Sunday, September 3, 2023

Map Update: Record Number of African Union Members Suspended (Sep. 2023)

African Union Members: Map of Africa showing which countries are suspended from the AU in September 2023, as well as which countries are active members and which territories aren't part of the union. Updated for the suspensions of Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Niger, and Gabon for coups over the past two years (colorblind accessible).
Map by Evan Centanni, from blank map by Eric Gaba. License: CC BY-SA

AU Suspensions at All-time High

There are now a record of six member countries banned from participation in the African Union (AU), after Niger and Gabon were both suspended in August 2023. AU suspensions are almost always a response to a government overthrow in a member country, implying that coups in Africa are now at their highest point in the organization's 21-year history. The number is also up drastically from our previous African Union map update in June 2021, when we reported that only two countries were currently suspended.

Three AU members were suspended in the first eight months since that 2021 update:

All three of these countries, plus Mali, which had already been suspended earlier in 2021, pushed for their suspensions to be lifted in February 2023, but were firmly denied

See Also: Mali Suspended from AU for Third Time (2021)

How to pronounce "Niger" 
Both Niger and the neighboring country of Nigeria are named after the Niger River, which is traditionally pronounced "NYE-jer" in English.

But the country of Niger, which was born from a French colony, is usually pronounced "nee-ZHAYR", based on the French-language version, while English-speaking Nigeria is pronounced "nye-JEER-ee-ah".

A person from Niger is a Nigerien ("nee-ZHAYR-ee-en"), and a person from Nigeria is a Nigerian ("nye-JEER-ee-an").

The African Union announced Niger's suspension on August 22, 2023, ending an unusually long wait after the country's July 26 coup - the organization usually suspends any member country within days of any government overthrow. This came as neighboring countries were trying hard to convince Niger's coup leaders to back down, with the smaller Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) even threatening a military invasion.

A week later, in what felt almost like a footnote to the drawn-out drama over Niger, the AU swiftly suspended Gabon just a day after that country had a coup of its own. With these two most recent suspensions, roughly one in ten AU member seats is now empty.

The Lifting of South Sudan's African Union Suspension

The previous three updates to our AU membership map included South Sudan as a "suspended" country. In June 2020, it had been locked out of African Union meetings after going more than two years without paying its membership fees to the organization. The AU didn't officially call its action a "suspension", but the results were roughly the same, and some news reports used the word "suspension" to describe it. 

In the three years since then, we couldn't find any news about South Sudan's suspension being lifted, so we decided to keep showing it as "suspended" in our last few updates. But when researching for this update, we realized that South Sudan seems to be participating normally in AU activities, and it even paid all of its membership fees for last year.

Apparently, because South Sudan's "suspension" wasn't officially called a suspension, there was never a major announcement that it had been lifted. But our latest research revealed that South Sudan's government actually paid off the money it owed to the African Union - more than 9 million US dollars - less than two weeks after it was first suspended. An AU meeting four months later officially canceled all restrictions on the country's participation (including earlier, smaller ones from even before the full-on suspension).

So it seems pretty clear that South Sudan shouldn't have been considered suspended anymore after October 14, 2020, at the latest. That means at least PolGeoNow's last two AU map updates were incorrect to show South Sudan as "suspended". The update before that was published in a bit of a gray area: after the country paid off its debt, but before the meeting where its restrictions were fully and officially lifted. We're making corrections to those earlier articles now, and adding a note to each one to explain the changes.

So which countries are suspended from the African Union now?

As mentioned above, there are now six countries suspended from the African Union: Gabon, Niger, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Suspended countries are still considered members, but are temporarily shut out of the organization's meetings and denied a vote in the group's decision-making processes.

The AU has a policy of suspending countries whose leadership changes in a way that violates the country's constitution, especially in the case of a military coup.  On the other hand, it consistently turns a blind eye to leaders who stay in power unconstitutionally, even though the rules say refusing to accept the results of a "free and fair election" also counts as a violation. 

The current total of six suspended members easily breaks the previous record of four, which has been reached twice in the AU's 21-year history, most recently from 2022 to 2023, just before Gabon and Niger joined the list. The other time suspensions reached that level was from 2013 to 2014, when Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau, the Central African Republic, and Egypt all were had suspended status at the same time. That situation ended after about six months, when Madagascar's suspension was lifted.

Learn More: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) in the African Union?

Making Exceptions: The Non-Suspension of Chad

For 20 years or more, the African Union has officially had a strict zero-tolerance policy for coups: Any country whose leadership changes in a way that's unconstitutional will be immediately suspended from participation in the organization. In reality, it's turned a blind eye to leaders who stay in power unconstitutionally, even though refusing to accept the results of a "free and fair election" is also supposed count as a violation. But in cases of the military directly overthrowing a country's government, the AU has been stubbornly consistent, quickly suspending almost every country where that happens.

Until 2021, the only exceptions were a few cases where the AU gave the coup leaders a deadline to step back down from power. That grace period normally would only extend to a week or two - in 2019 Sudan was given almost two months, but that got cut short after the situation got worse rather than better. So it was a bit surprising when the AU chose not to suspend Chad after that country's military took over in April 2021.

Chad's situation was a bit unusual, it's true. The country's president, who was already criticized as an authoritarian ruler, was reportedly killed on the battlefield, with the military then assuming power and installing his son as its leader. That's not quite the classic "military coup" where rogue soldiers overthrow a democratically-elected president. Bu either way, it was clearly against the African Union's rules: The military ignored the procedures laid out in the Chadian constitution, then announced it was suspending the constitution altogether, leaving no question that this was an AU-banned "unconstitutional transfer of power".

The AU did take the events in Chad seriously, denouncing the military takeover and apparently acknowledging that it was against the rules. But instead of suspending the country, the AU said it would cut the Chadian military some slack as long it gave up power after a year and a half, by late 2022. When the military government eventually backed away from that promise, with an associated committee adding an extra two years to the deadline, the AU still didn't suspend the country.

So why the exception? It could be that, since the country already wasn't democratic, the AU considered this case a low priority for punishment. But they never seemed to have cared about that when suspending other countries in the past. So the main reason for going easy on Chad seems to be that the AU thought excluding the country would be too costly. Chad has a particularly powerful and effective military, has been a key player in fighting against rebels affiliated with Al Qaeda and the so-called "Islamic State" (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL), and maybe helps shield other African countries from ongoing chaos in Libya

Still, other militarily powerful countries have been suspended in the past, like Egypt in 2013. So Chad's free pass still came across as a loosening of the AU's standards. The more recent, weeks-long delay in suspending Niger makes an interesting comparison: Like Chad, Niger also plays a key role in the fight against Al Qaeda and similar insurgents, which might have made the AU reluctant to immediately cut it off. But in contrast to Chad, Niger's coup overthrew an actual democratically-elected president, and also came after a string of other military coups in West Africa - so AU leadership might feel extra strongly that it can't let this one fly.

You can see past and future updates to the above map by viewing all African Union articles or all African Union suspensions updates on PolGeoNow.