The spate of recent military takeovers in Africa was perhaps best described by French President Emmanuel Macron as “an epidemic of coups in the Sahel” – a fast-spreading disease on the continent.

France, a former colonial power in Africa with access to rich minerals in the region, is one of the biggest single losers – and is at risk of losing its political, economic and military clout.

Recent military coups have included power grabs in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon, with French diplomats and military personnel on the verge of being expelled from some of those countries.

Both Gabon and Niger are expected to be represented by military leaders as well, according to an official UN list of Heads of State (HS) and Heads of Government (HG) set to speak during the high-level segment of the UN General Assembly (GA) from September 18 heads of state, while Mali and Burkina Faso are represented by government “ministers” – possibly foreign ministers.

The official representatives on the podium during General Assembly sessions traditionally include the President of the General Assembly and the UN Secretary-General.

But judging by the Secretary-General’s aversion to military seizures of power, some of the unanswered questions remain: Will he stand at the podium to listen to a leader who has seized power through illegitimate means? And will he offer his traditional handshake after the speech?

UNSG opposed coups

Secretary-General António Guterres, the world body’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), said on Aug. 31 that he “strongly condemns the ongoing attempted coup as a means of resolving the post-election crisis” and “reiterated his firm opposition to military coups.”

Guterres called on all actors in Gabon to exercise restraint, engage in inclusive and meaningful dialogue and ensure that the rule of law and human rights are fully respected.

He also called on the national army and security forces to ensure the physical integrity of the President of the Republic of Gabon and his family.

The United Nations stands with the Gabonese people, he said.

Meanwhile, the presence of the two military leaders at the United Nations will also depend on whether the US, which has condemned army takeovers, will issue visas to enter New York.

After he finished his speech, he was homeless with no country to go to and applied for political asylum in a Middle Eastern country.

Meanwhile, the dethronement of a prime minister during a UN session prompted an official to sarcastically advise all visiting world leaders to include – along with their baggage – their army, navy and air force chiefs as part of the UN -Bring the country’s delegation Avoid possible military coups at home.

How many other African countries will follow the ousted leaders? Will they bring their military leaders to the UN as accompanied or unaccompanied baggage?

The New York Times On September 1, Nigerian President Bola Tinubu quoted his warning about “contagion of autocracy” with emboldened soldiers in other countries who should also take power.

The Times said other African leaders took precautionary measures fearing they could be next.

In Cameroon, President Paul Biya – in office for 40 years and at 90 the oldest living leader in the world – announced a sudden reshuffle of his country’s military leadership.

This also applies to Rwanda, which, like Gabon, has been governed by one man for decades.

In a newly published book* on the United Nations, the late Kofi Annan is described as the only UN Secretary-General (1997-2006) to have challenged the General Assembly and urged member states to accept political leaders who came to power through undemocratic means are to refuse the UN podium or through military coups.

As a senior UN official put it, “Did military leaders seek legitimacy by addressing the General Assembly?”

Annan wanted the UN to expel coup plotters

When the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of today’s African Union (AU), barred coup plotters from attending summits in Africa in 2004, Annan described the landmark decision as a future model for punishing military dictators around the world.

Taking this a step further, Annan said he is confident that one day the General Assembly, the organization’s highest policy-making body, will follow in the OAU’s footsteps and ban leaders of military governments from addressing the General Assembly.

Annan’s proposal was a historic first. However, this never happened in an institution where the Member States and not the Secretary-General govern the organisation. However, such a move could also haunt member states if they one day represent a country headed by a military leader.

The outspoken Annan, a national of Ghana, also said that “some African leaders continue to hide billions of dollars in public funds – even as roads deteriorate, health systems fail, schoolchildren have no books, desks or teachers, and phones don’t work.” He also criticized African leaders who topple democratic regimes to seize power by military means.

Major Exceptions

Although Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), addressed the United Nations, some of the world’s most controversial authoritarian leaders, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad, and Kim, held from North Korea, a speech Il Sung and his grandson Kim Jong-un never made it to the UN.

When former Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused of war crimes, was denied a US visa to attend the high-level segment of General Assembly sessions in September 2013, a Sudanese delegate told the United Nations Legal Affairs Committee that “the democratic – The President-elect of Sudan was denied the opportunity to attend the General Assembly because the host country, the United States, refused him a visa in violation of the UN-US Headquarters Agreement.”

Meanwhile, military leaders addressing the United Nations included Fidel Castro of Cuba, Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi of Libya, Amadou Touré of Mali (who seized power after a coup in 1991 but later served as the democratically elected president) and Jerry Rawlings of Ghana (who seized power in 1979, executed previous heads of state but later served as civilian president, rose to power in democratic elections).

In October 2020, The New York Times reported that at least 10 African civilian leaders refused to step down from power, instead amending their constitutions to serve a third or fourth term – or for life.

These leaders included the Presidents of Guinea (running for a third term), Ivory Coast, Uganda, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ghana and Seychelles. The only country where the incumbent resigned was Niger.

The Times condemned all military coups and quoted Umaro Sissoco Embalo, President of Guinea-Bissau, as saying: “Even third terms are considered coups.”

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters Aug. 30 that the United States is deeply concerned by the unfolding events in Gabon.

“We remain firmly opposed to military seizures of power or unconstitutional transfers of power. We urge those responsible to release government officials and their families, ensure their safety and maintain civilian rule.”

In addition, he said: “We call on all actors to show restraint and respect for human rights after the election results are announced, and to resolve their concerns peacefully through dialogue.” We are also concerned at the lack of transparency and the reports of irregularities in the context with the election note. “The United States stands with the Gabonese people,” Miller said.

*This article contains excerpts from a book about the United Nations entitled No Comment – ​​and Don’t Quote Me on That – written by Thalif Deen, Editor-in-Chief at the Berlin IDN, a former UN staff member and a former member of the Sri Lankan delegation at UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, New York, he was twice (2012 and 2013) the recipient of the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) Gold Medal for Excellence in UN Reporting. The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows:

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