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Political implosion in West Africa

In March 2010, I attended an international conference organised by the ECOWAS Commission in Monrovia on “Two Decades of Peace Processes in West Africa: Achievements,…

In March 2010, I attended an international conference organised by the ECOWAS Commission in Monrovia on “Two Decades of Peace Processes in West Africa: Achievements, Failures, and Lessons”. It was an occasion to celebrate the success of ECOWAS in preventing violent conflict and restoring peace in countries that have had serious challenges in maintaining human security. The conference reviewed the process used to restore peace in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau and the prevention of war in many other states. The conclusion of the Conference was that ECOWAS has succeeded in developing “home grown” strategies to prevent conflict and to respond to them where they cannot be prevented. These skills are very much in demand today. The expectation of the conference that conflicts are waning and the time to concentrate on regional economic development has to be reviewed.

This weekend, I participated in the West African Civil Society Forum (WACSOF) Conference in Abuja where the political situation in the region was reviewed. In its declaration, the WACSOF Conference noted that over the past few months, West Africa had been hit by a number of political events that have led to the collapse of constitutional governance in Mali and Guinea Bissau while the Boko Haram insurgency continues to grow in Nigeria as hundreds of people are killed in numerous attacks. Although it appears as if the putschists in Mali have agreed to return to the barracks for the moment, the country is now divided in two as Islamic insurgents still occupy the North of the country and there are reports that they are receiving support from the insurgents in Nigeria. The return of Tuareg militants with their vast arsenal from Libya has created the mate- rial basis for the political destabilisation of West Africa for the coming years. In the Casamance region of Senegal, the insurrection appears to have received a boost and kidnap- ping by rebels has increased considerably over the past three months. In Côte d’Ivoire, despite apparent peace, there has been no serious attempt at promoting post conflict reconciliation. A major political explosion is expected in the country in the coming months.

The coup d’état in Mali occurred five weeks before the presidential elections in which the incumbent, Amadou Toumani Toure was not a candidate while that in Guinea Bissau occurred two weeks before the second round of the presidential elections which should have had the candidate of the ruling party, Carlos Gomes of the PAIGC contesting against former President Koumba Yala who withdrew from the contest. His withdrawal was seen as a signal to the Balante ethnic group dominated army to strike. The issue was the agreement to bring in the Angolan army, ostensibly, to train the local army, but many suspect to defend the PAIGC regime from a possible strike by the army. The Angolans,seen by many as proxies for Chinese mineral interests in Africa, were also very active as partisans in the Ivorian crisis and civil war.

What is obvious is that we have a fundamental problem with elections and the operationalization of democracy in West Africa. In most of our countries, the people are very unhappy with the quality of democratic practice. At the same time, it is clear that the army is even more incapable of running the political system than the civilian political class. The only choice open for an improved and more satisfactory political system is to improve the quality of elections and democratic practice.

West Africa has a high vulnerability to conflicts due to a number of reasons. One is that it encompasses most of the poorest countries in the contemporary world. Secondly, it is riddled with identity conflicts organised around ethnicity, religion and citizenship. The third reason is the fratricidal struggle for resources in land, minerals water and pasture. Fourthly, the region is characterised by a population dynamics characterised by a high birth rate and the creation of a youth bulge that the society is unable to cater for. The impact of climate change has also initiated immigration to less draught prone areas which provoke conflicts with autochthones. Finally, there is a series of conflicts being provoked by the abuse of incumbency powers of executives currently in power in many West African countries. In recent years, incumbents in Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo and Guinea have tried to extend their stay beyond what the Constitution provides for.

Through its Vision 2020, ECOWAS plans to make a fundamental transition from an inter- state organisation to a West Africa of peoples. In other words, regional governance would depend upon and draw from communities and civil society. It is clear that it has been the three decades of civil society struggles against dictatorship and bad governance that laid the foundation for peace building and the restoration of democracy in the region. As West Africa moves towards realising its Vision 2020, emphasis must be placed on the necessity for a more high profile role for communities, civil society, inter-faith, women, youth and professional associations. The most immediate challenge confronting the process of democratic transition presently taking place in West Africa is that of ensuring that democratisation is accompanied by the institutionalisation of constitutional rule. Constitutions, it is generally acknowledged, do not in themselves make democracy. Indeed, many so-called democracies, especially in Africa, are not based on constitutional rule. Most African constitutions are excellent documents; they have most of the right provisions about the rule of law, human, civil and political rights, elective institutions, governmental accountability, and separation of powers etc. the problem however is that these provisions are not followed. The political systems are characterised by excessive arbitrariness and abuse of power, the lack of basic freedoms and denial of popular sovereignty.

The year 1990 was an important threshold in Africa’s democratic transition. Between 1990 and 1994, thirty-one of the forty-one countries that had not held multi-party elections did so. The transition has however not been smooth. In many countries, elections were not free and fair. Tensions increased after some of the elections due to widespread sentiments of injustice. West African countries such as Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Senegal, the Gambia, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone have had elections that have been so compromised that they have created the basis for major national political crisis. The result of these setbacks to the spread of democracy in West Africa is that a significant proportion of the people have not yet had the opportunity to experience real democracy. The bulk of the participants of the democratic experiments of the early 1960’s, both the leaders and the followers, have faded away. The current generation of West Africans is yet to engage fully with stable democratic politics. Indeed, the encounter of the current generation with politics is tainted with bitter images and memories of repression and of authoritarianism. We are reminded by the former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo that:


In most Africa languages, the word opposition has the same mean- ing and connotation as the word enemy. Can we possibly conceive of a loyal enemy? Yet, the institutionalisation of opposition was one of the pillars upon which the structures and processes that were bequeathed to us were supposed to rest.

Obasanjo indeed treated all those who opposed him as enemies and did all he could to destroy them. The survival of our democracy would require getting our political leaders to share power, strive to build consensus and show respect to those who challenge them. It’s a huge and difficult programme but we have no choice but to pursue it.

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