The Tragedies of African Democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good
Policy test for ECOWAS and the AU
Events in La Cote D’Ivoire since its November 10, 2010 general elections raise questions about the ability or effectiveness of Africa’s regional and sub-regional organizations – Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) – to intercede in conflicts, impose security, and restore order where political situations rapidly degenerate into open warfare. Though there have been many similar situations in the region such as Sierra-Leone, Liberia, Togo, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo among others, La Cote D’Ivoire presents a contemporary litmus case to evaluate Africa’s regional and sub-regional institutions.
In the recent past, precisely in 2000, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel movement in Sierra-Leone, took five hundred UN soldiers hostage and stripped them of their military equipment. This was in the heat of that country’s civil war characterized by the horrendous chopping of limbs of victims, tagged “short sleeve” and “long sleeve,” in apparent reference to how much of the limb of a victim was hacked, either close to the torso of the victim or close to the wrist or the foot of the victim with a cutlass or an axe.
The RUF presented a credible threat to the capital Freetown. But the question remained whether the RUF was such a formidable force that the AU and ECOWAS could not have intervened to disarm its rebels or contain them. This question was later to be answered by the arrival of a few hundred British troops in an operation codename Palliser. Limited in scope, this operation mandated British forces to evacuate non-combatant British and European Union (EU) nationals and nationals of the commonwealth from Sierra-Leone.
However, on arrival in Sierra-Leone, of his own volition, the commander of the forces, then Brigadier (now General Sir) David Richards, expanded the scope of the operation contrary to instructions from Downing Street in London. He decided to intervene to disarm the warring rebels. The British military intervention in Sierra-Leone has been a huge success. It imposed security and maintained it once the RUF was dislodged. The whole operation was amazingly cheap. There can be no other imaginable way in by which peace could have been restored and maintained in Sierra-Leone. The fact is without the British, the probability of atrocities escalating were higher than the restoration of stability.
Operation Palliser was brilliant, and the British army can be proud of its contribution to the restoration of peace in Sierra-Leone, and not the regional body AU or the sub-regional grouping ECOWAS. Although seen as a model for military intervention in Africa, anticolonial or anti-imperial sentiments are still very rife on the continent making it difficult for interventions of this nature, and Cote d’Ivoire has once again tested the resolve and the ability of the regional and sub-regional organizations – the AU and ECOWAS – in this pursuit.
A few other examples of the failures of the regional and the sub-regional groupings are Rwanda and Somalia. Rwanada was not fortunate enough to have had a military commander like David Richards sent to it. There are classic illustrations in the “Hotel Rwanda” of how the French army evacuated French citizens and other EU nationals leaving the nationals of the warring country to decimate themselves. Like the Biblical illustration of the coming of Christ, two women were at the mill, one was rescued and the other left to her fate. Seen as one of the greatest failures of the international system, many Rwandese till find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Africa’s own son, Kofi Annan, was then the under Secretary-General for United Nation’s peace keeping operations. This is where the relevance of the regional or the sub-regional bodies such as the AU and the Southern African Development Corporation (SADC) would have been readily relevant. But either as a result of lack of military capacity or lack of willpower, the AU and its sub-regional counterparts failed to intervene in Rwanda. The whole continent stood by and watched Rwandese decimated about a million of their compatriots in a matter of 100 days.
The role of the Belgian colonist in the historical past of that country cannot be divorced from its 1994 genocide. When the Belgian arrived in Rwanda as colonizers, they classified the citizens according to their ethnicity and consequently produced ID cards to identify them as such, with better jobs and educational opportunities accruing to the Tutsis who were considered to be superior. Resentment among the Hutus gradually accumulated, culminating in a series of riots in 1959. Over 20 000 Tutsis were killed. This colonial history changed course in 1962 when Belgium granted independence to Rwanda. The Hutus, instead of working to build a united country devoid of such classifications, they took the place of the colonizers, as happened in many African countries, and made the Tutsis scapegoats of every crisis. It never got better until the 1994 genocide.
The crucial question is what did the leaders of independent Rwanda do to ensure that the horrendous historical classification of its citizens which eventual led to tensions culminating in the genocide in that country was reversed? If for over 30 or so years after independence, the leadership of the new or independent Rwanda could not bring itself together to undo a historical injustice they have always accused the colonizer of, but rather exploited it, then I think the leaders of independent Africa must begin to examine their own thought processes. It is not the former colonial master who is to blame for the current conflicts such as the one in Rwanda, it is the leaders of independent Africa who must learn to accept responsibility for their inability to unite their countries and lead them toward the course of unity, growth and prosperity and rather play on precarious ethnic divisions to further divide and conquer their people.
