Africa’s journey towards nation-building has been characterised by various challenges, ranging from the quest for independence and internal conflicts to resource management struggles and governance crises. This journey towards self-realisation for the African people has proven to be arduous. The West African region, in particular, has had its share of these challenges. Recently, the area has become entangled in an intricate web of persistent challenges that pose ongoing threats to national stability and regional integration.
Insecurity, poverty and governance crises currently loom as tempests imperiling these nations’ path to a promising future. The recurring prevalence of coups in the region further underscores the argument made by certain observers that West Africa needs a renewed approach to governance and conflict resolution strategies to uphold its relevance in the global arena.
In the last three years, the region has borne witness to an unprecedented number of unconstitutional changes in government. Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Niger are now under military leadership. This situation raises pertinent questions regarding the legitimacy and acceptability of these administrations.
The military rulers often justify their actions based on insecurity and governance deficits, even in the face of abundant natural resources. The promise to tackle insecurities and governance shortcomings is frequently used to legitimise these takeovers, with the intention of garnering support from citizens and stakeholders. As many have observed, this pattern signals a bleak prospect for the region’s democratic future with the possibility that this will open the door to all forms of accession to power by non-constitutional means.
Democratic regression in the region can be attributed to various factors, including insecurity, poverty, unfulfilled governance promises, electoral disputes, and constitutional manipulation. The challenge of democratisation in Africa extends beyond coups d’état. Foremost among the challenges affecting the region’s democratisation is the disparity between citizen expectations and political realities within these countries. In most cases, political leaders have been unable to instill hope in their citizens.
Many African nations are plagued by insecurity, poverty and several economic difficulties, a situation that has created crises of legitimacy in many countries. This has made many citizens hold different grievances against their leaders and government because of the unabating hardship they face. Opportunistic state and non-state actors exploit the prevailing despair to undermine national peace and security, consequently jeopardising the fate of democracy in the region. Insurgent and terrorist groups exploit governance deficits in West African states to recruit more members, leveraging incentives and governance gaps to paint their cause as just. These groups often position themselves as champions of the people, urging citizens to view the government as their adversary, a message that resonates particularly with those enduring poverty and uncertainty.
However, we should not see intentional or unintentional mistakes in governance or the poor conception of democracy by those in power as intrinsic defects of democracy. The recurrence of unconstitutional changes of power in the region is certainly a concern for all those who think that despite its flaws, democracy still remains the least bad of the political regimes that our region has experienced so far. The ECOWAS Member-States were right to make it the basis of their integration strategy and to have adopted a declaration of political principles based around democracy and which is part of the treaty of the regional institution.
In the space of three years, the West African region has seen coups in four countries: Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger. This situation constitutes a serious setback in the democratic process patiently built and consolidated by the regional bloc that is ECOWAS. It calls on the entire regional community to find appropriate solutions to deal with this sudden deterioration of political stability at a time when the region needs to strengthen its unity to concentrate its efforts on the fight against terrorism.
The recent coup d’état in Niger, its immediate condemnation by ECOWAS and the African Union as well as the severe sanctions imposed on the country illustrates the seriousness of the situation.
ECOWAS and other concerned stakeholders face a pressing predicament: formulating a response to the Niger crisis that ensures a peaceful resolution while averting a scenario that could exacerbate the region’s fragile stability. The defiance posture among Niger’s military leaders and the solidarity they have garnered from their counterparts in Mali and Burkina Faso further complicate the situation. This moment, therefore, calls for an agenda that would shore up the region’s democracy and avoid the recurrence of reversals.
The mediation and dialogue efforts undertaken by ECOWAS must be encouraged by all for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. In the analysis, the main factors instigating the coups experienced in recent times lie in electoral problems, post-electoral governance and insecurity. It is up to the entire community to find an antidote based on the mitigation of these factors.
