Rethinking the North African Uprising

After a year of the North African uprisings that took every body by surprise, it is time to undertake a ‘reality check’ in terms of what we believe the causes to be, the anticipated consequences, and what the future holds for the countries affected and the remaining African continent.

This paper examines the events in the North African countries that led to the changes of leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and the current situation in Libya. In doing so, the paper analyses the current events in North Africa vis-à-vis the African Union (AU) normative frameworks related to constitutionalism and democracy. In this regard, the foremost AU instruments are: the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance and the Lomé Declaration of July 2000 on the Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government (the Lomé Declaration). Here there are three important questions: do these events in North Africa constitute revolutions? What are their similarities and differences? And what are their implications for the above-mentioned AU policies, the AU itself and other institutions of governance, foreign policies of major powers and the international aid community? And most importantly, how could the AU place itself as a promoter of democracy in the middle of these and similar uprisings in the future?

Keeping these questions in mind, what follows is not a definitive answer, but rather a discursive point of view based on history, law and the current collective practices of countries and general public opinion. The main argument of this paper is that there is no tension between events in North Africa and the AU normative frameworks. On the contrary, the author is of the strong opinion that the spirit of the law of the AU normative frameworks support public demands for asserting the general will of the people. Thus, AU should be at forefront in support of demands for democracy and delivery of better state services.

The legislative intention of the Lomé Declaration does not apply to revolutions necessitated by the prevailing unconstitutional governance of a country. As far as public protests enjoy massive popular support and meet what the author terms ‘the credibility test’, then the protests remain within the rights of people, and people have the right to participate in a revolution. The credibility test needs to fulfil three conditions (Systemic violations of substantive rights by a government, Violation of trust of the people by a government through deception or manipulation; and the Absence of constitutional mechanisms of redress and the impossibility of removing such a government through constitutional means) as assessed by the population directly affected and the wider opinion of the international community as observed by the UN, the AU, the EU and other governance institutions. When these conditions are prevalent, the people have the right to change the government constitutionally if possible and extra-constitutionally—through revolution if necessary.

In the exercise of political power, people, as the principal, are the bearers of power, and the state is an agent. The state as agent exercises power by delegation. When the agent misuses or abuses this delegated power, the people have the right to revoke the delegation/agency. In a very precise formulation; when a minority in number usurps majority power and imposes their interest on the majority in number, it becomes unconstitutional change and regime. A system that supports majority in number to stay as minority in power always faces revolutionary uprisings. In a simple manner, when such revocation of power happens by popular protest, it constitutes a revolution. During revolution, people take state power (legislative, adjudicatory and executive power) back to their hands for a brief time of transition. In short, revolution is a transformer of the latent power of the people to active exercise of state power. During revolution, excessive measures are taken due to the absence of separation of power. This endanger constitutionalism that limits the majority power on minority rights. During these times, the AU could assist these countries facing revolts to ensure democratic constitutionalism: a rule by majority in number that also respects the rights of those minority in number. Indeed it is my opinion that as stipulated in the Constitutive Act and other policies of the AU including the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, the AU needs to urge its member states to enable their populations to express their concerns and their legitimate aspiration for better governance and performance.

Noting that the most challenging days of the North African countries still lay ahead, the paper concludes by recommending a more robust engagement of the AU and its various organs with the current transitional arrangements in the North African countries and those that may face similar uprisings in the future. Such engagement needs to be guided by the various AU human rights treaties and the provisions of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance as well as the Lomé Declaration.

Read more at Rethinking the North African Uprisings