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African charter on democracy, elections and governance: A critical analysis

Nadjita F. Ngarhodjim1


May 2007

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During its Eighth Summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 29-30 January 2007, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union (AU) adopted an African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (African Charter on Democracy).2 The adoption of that text was the culmination of a lengthy process, slow but irreversible, that began in the early 1990s.

For the smaller countries that espoused the ideologies of the former hegemonic powers of either bloc, the end of the Cold War spelled the end of unconditional support. Thus, at the traditional France-Africa Summit he hosted in June 1990 in La Baule, France, then French President Franзois Mitterrand forsook the bureaucratic language that was generally the rule under such circumstances and told his African peers that French aid to African countries would henceforth be given out on a scale commensurate with their efforts at democratisation.3 However, what would later be known as the ‘Discours de la Baule’ (the La Baule speech) should be placed in a broader historical context. During the same period, African populations were increasingly outspoken in their demands for greater democracy and stronger participation in the public affairs of their countries. In some cases, their efforts culminated in ‘national conferences’ organised in the early 1990s in half a dozen French-speaking African countries at the initiative – or the behest – of local forces for democratic change.

Caught between the demands of national public opinion and the new requirements of Western governments and organisations providing financing, African governments soon took the measure of the new international order. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit held in Addis Abeba in July 1990 was largely devoted to the political and socioeconomic situation in Africa and the fundamental changes taking place in the world. In a declaration adopted at the outcome of the proceedings, the heads of state and government proclaimed their support for democratic principles, while specifying that each state remained free to choose the form of democracy best suited to its realities.4

The next phase consisted of adopting a common policy towards the phenomenon of taking power by force, whose persistence in Africa threatened efforts (however feeble they may have been) towards political liberalisation. In a series of resolutions beginning in the latter half of the 1990s,5 the Heads of State and Government of the OAU condemned coups d’йtat, an issue that had previously been considered a matter of national sovereignty not subject to intervention by the continental organisation.

Reflecting this change, the Constitutive Act6 of the AU, which replaced the OAU, openly asserted its preference for democratic government and even provided for the possibility of sanctions in case of unconstitutional change of government.7

The African Charter on Democracy has drawn inspiration from all of the foregoing developments, of which it can be described as the culmination. The present analysis both salutes the adoption of the text as an innovative and relevant initiative, and draws attention to its shortcomings.

  1. LL. B. (University of N’Djamena), LL. M. (University of Pretoria), Student-at-law at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The opinions expressed in this paper are the personal views of the author and in no way represent the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
  2. Assembly/AU/Dec. 147 (VIII).
  3. See F Mitterrand, ‘Le discours de la Baule (1990)’ (available on During the press conference at the closing of the summit at la Baule, President Mitterrand announced that France’s ‘Traditional and longstanding aid’ would be ‘cooler towards regimes that behave in an authoritarian manner’ and ‘enthusiastic towards those who move boldly forward’ towards democratisation. (See the AFP dispatch, ‘Quinze ans aprиs la Baule, le bilan dйmocratique africain reste mitigй’ published by Le potentiel in edition 3456 of 21 June 2005, available on
  4. Declaration on the Political and Socio-Economic Situation in Africa and the Fundamental Changes Taking Place in the World (AHG/Decl.1 (XXVI) 1990), adopted during the Twenty-sixth Summit of the OAU, in Addis Abeba, 9-11 July 1990 is available on (consulted on 17 April 2007).
  5. Declarations of Harare in 1997, Algiers in 1999 and Lomй in 2000.
  6. Adopted in Lomй, Togo, on 11 July 2000, it entered into force in May 2001.
  7. Article 4(p) of the Constitutive Act: ‘The Union shall function in accordance with the following principles: (…) (p) condemnation and rejection of unconstitutional changes of governments.’ In addition, according to the terms of Article 30 of the Act, ‘Governments which shall come to power through unconstitutional means shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the Union’.

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