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Lessons for West Africa’s new democracies

cc E PThe AU and ECOWAS need to act consistently and decisively to protect and uphold democracy when it is threatened by either military or civilian coups.

In the last two weeks Africa’s democracy encountered two major events. In Senegal, a new President Macky Sall emerged after a failed ‘civilian coup’ staged by outgoing President Abdoullaye Wade, 85, to have a third term. Mali was not so lucky as Coupists, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, sacked elected President Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT); frustrating the country’s democracy and presidential elections scheduled for 19 April 2012. Both events are epochal in many regards. On the one hand, demonstrating the beauty of democracy, and on the other, revealing the ever present danger that democracy faces in Africa.

Both events hold important lessons for civil society, electorates and political parties in West Africa’s new democracies. But more importantly, for ECOWAS and AU, whose role as democracy watchdogs risks falling into disrepute as a result of the double standards they display in the face of threats confronting democracy and constitutional rule in the continent.

The case in Mali is clear and therefore needs no long explanation. Disgruntled soldiers, mutineers, seized power from an elected president. The reaction is all round condemnation throughout the continent and among its friends. Against the robust frameworks, protocols and conventions, that have emerged in the last two decades to promote and protect constitutional rule, the reactions are an understandable and welcome development.

The reaction was however different in Senegal in spite of the similarities in situation. Like in Mali, where Captain Sanogo and his allied soldiers sacked an elected government to suspend the constitution and impose unpopular administration, Wade’s third term bid would have resulted in imposition of unpopular government on the people, in addition to progressive weakening of key institutions and rules which the administration had pursued through constitutional amendments.

Throughout his 12 years reign, President Wade amended the constitution fourteen times (i.e. once every ten months on average) with the acquiescence of a weak parliament that acted in cahoots with Wade as a rubber stamp. Wade also used the discredited Constitutional Council to validate his candidacy and disqualify Youssou N’dour and others four weeks before the February 2012 election, throwing the country into major violence that resulted in at least six deaths, disruption of work and destruction of properties.

The development drew global concern but there was no attempt by either the African Union or ECOWAS to stop the illegality that was brewing in one of Africa’s most stable democracies. Observers at different times feared the worse for the country; a violence on the scale of what the sub-region witnessed in Cote d’Ivoire, but neither the AU nor ECOWAS, both of which have roundly condemned Captain Sanogo in Mali, intervened in Senegal to stop the illegality that Wade pursued by exploiting gaps, which he created or contributed to, in the rules in order to perpetuate his administration.

The outcome of the elections is a deserved one for the Senegalese public and opposition that worked hard, on their own, against Wade’s political machine as he tore apart key institutions and rules in what could have significantly affected the course of democracy in Senegal. In June 2011, Wade proposed an amendment to replace the constitutional requirement of 50% plus 1 with 25% in order to win presidential elections. It was the fifteenth amendment after the previous fourteen that passed swiftly. It didn’t seem like a big deal that the fifteenth would pass, but a previously disinterested Senegalese public suddenly awoke to stop the amendment, where the parliament had become thoroughly compromised. The protest birthed a civil movement, M-23, that would later become the arrowhead of the citizens’ campaign against Wade. With the benefit of hindsight, Wade and his team would have been drinking champagne at the end of the first round elections with his 34% of votes cast, if the amendment had not been stopped. On another occasion, after securing approval of the discredited Constitutional Council - a body appointed and constituted by Wade - which disqualified Youssou N’dour, the popular musician with strong appeal among youths and rural electorates, the same constituency that Wade targeted for his third term bid, it was left to Senegalese electorates to stop Wade at the polls. At this time, the civilian coup was already in motion but there was no AU or ECOWAS.

Even when pundits thought that the Council’s endorsement was all Wade needed to win, Senegalese voters made the difference. Y en a marre, a civil movement, led by hip-hop artists, mobilized voters nationwide to register and collect their voters card, in so doing boosting confidence in the ballot and avoiding possible violence that could have thrown the country into major crisis. The strategy contributed to the defeat of Wade’s third term bid. The belief of the people in the ballot to decide the fate of their country is quite instructive for Sierra Leone where eight months to go to the November elections, the country is dangerously polarized and inching towards the precipice. There is an urgent need in that country to engage political parties and electorates to stem the threats.

Perhaps the ability of Senegal’s opposition to unite when it mattered most is the most important lesson for West Africa’s new democracies with elections lined up in the year. At the second round, an overrated power of incumbency confused pundits to give the opposition no chance against Wade. But against the power of a united opposition coming together to work for Macky Sall, the incumbency factor failed woefully. The uniting of opposition, now regarded as the game changer, finally nailed the coffin on Wade’s inordinate ambition.