Returning to the political stalemate in the La Cote D’Ivoire, for fear of arousing anti-colonial sentiments, the French have got themselves into the odd position of having to maintain large military forces in Africa that they dare not use. For example, in 1999, they let the head of the tiny army in La Cote d’Ivoire, Robert Guei, mount a successful coup against the legitimate government despite having two thousand troops stationed in the country. When the coup did not produce a happy outcome, the French army eventually had to intervene to prevent a rebel group from seizing the capital and overrunning the government of Gbagbo. The French simply held a line separating the government and rebel forces, yielding a de facto partition of the country and that prevailed until the 2010 elections. Each side only used the respite to rearm; after doing so, the government attacked the French forces, since they saw them as protecting the rebels.
The question is whether the regional bodies even have the capacity to maintain a truce like the French had done since the country was plunged into political crisis? The answer will be a big no. La Cote d’Ivoire would have descended into total chaos, probably worse than what transpired in Sierra-Leone, Liberia, or Rwanda, but for the intervention of the French.
This is against the backdrop of another horrific failure of the regional and sub-regional bodies in the horn of Africa. When the Americans left Somalia in 1994, the political situation did not get better, it eroded downhill until Somalia became a complete failed state and totally ungovernable. While anticolonial schools, those against military intervention by foreign military powers especially the United States, Britain and their allies, would like to see that as a failure or the defeat of the Americans, as Gadhafi recently touted in an attempt to whip up anti-Western sentiments in his people against Western airstrikes, Somalis know that the departure of the US hurt the prospects of that country at restoring itself. Neither the African Union nor sub-regional bodies such as the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) could intervene to stop the bloodletting in that country.
Although there is no question about the United States’ own complicity in the Somali conflict, we must learn to respect the facts of history. It is the only way we can ensure that some of the horrible facts about the continent in relation to the rest of the world are never repeated. The Cold War had produced its victors and the vanquished; it also polarized the world according to the dictates of the two global powers – the US and the USSR – and no country in the world was exempt from this polarity. Even with the professed non-alignment by some countries, the practical actions of their leaders implied that they are tilted towards this or that political persuasion and took actions that somewhat undermined the actions of either of the two powers, depending on their perceived leanings. Somalia was no exception. Let the question be asked. Had the Soviet Union itself been innocent in the events of the Bay of Pigs leading to the missile crisis? If the answer is no, then it must be obvious that every powerful country would take steps to protect itself and its citizens from harm.
The failure of Somalia could be traced to the skirmishes of the Cold War. The Cold War maneuvers made both the US and the USSR to back even unpopular leaders of African countries. An example was the carte blanch support the US offered the leader of Somalia, General Siad Barre who toppled the nascent parliamentary democracy of his country and declared his country a socialist state. But when the Soviet changed position and began to support Ethiopia’s new Marxist leader, Siad Barre switched position accordingly, pledging allegiance to the US. The US backed Barre until his ouster in 1991 even as he was corrupt and led a very repressive regime.
In December 1992 the U.S. military, flush with its Gulf War victory, entered Somalia to create a safe environment for food distribution. However, soon the U.S. forces were given a separate and very different mission: to capture and remove Somalia’s main warlord leader, General Mohammed Fareh Aideed. In their hunt for Aideed, the Marines quickly abandoned all pretense of playing an even-handed humanitarian role. In turn, Aideed’s militia began targeting U.S. and UN soldiers. “Mission creep” entered the U.S. vocabulary as U.S. soldiers waded into Somalia’s civil war. In October 1993, 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in a fierce battle with Aideed’s forces. Televised footage of the fighting and the body of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets quickly turned American public opinion against U.S. involvement in Somalia. Although the Rangers were part of Washington’s own separate Somalia operation, the incident was played and replayed as a major “UN failure.” Under pressure at home and with warlord Aideed still at large, Clinton pulled out all U.S. troops in 1994.
Whether natural resources such as oil form the basis of Western military intervention, the departure of the Americans from Somalia has left a festering political situation that now threatens its neighbors and sea routes around that country. There have been spillovers from Somalia. As a result of the continuing chaos, there has been an exodus of young Somali men to other countries. In November 2005 a Somali gang murdered a policewoman in a bank robbery in Bradford, United Kingdom, and the numerous pirate attacks at the horn of Africa depict what happens when we fail to act. The July 7 bomb attacks on central London also involved some Somali men. The point is that if Somalia were stable, all those gangs and terrorists would not have migrated as refugees to safe havens such as London and other peaceful destinations. The consequences of these failures are, therefore, not for only the inhabitants of Somalia, but her immediate neighbors and the world at large pays the prize in myriad ways for these failures.
