By Tatenda Malan and Brenda Mofya
For 37 years, there was only one centre of power in Zimbabwe: President Robert Mugabe.
Last week it appeared that Mugabe had lost that monopoly. No doubt this took everyone by surprise including the African Union (AU).
But It was the AU’s weak response to the ‘military takeover’ that occurred in Zimbabwe that was more telling.
On November 14, as the night fell on Harare Zimbabwe’s military leaders seized control of the country, placing President Robert Mugabe under house arrest and deploying armoured vehicles to the streets of the capital, Harare.
Military tanks where seen cordoning-off parliament, and the supreme court and the office of the President in Zimbabwe.
President Mugabe was held under house arrest and it was said that other cabinet ministers belonging to a Mnangagwa rival faction were held in custody. Military tanks had effectively taken control of the strategic locations in the capital, Harare.
The military denied that they had seized power, disguising the whole affair as an operation “targeting criminals around (Mugabe) who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country’”.
However, the sight of the army at the country’s institutions of democracy was certainly an unconstitutional takeover, going by the AU’s own definition, in fact a culmination of a bitter battle by those wanting to succeed long time President Mugabe.
Finally Mugabe was removed, ostensibly through a voluntary resignation that came in the face of an impeachment process propelled by MPs from his own party ZANU-PF and pending mass street demonstrations shepherded by military personnel on tanks had the 93-year-old remained defiant and clung on to power.
A Legitimised Military Coup
The AU boasts a number of tools in its toolbox of dealing with unconstitutional changes or illegal seizure of power.
Suspension and sanctions are some of the tools the AU immediately uses to deal with unconstitutional changes of governments.
The objective of these measures as outlined are to promote principles related to peace and security, human rights, democracy, elections and governance.
Suspension of Member States and sanctions are designed to bring about a change in policy or activity by the target country, entities or individuals who unconstitutionally seize power.
Since inception the AU has consistently taken action against Member States that have undergone coups or non-democratic changes of government.
With the transformation from OAU to AU, the continental body has expanded its stringent instruments dealing with unconstitutional changes or illegal seizure of power. It now demands for immediate suspension from participation in the AU activities of the affected State until restoration of constitutional order is done.
The AU often moves in swiftly into a State under unconstitutional siege, directly contributing to the restoring or strategizing democratic and constitutional order.
But in an unprecedented move, almost since the seizure of power from ZANU-PF led government of President Robert Mugabe by the Military in Zimbabwe, the African Union did not take action that went beyond a statement from the Chairperson of the Commission.
Indeed, a simple indication of the AU’s lack of equal interest in Zimbabwe is the one statement released by the AU Chair’s office.
A mere few lines that events in “Zimbabwe seems like a coup” and calling on the military to halt their actions and restore constitutional order, indicates that the chairperson’s attention was focused mostly on what was in the news.
Clearly, seen from this public-diplomacy angle, confirms AU policy on governance is far more reactive than normative.
Moreover, AU’s Peace and Security Council did not call for an emergency meeting to discuss the events in Zimbabwe.
The AU has developed some of the most ambitious and far-reaching sanction tools compared to other international organisations, but the events and the rather shrouded coup in Zimbabwe caught the AU unawares.
Media reports indicate that African leaders were said to have been making moves to encourage Mugabe to step down before the army began moves last week to oust him. As such many will view the AU silence on the coup as tacit support of the military to force Mugabe out of office.
Further, the AU Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat’ Statement issued a day after Mugabe resigned was an endorsement of the removal of Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe.
“President Mugabe will be remembered as a fearless pan-Africanist liberation fighter, and the father of the independent Zimbabwean nation. Today’s decision will go down in history as an act of statesmanship that can only bolster President Mugabe’s political legacy The African Union recognizes that the Zimbabwean people have expressed their will that there should be a peaceful transfer of power in a manner that secures the democratic future of their country.”
Unexpected Mugabe Exit
Although, Zimbabwe has been undergoing political, social and social economic turmoil since the elections of 2013 ended the Government of National Unity, few people expected a Mugabe removal from power this week.
The Continental Early Warning System another pillar of the AU failed to anticipate that there would be a crisis.
The AU has continuously failed to act against a series of severe and ongoing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. As such an online campaign led by Zimbabwean media mogul Trevor Ncube asking the AU to back off went viral.
“We plead with you to stay out of the political stand-off in Zimbabwe. 37years of your errors of commission and omission has hurt us. We are very clear what we want and you can’t help.”
This opposition to the AU and SADC of any other intervention was out of genuine fear based on history that these organisations could stall the departure of Mugabe, despite the actions of the military, the ZANU-PF and the masses of ordinary Zimbabweans who had taken to the streets to ask Mugabe to leave power.
The AU has a history of propping up Mugabe, who even served as AU chairperson in 2015.
The prior intervention by SADC in the mid-2000s that led to the Government of National Unity (GNU) from 2008-2-13, led by Mugabe, was also criticised in many quarters.
Notably, the AU failed to follow up on the implementation of crucial provisions of the Global Political Agreement that led to the GNU not being implemented.
Also, the AU has since 2002 repeatedly rubber-stamped elections in Zimbabwe despite serious allegations of fraud, to say the least the Zimbabwean issue had become a taboo.
In the last seven years, the situation in Zimbabwe has not been on the AU agenda, be it at the Peace and Security Council or Governance Platforms.
Zimbabwe has tended to take AU engagement seriously, that its dominancy at various levels has ensured that no mention of it ever happens in any bad light—essentially making Zimbabwe a taboo topic at the Union.
Could it also be that genuinely the AU was caught unaware on Zimbabwe because of competing priorities? That key decision makers may have been pre-occupied with other issues?
As the military takeover was happening in Harare, the entire AU Commission leadership and thirty-seven African member states foreign Affairs Ministers were in Washington for the Annual AU-USA High Level Dialogue held on 16-17th November. In Addis Ababa, the AU PSC was also meeting with the European Union PSC for their annual consultative meeting.
Mugabe the celebrated Pan-Africanist
At the AU, Mugabe always drew applause as one of Africa’s oldest statesman and rare voice that denounced colonialism and imperialism.
Mugabe never missed AU meetings and he ensured that only loyalists and staunch defenders of his regime diplomats represented Zimbabwe at the AU.
Hence not surprising that in January 2015, he became the elective chair of the Union for the year 2015/16. Mugabe ensured that Zimbabwe honoured its financial contributions to the AU, ranking it among the top 8 contributing countries to the continental body.
The Zimbabwe case presented the AU with another chance to put to test the AU instruments on governance—dealing with unconstitutional changes or illegal seizure of power. Always, suspension and sanctions are the tool the AU uses to deal with unconstitutional changes of governments.
The implications of this citizens endorsed ‘coup’ or ‘military takeover’ in Zimbabwe for the AU will take time to fully emerge. But it is already clear from the AU’s performance in all previous very different cases that a lack of providing clear policy has profoundly damaged the AU’s standing, credibility, and influence in the continent’s aspirations.
About the authors
Tatenda Malan is a Peace and Security and Media Expert living in Palestine
Brenda Mofya is a Zambian Lawyer currently Heading Oxfam’s Liaison Office to the AU