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Democracy: Its challenges and resilience

The West African Sahel has recently been rocked by military uprisings and coups. In the past three years, rogue soldiers have taken over power in…

The West African Sahel has recently been rocked by military uprisings and coups. In the past three years, rogue soldiers have taken over power in Chad, April 2021; in Mali (August 2020 and May 2021); in Guinea (September 2021); in Burkina Faso (January and September 2022) and in Niger, July 2023. This means much of the Eastern Sahel is in the hands of the military. ECOWAS is greatly affected because its political map at the beginning of 2020 showed a West Africa where the political convergence principles directing all states to operate democratic regimes based on regular multiparty elections has been profoundly transformed and the supplementary protocol of democracy and good governance that guides democratic practice profoundly breached. 

The confluence of constitutional crises in the region raises several questions. Why these specific countries? Why now, in such short succession? And finally, what does the future hold for their populations under military rule? The majority of the population of West African states being under 40 years old have no memory of military rule, the repression and denial of human rights and above all the arbitrariness of social and political rights. The youth still have a romantic vision of the military as a professional group that would fix the problems created by the departing political class, leave power and return the countries to an idyllic democracy. They are yet to know about the political rise of the military, their love of power and self-perpetuation and their corruption.

Political conditions in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger are closely related to each country’s turbulent past and present. Over the last five years, terrorists are estimated to have gained control of up to 40 per cent of Burkina Faso’s territory, leading to 2,500 closed schools and over one million internally displaced persons. Niger and Mali’s share of the regional conflict is less severe at the moment, but is nonetheless longer and more complex, dating back to early 2012. The three countries have been the fulcrum of terrorism and the primary source of violence in their sub-region, locked into a dangerous self-perpetuating instability. Across the sparsely populated, poorly policed Sahel, weak local governance creates gaps for jihadist movements to fill, which further weakens local governance and lends legitimacy to coup plotters.

In the current edition of 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 21st Century.  

The wrote, “The extraordinary global democratic expansion of the late 20th 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. Despite an increasingly unfavourable international environment, fears of a ‘reverse wave’ or a global ‘authoritarian resurgence’ have yet to be borne out. And the last quarter-century remains by far the most democratic in history.”

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 ongoing or that there is a “third wave of autocratisation.” As Freedom House argued in its 2022 annual report. The authors argue that the data do not support such claims. In its report covering the year 2013, Freedom House listed ninety 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. They include Panama’s Ernesto Pérez Balladares, who was elected with Manuel Noriega’s Revolutionary Democratic Party just five years after Noriega’s overthrow; Peru’s Ollanta Humala, a failed coup leader who launched his political career as a radical populist in the mold of Hugo Chávez; billionaire populist Andrej Babiš, who served as premier of the Czech Republic from 2017 to 2021, and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni (whose Brothers of Italy party has roots in Italian fascism) since 2022. Levitsky and Way add that in other cases, leaders attempt to weaken or subvert democratic institutions but are thwarted and thus leave office with democracy intact. Examples include Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Many of the elected autocrats who subverted democratic institutions in the twenty-first 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.

Consolidating authoritarianism has become a more difficult task today than it was in the past. Populists can gain widespread public support initially but 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 take over. 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, corruption has set in and public service delivery is facing a sharp decline. We will continue to follow the trend.


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