Collier argues that no African country has the resources or the political ascendancy to impose order on failing neighbors. So the European has the forces and the aspirations, and the affected regions can confer legitimacy, as in a marriage: the African Union could provide the political authority for military intervention, and the European Union rapid reaction force could be the backbone of whatever force was used to intervene.
When Togo’s military ruler died in February 2005, after thirty-eight years rule, his son, Faure Gnassingbe, declared himself president. At this point the African Union, to its considerable credit, classified the event as a coupe and insisted on a constitutional process. The AU had sufficient power relative to Togo that Gnassingbe agreed to elections. Gnassingbe decided not only that he would be a candidate in the elections but that he would run them. To nobody’s great surprise he announced himself the winner, though if he has actually taken the trouble to count the votes he would have discovered that he had lost.
Ideally, once the African Union had declared the coup unconstitutional, an international military force should have arrived promptly in the country to take temporary power. Rapid deployment would be very important to forestall consolidation of forces loyal to the new regime. This rapid force is what the EU already has and could not have been accused of being neocolonialist, as the international force would not have been trying to colonize Togo.
However, the failures of the regional and sub-regional groupings – for example ECOWAS and the AU – to act decisively by either imposing sanctions, intervening militarily to impose security or to even bring warring factions to the negotiating table only helps to strengthen the case for military intervention by the former colonial masters to avoid further bloodletting. The current failures in the La Cote D’Ivoire only go to underscore the weak institutional capacity of the regional and sub-regional organizations. This sends the wrong signals to despots and other would-be coup makers that they can have their way after the usual reactionary statements from these bodies without the power to implement even the sanctions they impose. La Cote D’Ivoire was not the first country to have experience a stalemate where two presidents have, at the same time, claimed presidential tenure concurrently. When the incumbent, Admiral Didier Ratsiraka, lost the presidential bid of Madagascar in December 2001, he refused to leave office. By February of 2002, his government and that of his opponent, Ravalomanana, were vying for control of the country, as in the case of Gbagbo and his opponent Outarra. It was ruinous to the economy of the country, but eventually Ravalomanana prevailed and Ratsiraka fled to exile after many lives were lost in the power struggle. Again, the regional body AU and other sub-regional bodies failed to resolve the situation.
In the course this work, I had to wait to observe the unfolding saga in the Cote d’Ivoire with regard to military intervention to compile my final notes and analysis. As usual, the AU issued a statement reminding Gbagbo of his obligation to relinquish power to the internationally proclaimed winner of the elections to avert further bloodshed in that country, and also suspended the country from all its activities. The sub-regional grouping, ECOWAS had been more decisive by endorsing a military action against the “hanger-on” president. But once Ghana, one of three countries which were expected to play leading roles in contributing troops to the military intervention, chickened out, it threw the whole operation into disarray. Therefore, though the moment was right to assert itself that it meant business, ECOWAS once again lost the opportunity to make itself relevant in this regard.
To this end, there were two presidents in the same country from November 2010 through April 2011. This adds to the list of this anomaly and sets a bad precedent, and goes a long way to question the ability or the capacity of the AU and other sub-regional organizations to successfully deal with these problems when they occur.
Indeed, if the AU and ECOWAS had the decisive military power or the diplomatic influence to intervene in Cote d’Ivoire, that would have occurred within the period spanning November and April, before the French intervention which serve as a precursor to the arrest of Gbagbo by Outarra’s forces, bringing the stalemate at that level to a closure. What is left now is how the winner of the election, Ouattara would be able to govern such a sharply divided country. The bottom line however, is that the power for military intervention or political diplomacy has eluded the regional and the sub-regional bodies and Africans must accept the fact that we cannot continue into the 21st century with these failed institutions and expect to see different results only on the back of anticolonial or anti-imperial chants.
As I have heard many young progressive Africans said at various times, the AU, ECOWAS and, indeed, all other sub-regional organizations need to justify their own existence and why taxpayers in the various African countries should continue to fund their failed their activities in the face of these apparent failures.
In the face of developments in Libya, the question about the relevance of the AU, ECOWAS, and other regional groupings have become even more pressing. Lets continue to deliberate the relevance of these antiquated institutions.
Keep tuned in...
Calderisi, R. (2006). The Trouble with Africa: why foreign aid isn’t working.
Collier, P. (2007). The bottom billion: why the poorest countries are failing and what can be
done about it. Oxford: Oxford University Press
The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, immigration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines – Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.
By: Prosper Yao Tsikata