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Are people losing hope in democracy?

Premium Times carried a report yesterday posing the question whether people are losing hope in democracy. It outlines findings of an International IDEA survey which…

Premium Times carried a report yesterday posing the question whether people are losing hope in democracy. It outlines findings of an International IDEA survey which shows that voters in 19 countries, including in three of the world’s largest democracies and three African countries, believe their political choices don’t matter and so they prefer a strong, undemocratic leader. The report concludes that: “Democratic institutions are falling short of people’s expectations.” This is indeed a time when deep introspection is on-going about democracy as many of its values and processes are questioned around the world and analysts ponder about its future.

Here in West Africa, the interrogation has taken the form of four of the 15 countries in the region – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea – opting out of the democratic framework following coup d’états. Threats and sanctions from the regional organisation, ECOWAS, failed to bring them back. Today, it is ECOWAS withdrawing its sanctions and cajoling them to return without success so far.

The normative system of ECOWAS is built on the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance (21 December, 2001) which sets out the constitutional convergence criteria to be fulfilled by Community members based on the principles of good governance – respect for the rule of law, the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, the promotion of non-partisan and responsible press and the democratic control of the armed forces. It also commits Member States to ensure poverty alleviation, uphold, defend and promote international norms regarding basic human rights, including the rights of minorities, children, youth and women.

Without doubt, the said crisis of democracy is a statement about the lack of sufficient positive results on these objectives. The Supplementary Protocol also upholds the principle of zero tolerance for the unconstitutional accession to or maintenance of power which is today facing a huge challenge.

Historically, ECOWAS protocols significantly facilitated the transition of West African States from military or single party regimes to multiparty democracies in the post-1990 era. In this context, guarding democratic standards become widely accepted as a common task for ECOWAS. However, the standards of democratic practice began to wane in many of the countries in the zone. A number of incumbent presidents in particular started to interfere with democratic processes, repressing opposition political parties, engaging in electoral fraud and changing the Constitution for the purpose of tenure elongation.

As these breaches of the constitutional order persisted and spread, many of the West African regimes gradually lost their legitimacy leading to the return of the coup d’état in the region.

In Niger, ECOWAS had to refuse to recognise President Tandja as legitimate president at the end of his second term in 2009 when he failed to step down and simply announced he had decided to stay three more years in office in spite of the refusal of the Constitutional Court, which he simply disbanded. ECOWAS was unable to get him to step down opening the doors to military intervention to organise a transition back to the restoration of the democratic order.

Nonetheless, democracy has been the leitmotif for development of ECOWAS and its normative system since the 1981 Declaration of Political Principles. ECOWAS as a political system must, therefore continue to improve its capacity to cope, survive and recover from complex challenges and crises that represent stresses or pressures that can lead to a systemic failure. My view is that the pursuit of democracy is a way to build resilience because of a number of factors.

Democracy is in its essence a resilient system because it’s a normative system people value for its positive content – political and human rights, civil liberties, participation, equality, rule of law and so on. For this reason, there are always demands for democracy and when countries move away from it, struggle for its return.

This demand for democracy is often strengthened by the fact that democracies tend to be accompanied by strong media and civil society movements. Their vocation is to ‘protect’ democracy through investigation, information transparency and advocacy that contributes to resilience. Democracy’s resilience as a consequence of a strong civil society and democracies with a strong civil society are more likely to be durable over time. Encouraging the strengthening of civil society is therefore the pathway to deepening the resilience of democracy.

Generally, the argument is that a vigorous civil society helps to create an underlying trust and social cohesion that in turn allows for contestation and contention in a democracy and strengthening its overall resilience when democracy comes under pressure.

There is evidence that the resilience of democracy can be shown empirically. In their article in the Journal of Democracy, October 2023, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, argue convincingly that democracy faces challenges in many countries but on the whole, it has proven surprisingly resilient in the 21 century:

“The extraordinary global democratic expansion of the late 20 century has ended, and several prominent democracies, including those in Hungary, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Turkey, and Venezuela, have experienced backsliding or breakdown. But the vast majority of “third wave” democracies—regimes that became democracies between 1975 and 2000—endure.”

It would be recalled that in Africa, the number of de jure single-party regimes fell from 29 in 1989 to zero in 1994. Since then, poor governance, corruption and the decline in the quality of elections created grounds for the return of the military. Military rule and authoritarianism, however, also find it hard to sustain themselves in the new world because citizens start asking questions and making demands. It is not, therefore, clear that democratic recession is on-going or that there a “third wave of autocratization.

As Freedom House argued in its 2022 annual report, data does not support such claims. In its report covering the year 2013, Freedom House listed 90 countries as Free. A decade later, that number was 84. According to V-Dem, the number of liberal and electoral democracies in the world declined from 96 in 2016 to 90 in 2022. The evidence is therefore for a slight not significant decline.”

The slight decline however looks bigger than it is because of the coming into power of a number of illiberal or authoritarian leaders whose style and voice appeared to exaggerate the phenomenon such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni (whose Brothers of Italy party has roots in Italian fascism).  Since 2022, Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Many of the elected autocrats who subverted democratic institutions in the 21 century lost power within a decade, very often resulting in a “slide back” to democracy. When autocracy comes, people remember the benefits they enjoyed under democracy and begin to crave for it as it were.

The result is that consolidating authoritarianism has become a more difficult task today than it was in the past. Populists can gain widespread public support initially but they have great difficulties sustaining it because they are unable to deliver the usually exaggerated promises they have made. Citizens have come to expect integrity, security and delivery of public services from democracies but they have the same expectations from the autocrats when they takeover. This is the basis for the resilience of democracies; over time, they have more to offer than authoritarian regimes.

Democratic forces almost always have a good fighting chance over the others. It is interesting that in all the countries that had recent coups in West Africa, insecurity is growing, repression is growing, corruption has set in and public service delivery is facing a sharp decline.

The core weakness of ECOWAS is the erosion of its normative framework by some presidents who are at the same time its highest-level leadership – members of the Authority of Heads of State. When the issue of tenure elongation started putting strains on the ECOWAS normative framework, ECOWAS decided to include in its Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance a provision disallowing tenure elongation beyond two terms. When it was moved for adoption in the 2015 Summit, the presidents of Togo and the Gambia opposed it.

ECOWAS brought back the same proposal in the 2022 Summit and this time the presidents of three countries – Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo scuttled it. This means that the commission is not always able to carry its leadership along because some of them have developed political objectives that directly contradict the normative framework they had developed for the organisation. We know where the problem is.


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