The Shot Heard (Nowhere) ’Round the World

Mauritania's coup

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Last week, Mauritanian military commanders grew so enraged over military downsizing – and chiefly the downsizing of their own high-ranking jobs–that they overthrew President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi without a shot fired.

This wasn’t much of a surprise.

Despite its many problems, Mauritania boasts a remarkable record of attempted and actual coups d’etat–the previous one being in August 2005, which after a brief military-led interregnum resulted in the country’s first parliamentary and presidential elections. While the new government was elected democratically, it didn’t exactly govern so. That’s hardly a death knell in a marginalized African country. But Lesson One in ruling a backwater is that you can’t divvy up whatever wealth and perks the country might have while cutting military elites from their share.

What was a surprise, however, was the African Union’s reaction. On Saturday, just three days after the coup, the 53-state organization suspended Mauritania ’s membership.

“The coup is a serious setback for Mauritanians because it has robbed the people of their basic right to freely elect leaders of their own choice,” said Bernard Membe, Tanzania ’s foreign minister and chairman of the AU’s council of ministers. Membe noted that Mauritania was a signatory to multiple AU conventions forbidding coups and power grabs–one of which was signed only last month.

It’s good to see that the AU stuck to its rules. The problem, however, is that some rules contravene others, and AU members decide which ones to follow with the same discipline most show in following the laws of their own countries.

The obvious example concerns Zimbabwe . In May, dictator Robert Mugabe refused to recognize the largely free-and-fair election of his opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, and in late June swept an unfree-and-unfair runoff. As with his governance, beatings, disappearances and all-around thuggery defined Mugabe’s campaign, and even the AU claimed the election “fell short” of its standards.

So just days later, at the regional bloc’s summit in Egypt , how did AU members react to Mugabe? Some with hugs, some with hand-wringing, and all but the Kenya representative reciting Article 4 of the AU’s constitution, pledging “non-interference by any Member State in the internal affairs of another.”

But the aptest line came from Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, whose foreign minister would later announce Mauritania ’s banishment. “We would like to congratulate the Zimbabwean people for their success but we would also like to express our commiserations for their suffering,” the president said.

Only the AU could simultaneously offer Zimbabweans congratulations and commiserations for the same act. Or legitimize one coup and punish another.