2022: Extended Worrisome Blight On Democracy In West Africa

*By Paul Ejimem

The year 2022 started with military takeover of government in Burkina Faso in January, followed by a reported putsch in Guinea Bissau in February, which President Umaro Sissoco Embalo said he survived, with both events reinforcing the troubling resurgence of military incursions and democratic regression in West Africa.

The January 2022 military coup led by Lt.-Col Henri-Paul Sandaogo Damiba against the government of elected President Christian Marc Kabore in Burkina Faso, followed the now familiar pattern, which Col Assimi Goita and his fellow young officers used in August 2020 to topple the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali.  Goita staged another coup against the transitional government in which he served as vice President in May 2021, and the military in neighbouring Guinea led by Col Mamady Doumbouya also snatched the badge of undemocratic infamy by sacking the government of President Alpha Conde in September, the same year.

As if these were not enough, 34-year-old Capt. Ibrahim Traore dismissed his senior military comrade Lt.-Col Damiba and seized power in Burkina Faso in September 2022, and to complete the regional undemocratic chapter in 2022, the government of President Adama Barrow in the Gambia, said his government foiled a coup attempt on 20th December.

Before then, a coup attempt had been reported in Niger Republic in March 2021 ahead of the inauguration of newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum.

These six countries like many of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are no strangers to military coups. Indeed, military dictatorships were in vogue, before the wind of multiparty democracy swept through Africa from the early 1990s.

With Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso currently under military rule, and given the frequency of army incursions and the level of insecurity and instability, there is the fear that the region is sliding back to its infamous past as the epicentre of political unrest or “coup zone” of Africa.

But what are root causes of the democratic regression in the ECOWAS region, which prided itself with international acclaim in conflict prevention, management and resolution?

Shortly after its formation on 28th May 1975, the regional bloc, set up to foster economic development and regional integration was dogged by peace and security challenges, but to their credit, regional leaders at that time rose to the occasion. Among Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs), ECOWAS, now with a combined estimated population of 400 million people of diverse cultures, languages and governance systems, still managed to blaze the trail in key development indicators.

But much of those gains have been eroded, especially in the past two decades by bad governance, characterised by gross human rights violations, corruption, flawed elections, disregard for national constitutions and non-compliance with regional protocols and instruments.

While economic development was its core objective, reality informed the injection of peace and security into the regional integration agenda, starting from 1990 when the Authority of Heads of State and Government directed the transfer of the responsibility for ECOWAS affairs to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs or Regional Integration followed by the transformation from an Executive Secretariat to a Commission in 2007.

A politico-military Standing Mediation Committee and the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) were created in 1990 to spearhead regional interventions and these facilitated the end of the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone followed by a common stance on political governance. The ECOWAS Community Court was also established through another protocol in 1990 and all these measures were instrumental in allowing the Organisation to assume the dynamic posture, which it had projected until recently.

There was also the Authority’s Declaration on Political Principles in 1991 to reaffirm the Community’s commitment to democracy and free market. To achieve uniformity on the roadmap to integration, there was the ECOWAS Revised Treaty in 1993, which created the Community Parliament and other institutions, conferring supranational status on ECOWAS.

In December 1999, the Authority enacted the Protocol relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security (or the Mechanism), to guide the construction of regional peace and security architecture. Indeed, this inspired the adoption of a similar Mechanism by the African Union several years later.

In 2001, the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance was adopted as an integral part of the Mechanism setting minimum constitutional convergence criteria for ECOWAS membership based on shared values of democracy and free market, separation of powers, popular participation, the democratic control of the armed forces, guarantees of basic freedoms and, particularly, ‘zero tolerance’ for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional mean.

To ensure compliance with the normative frameworks and institutional instruments, ECOWAS leaders were very fair but firm, maintaining a principled stance with strong political will and applying enormous pressure to check wayward administrations through a combination of sanctions and preventive diplomacy before the reversals of the past two decades.

As part of its conflict prevention framework, ECOWAS has an Early Warning system under a directorate that collaborates with state and non-state actors, especially NGOs for the monitoring of threats to peace and security in the region. The Organization’s preventive diplomacy mechanism also includes the provision for a Council of the Wise or Elders.

Using the carrot and stick strategy, ECOWAS had suspended three of its member States -Guinea, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire between 2009 and 2010, for violating the Supplementary Protocol and with the cooperation of the African Union, the United Nations and other partners, the Organization also restored constitutional order and legality in Guinea, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire, among others.

Similarly, there were relatively peaceful and credible outcomes in the conduct of presidential elections in many member States such that until recently, all ECOWAS countries were under one form of democratic governance or another, no matter how imperfect. But that era appears under severe threat.

Doubtless, the overthrow and killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi in the 2011 purported internal rebellion with external support has made the Sahel the epicentre of insecurity and a haven for terrorists, jihadists and various armed groups, including Al-Qaeda and ISIS West Africa Province (ISWAP). There is also the Boko haram in Nigeria and piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

Thus, the security situation in the region continues to be characterized by fragility and unpredictability, and susceptible to reversals, with ECOWAS looking rather helpless or incapable of arresting the dangerous slide.

