The North African Uprisings under the African Union’s Normative Framework

In early 2011, popular uprisings swept across North Africa, spearheaded by the region’s outraged youth crying ominously “our country or death!” The choice for the authoritarian leaders in power was clear: change fast,resign or perish. The events in North Africa brought about sweeping changes in leaderships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Ben Ali fled Tunisia, while Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had to leave office after three weeks of defying internal and external calls for his resignation. The Libyan leader, Muammer Qaddafi, met an ignominious end in the hands of his captors, and after incessant airstrikes over Libya by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), lasting nearly eight months.
As a result of the North African uprisings, officials of the African Union (AU) in particular and leaders of African states in general began to debate normative, legal and institutional questions:2 the rule of law and constraints on popular power defining constitutionalism, elements of which may, on the surface of it, make revolutions appear incompatible with constitutionalism. Similarly, revolutions may inherently appear to pose threats to constitutionalism, or even become unconstitutional. This brief paper examines if there is such inherent incompatibility, and even irreconcilability, between revolutions and constitutionalism. It also looks at whether AU’s normative frameworks related to constitutionalism and democracy are contradictory to the events in North Africa. The paper will address questions such as: are these uprisings and revolutions inherently anti-constitutional, or even unconstitutional? What are unconstitutional changes of government? Are the North African revolutions incompatible with AU’s norms? Why is the involvement of mercenaries inherently anti-constitutionalism or even unconstitutional? Were mercenaries involved in the uprising in Libya?
In part, these questions emanate from the historical fact that Africa has faced more coups d’état than revolutions, with the AU poised to respond to unconstitutional changes of governments rather than to revolutions. Why, it may be asked, did AU’s institutional frameworks fail to predict the North African uprisings through the various mechanisms in place, such as the Continental Early Warning System, the African Peer Review Mechanism, etc? Despite significant improvements over the past ten years, the AU’s institutional mechanisms still remain weak in practice, compared to the challenges they are designed to address, so that they have been incapable of bringing about the desired results they were designed for. Are these indicative of the norm-implementation gap? How can AU move to fill the gap between early warning and early policy response?

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