Too often the AU bows to courts not because they are impartial referees, but to avoid confrontation with fraudulent leaders after “unfair” elections, writes Peter Fabricius.
The state of democracy in many parts of this continent is so poor that no one takes it too seriously. Except the relatives of those who die trying to achieve it. And the AU.
Take the presidential election last month in the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) which the long-time incumbent Denis Sassou-Nguesso won by a landslide. Or what most parts of the world would call a landslide.
He “claimed” only 60% of the vote, as Africa Confidential put it, adding dryly: “Sassou-Nguesso chose not to win by the 90%-and-over figure favoured by several AU leaders, but his score was still double those of the nearest rivals combined.”
Nicely put. As with many African elections, the incumbent, arranged his winning margin, enough to give him a credible mandate, but not enough to lose all plausibility. A subtle man, our Denis.
As the Africa Confidential article pointed out, the election was so obviously going to be flawed that the EU, whose election observer missions normally provide the benchmark, did not even bother to send observers.
Despite apparently having everything under control, Sassou-Nguesso shut down all cellphone and internet communications over the election period anyway, as an extra precaution, in case his political opponents got any funny ideas, like tweeting election results from polling stations before they could be massaged at counting centres. Or even tweeting up popular demonstrations against him.
In the election campaign, security forces had used teargas to disperse protesters, killed 18 and arrested foreign journalists.
Sassou-Nguesso should not even have been a candidate. He has ruled the country since he seized it in a military coup in 1979, except for four years in the 1990s when the Marxist one-party state introduced multiparty democracy.
He lost the first elections to Pascale Lissouba by about the same margin he won last month’s election.
He didn’t take too long to topple Lissouba in another coup in 1997 and has clung to power.
After continuing instability a new constitution was introduced which extended Sassou-Nguesso’s “legitimate” term in office until this year when he should have stood down.
But of course he introduced a new constitution – ostensibly because the old one was “transitional” and therefore supposedly unfit for the purposes of the country.
Sassou-Nguesso is not set to rule for another 10 years, although you can surely count on it that in 2026, he will find another ruse to extend his time in office, if he is still around.
After the electoral authority announced that Sassou-Nguesso had won the first round of voting on March 20 – thus obviating the need for a second, run-off round – the opposition planned to announce its unauthorised version of the results at a press conference.
But the police naturally used teargas to break up the event, arresting several opposition supporters.
The opposition continued, however, to what was believed to be a fraudulent result. Gunfire and explosions erupted in southern Brazzaville in the early hours of April 4, continuing for several hours and causing thousands of residents to flee the area. The army and police were attacked by fighters who reportedly set fire to police stations as well as the town hall of Makelekele district.
On the same day the Constitutional Court formally validated the results, confirming Sassou-Nguesso’s victory.
The US announced last week it was “profoundly disappointed by the flawed presidential electoral process…” and urged Sassou-Nguesso to ensure the irregularities were fixed before the upcoming legislative elections.
But the same day the chairwoman of the AU Commission Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said the AU accepted the Constitutional Court’s validation of Sassou-Nguesso’s victory and urged his political opponents to desist from violence and to channel their rejection of the results through the official channels.
According to observers in Addis Ababa, many AU officials were outraged by Dlamini Zuma’s acceptance of such a flawed election.
She might, however, choose to justify it on the grounds that the day before, Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, the opposition presidential candidate who came second (with just 15% of the vote) had himself announced that he too had accepted the Constitutional Court’s decision.
But – and this is important – he did so despite maintaining that Sassou-Nguesso’s re-election was “questionable”.
He urged Sassou Nguesso “to be humble in victory because this election has been marred by all sorts of irregularities”.
What persuaded Kolelas to accept the result is not clear. Cynically, perhaps, he was offered a job.
Or maybe he was doing what he thought was best for the country, trying to calm the violence.
Perhaps Nkosazana Dlamini would say she was doing the same.
But if so, this was a short-term solution.
Too often the AU and its member states bow to Constitutional Courts, not because they believe they are really the impartial referees they pretend to be, but because this is an easy way to avoid the kind of confrontation with fraudulent leaders which is so sorely needed.
That’s the only way to stop post-electoral discontent from spiralling into violence.