The initial optimism that greeted ECOWAS’ early accomplishments has been replaced by disappointment and pessimism with governance institutions growing weaker; coupled with breakdown in the rule of law; authoritarianism; tenure elongation syndrome; inability or failure of member States to protect or respect human rights; or fulfil their obligations to ECOWAS.

Particularly telling is the lack of political will by the leaders. For instance, under the guise of adhering to national constitutions which they alter at will, some ECOWAS leaders have been able to rig elections to obtain or sustain themselves in power, while controlling the parliaments; with political opponents silenced; and the judiciary, civil society and the media under severe strictures or emasculated.

The resurgence of military incursions in West Africa is therefore rather a symptom of the bad governance malaise. But unfortunately, undue attention is paid to military coups as the sole unconstitutional culprit.

The Supplementary Protocol has 50 Articles dealing with sundry issues from fighting corruption to poverty alleviation and social dialogue, the role of stakeholders during elections, political inclusivity, protection of women and children’s rights and sanctions against non-compliance with provisions of the protocol.

For instance, Article 1 is on separation of powers; empowerment and strengthening of parliaments and guarantee of parliamentary immunity; independence of the Judiciary and guarantee of freedom of members of the Bar, among others.

It also insists that “the armed forces must be apolitical and under the command of a legally constituted political authority; no serving member of the armed forces may seek to run for elective political; secularism and neutrality of the State in all matters relating to religion; freedom for each individual to practise, within the limits of existing laws, the religion of his/her choice…”

“The State and all its institutions belong to all the citizens; therefore, none of their decisions and actions shall involve any form of discrimination, be it on an ethnic, racial, religion or regional basis,” the article added.

On the conduct of elections, Article 9 states: “The party and/or candidate who loses the elections shall concede defeat to the political party and/or candidate finally declared the winner, following the guidelines and within the deadline stipulated by the law,” while Article 10 says: “All holders of power at all levels shall refrain from acts of intimidation or harassment against defeated candidates or their supporters.”

Article 19 said: “The armed forces and police shall be non-partisan and shall remain loyal to the nation. The role of the armed forces shall be to defend the independence and the territorial integrity of the State and its democratic institutions.” It further states that “the police and other security agencies shall be responsible for the maintenance of law and order and the protection of persons and their properties.”

Article 22 states: “The use of arms to disperse non-violent meetings or demonstrations shall be forbidden. Whenever a demonstration becomes violent, only the use of minimal and/or proportionate force shall be authorised; All cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment shall be forbidden; The security forces, while carrying out investigations, shall not disturb or arrest family members or relations of the person presumed guilty or suspected of having committed an offence.”

Article 32 expressly states: “Member States agree that good governance and press freedom are essential for preserving social justice, preventing conflict, guaranteeing political stability and peace and for strengthening democracy,” while Article 33: commits member States to “recognise that the rule of law involves not only the promulgation of good laws that are in conformity with the provisions on human rights, but also a good judicial system…”

Applying the provisions of this Protocol, ECOWAS has since suspended the membership of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso and announced some targeted sanctions against the coup leaders and their family members as part of efforts to hasten the return to constitutional order in the three countries. There are also some efforts at restoring constitutional order.

But what about the events that led to the military coups, such as tenure elongation, election rigging, corruption, human rights violations and illegal alteration of national constitutions, which are also frowned upon by the same Protocols? While military coup remains condemnable and undemocratic, it cannot be one rule for the errant political leaders and another for coup plotters.

To strengthen regional peace and security and democratic governance, the regional leaders have called for an urgent review of the Supplementary Protocol, perhaps with the purpose of inserting term limitation for the presidency. They have also suggested the establishment of a regional force to intervene, where necessary, whether in the area of security, terrorism or to restore constitutional order in member States.

Even so, the major problem is the apparent lack of political will or capacity to make tough decisions by political leaders, such as telling each other the truth. Funding could also be a hindrance to the formation of a regional force, which will only widen the gap between intension and implementation of decisions.

ECOWAS had used the Supplementary Protocol to force a former President in Niger Republic to abandon his plan to dissolve the national parliament in 2009. The Organization also declined recognition of the 2011 presidential election conducted by now-deposed President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, citing his non-compliance with the regional instrument.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the global economic recession might have taken their toll, but the ECOWAS region, with its rich natural and human resources can do better under good governance.

Meanwhile, some West African States are still under the enormous influence of former colonial powers, whose global strategic agendas are foisted on member States. These foreign powers by their interference, do obstruct the democratic process by supporting undemocratic leaders against the choice of the populations.

Also, the corrupting influences of money in politics, at times encouraged and instigated, among others, by external partners, is another worrisome trend.

But these are all development challenges which are surmountable with visionary, proactive, selfless, patriotic and people-centred leadership.

The citizens, too, must demand accountability from leaders, while all stakeholders, including the legislature, judiciary, civil society, NGOs, the media and development partners, must play their parts. ECOWAS can still achieve much more, if its leaders can focus on the lofty dreams of the founding fathers and with creativity, applying what worked for the region in the past.

*Paul Ejime, a former War Correspondent, is a Consultant on Strategic Communication, Media Development, Governance Issues, Peace & Security and Elections

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