In a region where it is anathema for oppositions to work together, the capacity of Senegal’s opposition to unite at critical moments must be commended. The significance rests not only in the rarity of oppositions working together in the region; but that it happened within three weeks after the end of first round elections. It was superlative to see opposition parties, set aside their differences and for candidates, many near or past their prime and who would never have another jab at the exalted office, put aside personal ambition to save the nation. This feat together with active and vigilant civil society stopped Wade’s civilian coup that could significantly rewrite the course of democracy in Senegal.

A situation whereby elected presidents, who swear to protect the constitution, end up messing up the same through kangaroo referendums to remove term limits and run for third, fourth and as many terms as they want – as is the case in Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Burkina Faso and Gabon - is condemnable and does not qualify to be described as democracy. It is ‘civilian coup’ and no less condemnable as military coup d’états. Sadly neither the AU nor ECOWAS and various regional commissions that have roundly condemned the military takeover in Mali find anything wrong in the serial ‘civilian coups’ that is now spreading in the continent.

The silence and failure of these bodies to condemn and sanction this infamous development is emboldening other African heads of states and raises moral questions about AU, ECOWAS and others as democracy watchdogs. In Niger, former President Mamadou Tandja used the parliament to rubber stamp the outcome of a discredited referendum and was only stopped by a counter military coup. Similarly in Chad where Idris Derby removed term limits (with the acquiescence of a biased parliament). In the Chad case, the referendum passed through and Derby is now sitting in the presidency for the fourth term. In Nigeria, Obasanjo’s attempt was only foiled by a resilient Nigerian population. The ghost of a third term looms large in Nigeria under President Goodluck Jonathan, as the administration pursues a secret agenda. Cameroon’s Paul Biya has become a Life President for the country after removing term limits; the same in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Uganda and Zimbabwe. None of these civilian coups have been sanctioned by AU or any Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Even more dangerous is the fact that none of the conventions and protocols promoting and protecting democracy, elections and governance envisage this new trend, making coups against the constitution safe and appealing to African heads of states.

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance and several protocols and conventions on democracy hold a common inherent goal of enthroning and protecting constitutional order and succession through the ballots in Africa. In this regard, the new practice of ‘civilian coup’, like the type attempted by Wade, is a serious danger that must be confronted now in the continent. Notwithstanding what advocates of the developmental state may think, it is dangerous in Africa for any government to stay longer than two terms against constitutional provisions. Wade’s third term bid aimed to circumvent popular wishes as expressed in the constitution. Unlike Mali, the act was being perpetrated by an elected government. It is nonetheless as condemnable as the military coup which has now thrown Mali back in its journey to democracy. If it had been successful, the effect in Senegal could not have been any different from Mali; imposition of an unpopular regime, weakening of laws, institutions and practices of democracy.

Even though Mali’s ATT’s sin was ‘incompetence’, according to the coupists, it points to impending danger facing democracy as it fails to meet expectations of economic and political freedom in many parts of Africa. In Senegal, the nationwide mood for change, which saw the end of Wade and beginning of Macky Sall, stems from the corruption and mismanagement which deprives Senegalese access to basic utilities and impoverishes the majority. Similarly in Mali, where two decades of interrupted civilian rule have continued to jeopardize the country’s sovereignty as a result of unmet expectations among civilian and military populations. Both cases are expressions of the fundamental challenges confronting many African democracies; where rather than deliver economic freedom elected presidents, governors and mayors privatise state resources to service their families and friends while immiserating their citizens.

The two events in the last two weeks call for reflections on the meaning that African head of states and various global, regional and continental bodies give to democracy. Africa’s democracy faces an uncertain future where a few people who control state resources end up having enough to eat while the majority live in penury and hopelessness. Similarly, where elected governments use state apparatus to circumvent the constitution in order to remain in power. On the other hand the Afro-pessimism that is expressed in Western literatures is covering the fault lines and dangerous regression underneath the economic growth fuelled by a commodity boom in Africa. From Senegal to Nigeria, Mali to Mauritania, Benin to Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea to Togo, citizens in West Africa, especially the resource dependent ones, are in search of the benefits of democracy that goes beyond the rituals of regular voting every four to seven years.

As was demonstrated in Senegal, the mainstay of Africa’s democracy, it is the citizens who must be schooled in democratic principles and ethos to play this important role and protect democracy against anti-democratic forces that run and control many political parties in Africa. The continent needs transparent and accountable political parties, peopled by competent, knowledgeable and energetic young men, women and youths, as important checks against hegemonic rule of incumbents across the continent. More importantly, the continent needs a vigilant and bold African Union and regional commissions to protect the sanctity of democratic frameworks, norms and practices, sanction anti-democratic ambitions and prevent the descent of the continent into a new era of arbitrary rule that was once its defining feature. The risk of this descent is real and worsening with continuing unemployment, corruption and lack of access that citizens daily confront in the continent. The time to act is now for AU and ECOWAS.


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* Dayo Olaide is Economic Governance Officer at Open Society Initiative for West Africa
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