department recently indicated that some 2 000 to 3 000 Libyan Taureqs were a major factor in the Malian crisis, but would not comment further.
Then, last week in Guinea-Bissau, prime minister Carlos Gomez Jnr, a frontrunner in the presidential election runoff on April 29, was arrested by coup leaders. And so another coup has happened in west Africa. As with the Mali case, political opportunism and fragility of the political situation during an election period seem to have been key factors.
The AU, which has deferred to the regional body, has also become completely useless in the scheme of things. It has condemned the coup and expressed support for regional efforts, and nothing more. The UN is deferring to the African bodies when they are weak.
The anti-democratic tendencies may be haunting west Africa, but South Africa should be worried as they can easily spread south. Candidates for this include Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, and South Africa will thus be directly affected. Until then, South African companies and the country’s image as an African country are already being affected.
More importantly, it is in our strategic interest to promote the consolidation of democracy whether or not it is affected directly by coups. This may begin with South Africa taking the AU commission chair position and then using it to build an efficient and strong AU.
• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.