Zimbabwe's President in waiting Emmerson Mnangagwa, center-right, greets supporters gathered outside the Zanu-PF party headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
Zimbabwe's President in waiting Emmerson Mnangagwa, center-right, greets supporters gathered outside the Zanu-PF party headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Zimbabwe is gearing up for the inauguration of former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa on Friday who has promised a new democracy, to revitalise the economy and create new jobs in a country suffering 95 percent unemployment.

But the return of Mnangagwa, and the tumultuous events which have led up to Friday’s momentous occasion - following his firing by former President Robert Mugabe and the soft military coup which forced Mugabe to step down - have highlighted the African Union’s (AU) questionable record in responding to the military coups which have plagued the African continent.

Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander Constantino Chiwenga and his men continually denied that a coup was taking place.

“They knew that the AU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) would be against a full-blown coup,” said Derek Matyszak, the Institute for Security Studies’ (ISS) Senior Research Consultant in Zimbabwe.

“That is why they showed Mugabe in public appearing to be a free man and in good health while trying to project a non-coup,” Matyszak told the African News Agency (ANA) during an interview.

Indeed the AU has been stuck between a rock and a hard place in regards to Zimbabwe’s ‘coup’

On Tuesday, a week after the coup kicked off, the African Union Commission (AUC) Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat welcomed “Mugabe’s decision to resign as an act of statesmanship”, while acknowledging him as a “fearless liberation fighter”. This was an acknowledgement of the Mugabes' deep unpopularity with Zimbabweans.

However, in a November 15 statement, Mahamat was more circumspect, urging stakeholders to address the situation in accordance with Zimbabwe’s constitution.

AU Chairman, Guinean President Alpha Conde, was more blunt, stating the organisation would never accept Zimbabwe’s military coup.

“We insist on the respect of the constitution and a return to constitutional rule,” he stated.

This initial reaction was in line with the then Organisation of African Unity’s Lomé Declaration of 2000 that outlawed unconstitutional changes of government.

This principle was subsequently taken up in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the AU’s 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, ISS consultant Liesl Louw-Vaudran explained in a Wednesday article "The African Union’s Chequered History with Military Coups".

“These continental decisions followed three decades of political instability in many parts of Africa, characterised by military coups that led to brutal military regimes in places such as Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan and elsewhere,” said Louw-Vaudran in the ISS article.

Since the adoption of the Lomé decision, there have been several coups in a number of countries where, for the most part, the AU stuck to this principle, she added.

In Niger in 2010, in Guinea in 2008, in Madagascar in 2009, in Mali in 2012 and in the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2013, the AU immediately suspended these countries from the organisation and imposed sanctions on the coup leaders.

Mediation and intervention from the AU and the Regional Economic Organisations then aimed to return these countries to constitutional rule, often through transitional mechanisms followed by elections, the consultant explained.

However, the AU’s intervention was often problematic because the leadership that the AU was defending against military rule was itself compromised.

CAR’s former president François Bozizé, who was overthrown by Seleka rebels, came to power initially through a coup against his predecessor Ange-Félix Patassé in 2003.

“In some cases, coup leaders simply exchanged their military uniforms for formal attire, held elections and convinced the AU that they were now respectable,” added Louw-Vaudran.

This raised the question as to whether the AU could reject the will of the people, given that the leaders they overthrew led authoritarian undemocratic regimes. 

This is what the AU has been grappling with for the last two weeks in regards to Zimbabwe and hence the about-turn in statements issued by the organisation.

The above conundrum was also clearly understood by Zimbabwe’s military leaders who otherwise would have grabbed power and installed Mnangagwa far more easily and quickly that what ultimately eventuated.

- African News Agency