Any regional agenda entails incentivising democracy by placing citizens’ well- being at the forefront. The concept of human security should be adopted as the primary security framework, reframing issues related to citizens’ welfare as matters of national security. Poverty, unemployment, hunger, wages, and remuneration should be prioritised. Democracy, as a system of governance, inherently prioritises the populace’s interests in governmental processes. Public Policies should therefore be formulated in such ways that reflect the wishes and aspirations of the citizens.
The first task in building a resilient, democratic system in the continent starts with building citizens’ trust. The perception that democracy has not adequately catered to citizens’ needs has fostered apathy towards its preservation. Leaders should strive to do more to ensure that good governance is not just a theoretical term but a lived reality in the lives of the citizens. They should also be able to explain the challenges of addressing some of the citizens’ concerns.
At both the regional and sub-regional levels, stakeholders must collaboratively work toward establishing robust institutions within member-states and partnering with relevant parties to enhance the resilience of these institutions against threats that might undermine democratic foundations. Strong institutions require inclusive, transparent and credible elections. Manipulation of democratic processes and structures by incumbents represents a significant challenge to democratisation on the continent. In many instances, elections have fallen short of meeting the standards of impartiality and transparency, rendering them symbolic rituals, not reflective of the people’s will. The lack of credibility in electoral processes has sometimes tainted the reputation of ECOWAS, as citizens across multiple nations have criticised the organisation’s response to incumbent-led electoral manipulations.
It is, therefore, urgent that reforms are undertaken to allow greater involvement of ECOWAS in the conduct of electoral processes and governance in the member-states because in the current state, the institution cannot act outside the mandates entrusted to it through the ratified protocols.
Going forward, ECOWAS should adopt a more resolute stance on peaceful political transitions. Violence and manipulation orchestrated by incumbents usually characterise activities leading to political transition in ECOWAS countries. In this regard, ECOWAS holds a paramount responsibility to operationalise people-oriented peer review mechanisms and enforce adherence to constitutional term limits.
An agenda for democratic sustainability in West Africa demands increased investment in citizen-centric initiatives that can foster self-sustaining democracy within member states. Lip service is insufficient in this regard; political and financial investments are crucial to fortifying democratic frameworks that promote social and political justice.
Making democracy work is a collective responsibility. For democracy to thrive in Africa, citizens must embrace their role in the process, recognising it as a universal culture with guarantees centred on equality, justice, freedom and wellbeing of the people. Consequently, they bear the responsibility of safeguarding democracy against all threats and challenges that may arise.
Political leaders are in the best position to advance this conversation through exemplary and patriotic leadership. A leadership driven by a commitment to justice, equity, and peace are pivotal to ensuring the sustainable of democracy in West Africa.
Particularly in West Africa where the challenges of insecurity and terrorism prevail, it is urgent to provide a regional and collective response to this phenomenon. The community has already adopted an anti-terrorism strategy. It is time to put it into practice to deal with the security situation in the Sahel. Beyond security, the rooting of democracy is a guarantee of stability and peace.
If, despite all efforts, a breakdown in democracy occurs, then the entire community must help the country concerned to quickly emerge from this situation through as short a transition as possible. The transition must allow an overall review of the national situation with a view to correcting what needs to be done for the country to return to democracy and good governance. Of course it is in no one’s interest to be satisfied with one botched transition, but it is equally true that no one has an interest in seeing a transition without a predictable end because we must not forget, transitions are exceptional regimes and their prolongation beyond reason would do harm additional to democracy. Transitions must work on the basis of a precise program which is subject to periodic evaluation to remove obstacles as they arise.
Let us work to maintain ECOWAS as a united regional bloc in the face of internal or external adversities, a bloc which must perseveringly pursue the anchoring of democracy and good governance, and reform its instruments of action for a peaceful and effective resolution of conflicts. .
For a long time, there has been consensus on ECOWAS to be the West African pillar of the construction of the African Union.
ECOWAS, which has undeniably contributed to the integration of the region, needs the contribution of all to be even more efficient and carry our common dream of peace, justice and progress for Africa.
•Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo is a member of the West African Elders Forum (WAEF), a former Prime Minister of Burkina Faso and a former President of the ECOWAS Commission.