Francophones and Democratic Regression in West Africa, By Jibrin Ibrahim

The most salient aspect of governance in West Africa is the phenomenal growth of mega-corruption. The transparency and accountability mechanisms introduced in the early 1990s have all been subverted in the region and kleptocracy is the order of the day. Ruling cabals in many countries are not only looting massively from their respective state treasuries but they are also linking up with criminal gangs and narco-traffickers…

Last week, I was in Cote d’Ivoire attending a workshop organised by the Centre for Democracy and Development on the curious phenomenon of mischievous constitutional reform processes in Francophone West Africa. Almost every president has an on-going “personal” constitutional reform project and the objective is almost never about serving the interests of citizens or the nation. Getting into Abidjan turned out to be a challenge as the immigration authorities informed me that they no longer accept the ECOWAS travel certificate as a bona fide travel document and requested that I should go back to Nigeria and return with my international passport. I told them that Cote d’Ivoire is a signatory to the ECOWAS decision that we can travel around the region with our ECOWAS passport, so they cannot turn round and reject it. After interrogation by three levels of immigration officials, I was eventually allowed into the country. Their core argument is that the ECOWAS passport is not digital so it does not allow for computer checks on the bearer, which is a concern in these days of terrorism. At each point, my response was the same, you cannot stop West Africans travelling with the document, what is needed is to re-issue a digital upgrade.

In four weeks time, Ivorians will be called upon to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ for a new constitution in a referendum. The problem is that no one has seen the proposed text but citizens have been told it will be a great new Constitution. In the programme that has been announced, the National Assembly would be allowed to see and debate the constitution for three days before the referendum. It’s very odd that while the programme for constitutional change has been announced for over one year, the text itself has been tuned into the biggest national secret in the country. The suspicion is that the sole reason for the “new” constitution is the creation of the post of vice president alongside the position of prime minister as a stratagem for President Alassane Ouattara to get out of a power shift electoral promise he had made. The speculation is that by appointing a party confidant as vice president, the person would be empowered to prevent the expected power shift.

In Benin, the recently elected President Patrice Talon has been focused on constitutional reform from his first day in office. The energy he is putting into the process might not be unconnected to the fact that his predecessor, Boni Yayi spent almost his entire two terms in office seeking to amend the constitution for the purpose of tenure elongation. Talon might be thinking that by starting so early, he stands a better chance of achieving his objective. We must give great credit to the people of Benin Republic for successfully frustrating Boni Yayi’s tenure elongation ambition. What must be frustrating for the people however, is that as is the case with Cote d’Ivoire, no one has seen the new draft constitution. The president claims that his drive for constitutional reform is to enforce a one-term presidential regime for the country. What is known from similar political manoeuvres in the past is that the proposition for a one-term presidency is a disguised way of seeking a three-term tenure. That was the ploy former President Wade used; he changed the constitution to a one-term presidency and after obtaining that changed back to a two-termpPresidency, in which he was qualified to bid for two more terms because it had become a “new” constitution.

West Africa is vulnerable to violent conflicts and the dangers of democratic regression because we have too many risk factors including high rates of poverty, a galloping demography and a youth bulge, growing unemployment, devastation of communities due to climate change and its impact on agriculture…and poor institutional and organisational capacity to respond to emergencies.

In Burkina Faso also, there is also a programme for constitutional reform. It would be recalled that former President Blaise Compaoré who had been in power for four years as deputy and 28 years as president had sought to create a Senate that he could use to once again change the constitution, so that he could rule for the rest of his life. The people stopped him through popular revolt and burnt down the parliament he was trying to use to perpetuate himself in power. Constitutional reform processes are also on going in Guinea, Senegal and Mali. In Togo, the constitution has already been amended to allow the young son of Eyadema to rule the country for the rest of his life, as his father did. In Senegal, President Macky Sall, who got to power by mobilising people against former President’s Wade’s attempt to handover power to his son, is now preparing his younger brother for future power by placing him in powerful financial and political positions. It is extremely distressing to see how little regard Francophone politicians have for their citizens. Of course the situation in Central Africa is worse as democracy has been completely side lined in Burundi, Rwanda, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As clannish and family rule becomes the new normal, and constitutions become toys for presidential manipulation, ethnic and regional tensions are increasing and the armed forces and security agencies are being used to repress the people. The United Nations report published this weekend, for example, draws attention to the summary execution of at least 564 persons by security agencies in Burundi for daring to oppose President Nkurunziza’s tenure elongation last year. Meanwhile, about 300,000 people have had to flee the country as refugees over the past year. The future of democracy is becoming bleak in Africa and dangers are looming in so many countries.

West Africa is vulnerable to violent conflicts and the dangers of democratic regression because we have too many risk factors including high rates of poverty, a galloping demography and a youth bulge, growing unemployment, devastation of communities due to climate change and its impact on agriculture, increased levels of national and trans-border crime, especially trafficking (drugs and humans) and poor institutional and organisational capacity to respond to emergencies. As the Human Development Index (HDI) shows, West African States are characterised by poverty, underdevelopment and appalling economic conditions. Poverty is linked to political instability partly because it creates the conditions whereby politics is transformed into a vicious competition for scarce resources in which elite corruption, nepotism and rent seeking become the norm. West Africa contains 11 of the world’s 25 poorest countries and is currently one of the unstable regions of the world.

Elections are becoming increasing manipulated and citizens are getting frustrated at the prospects of elections without real choices. As this happens, ethnic and religious differences become manipulated and magnified, leading to the growth of violent conflicts and the emergence of insurgencies fuelled by religious extremists.

One can trace the trajectories of conflicts in West Africa from the early 1970s when the region’s economic crises began. At that time, the global economy had experienced stress due to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and increases in commodity prices, in addition to the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973/74. The impact of the crisis was particularly serious in West Africa where most countries lost control over their domestic economic situations and economic indicators went into free fall as a result of the sudden rocketing of national expenditure owing to increases in oil prices, short-falls in export receipts, and dwindling productivity. In their attempts to borrow from the Bretton Wood institutions, particularly the IMF and World Bank to make up for the resultant balance of payment deficits, many countries incurred crushing debts. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of some countries subsequently declined substantially.

Between 1990 and 1993, West African optimism grew as military regimes and single party regimes in region were replaced by multi-party democracies. Human rights, multi-party systems and elections and the rule of law returned to the agenda for some time. Over the past decade however, most of the presidents of West African countries have abused powers of incumbency to seek to prolong their rule and have thereby created fragilities within the political system.

The most salient aspect of governance in West Africa is the phenomenal growth of mega-corruption. The transparency and accountability mechanisms introduced in the early 1990s have all been subverted in the region and kleptocracy is the order of the day. Ruling cabals in many countries are not only looting massively from their respective state treasuries but they are also linking up with criminal gangs and narco-traffickers, thereby transforming their countries into narco-criminal states. Elections are becoming increasing manipulated and citizens are getting frustrated at the prospects of elections without real choices. As this happens, ethnic and religious differences become manipulated and magnified, leading to the growth of violent conflicts and the emergence of insurgencies fuelled by religious extremists.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of Premium Times.