West Africa’s burdened democracy

Thu, 26 Feb 2009 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

Why democratic tussles

Democracy and freedoms are struggling in West Africa, according to the U.S.-based Freedom House, a non-partisan organization that monitors political rights and civil-liberties worldwide. Its survey of sub-Sahara Africa in its Freedom in the World 2009 concludes that there were more democratic barricades than democratic growth in Africa, especially in West Africa, where most African states are grouped. Only Mali, Ghana, Cape Verde and Benin are democratically “free” out of the 15 West African states surveyed.

Apart from Guinea that is ruled by military junta, all the remaining 14 West African states are democratic of some sorts – some under the shadow of military coups and frightening tension. The degree of democracies across the region is informed by mindset, history, culture, and the nature each state’s elites. That makes Ghanaian democracy slightly different from Burkina Faso’s. Added to this is the fact that West Africa is the poorest region in the world – with Sierra Leone as the poorest country – and for some time the region was the most unstable and frightening military coups/one-party systems ridden area in Africa. Against this background, the conviction, after much trial and error, is that West Africa’s progress, as a democratic act, rest with how “accountability to the people, freedom of expression, rule of law and human rights are incorporated into the fabric of each nation,” said Freedom House.

Over time, despite the virtual commonality of cultures across the region, the differences due to geography, different histories have made democracies in the region have different continuum. Despite this, ECOWAS, the regional body, is strenuously enforcing democratic enlargement. Ecowas’ rejecting of the new military rulers of Guinea from its fold is one; the other is proactively boxing in members that appear to be veering off the democracy radar, urging West African politicians to “demonstrate courage and leadership” in the face of brittle democracy and freedoms.

Once the play ground of thoughtless military juntas and awful one-party systems, West Africa is returning to its foundational democratic ethos, moving away from authoritarianism that stifled its progress. Ghana, Mali, Cape Verde and Senegal are emerging as serious democracies, but one country standout in the region’s democratic evolution - Benin Republic. Yes, Ghana’s democracy may be running into its 17th year and hailed globally but Benin tells the West African attempts at democratic consolidation better. In its 15th multiparty democratic elections, in March, 2007, Benin ran short of funds to finance its election machinery so voters raised cash, loaned computers, and lit up vote-counting centers with their motorcycle headlights. The belief in democracy as vehicle for progress runs counter to a Benin that was once a Marxist dictatorship.

Benin reveals the unlikely positive trend in West Africa's tartan path to democracy. Variously, 20 years ago, Benin and other Ecowas members were struggling to move away from the Cold War-era authoritarianism that dominated most of African states that got independent in the 1960s from European colonialism. With centralized economy, revolving military regimes, one-party systems and little natural resources, Benin vegetated with little chance moving out of crushing poverty. Aware that Marxist system couldn't work, the then dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, realistically floated a national conference in 1990 made up of civic and religious organizations, farmers and political parties.

Democratic elections and presidential term limits was born. Kerekou held elections, lost them and yielded power. He was re-elected five years later, serving until 2006. The other two presidents came from outside Kerekou’s political party, using their technocratic backgrounds to foster economic policy changes that encouraged investment and freed the state’s centralized economy. As Ecowas states like Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau staggered through civil unrest, military coups and elections during the last two decades, Benin nurtured free market enterprise, a free press and a stable economy built largely on agriculture and the service industries. Part of Benin’s democratic growth is its unique extensive integration of its 42 ethnic groups that has fostered long stability.

Those same points can be made of other Ecowas states but with different degrees – Nigerians think their budding democracy is anything but and are calling on their politicians to learn from medium-sized Ghana. With weak national institutions, inability to integrate traditional institutions into its democratic structures, foster greater inclusion, and fuzzy actions that undermine freedoms and democracy, Ecowas elites have more homework to do to consolidate democracy.

Despite unshackling colonialism some 50 years ago, largely after World War II, the 21st century was supposed to herald the ascent of democracy in West Africa, where most of the countries were founded on democratic and freedom ideals, and where Ghana, currently a key democracy light, was the first country in sub-Sahara Africa to have got freedom from British colonial in 1957. While Guinea is still governed by the military and coup attempts occurring in Guinea-Bissau, the past decades have seen a region that is painfully moving towards democracy and freedoms against all odds. Over the past 15 years, most Ecowas states have held elections, and many have undergone quiet democratic regime changes.

Yet throughout 2008, many West Africans were suspect of democratic politics. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, a United Nations report spoke of shaky instability. Former Liberian warlord Prince Yomi Johnson, now a Senator, whose rebel unit killed former president Samuel Doe, has warned against a witch-hunt by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which leaked report, intends to arrest him, among others, and “vowed to resist any effort to arrest him.”

The Gambia suffers from dearth of good governance and democratic freedoms, proof that simply holding polls doesn't ensure a healthy democracy. Despite being a multi-party state, only President Yahya Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party hold sway, effectively stifling opposition parties and making mockery of democracy. The Gambia is yet to account for its killing of some 40 Ghanaians and other Africans. The new Ghanaian Vice President John Mahama had suggested stein position on the Gambian killings and, if possible, cut-off relations with the Gambia. Genuine democracies do not cut each other off; democracies do not fight, democracies are much more co-operative as the global experiences demonstrate and as more and more West Africans migrate within the sub-region and inter-marriage among its over 250 ethnic groups’ increases. The resolving of the Gambian issue would be done better in a West Africa where all the governments are deeply democratic, the rule of law, and freedoms driven.

Post-elections riots shock Nigeria, while Cote d’Ivoire is trying to exorcise itself from years of civil wars, divided country, and democratic stasis that have seen northern rebels and southern politicians sharing uneasy power. In Guinea-Bissau, though recent elections appear to have calmed years of instabilities, was virtually reverted into military rule when there was a near-successful coup attempt in 2008. In Niger, for several months now a political debate has been raging that says President Mamadou Tandja, who is about to end his last of two terms, should be allowed to serve a third term and asked for a change to the constitutional mandate of the President, or, if not, to simply prolong his present tenure.

Even in Ghana, dubbed Ecowas democracy star, for its comparative degree of democratic strengths, the 2008 general elections uncovered a deep well of electoral inconsistencies: transition log-jam and protection of citizens from electoral harm in places such as the Volta and Northern regions. For the past 50 years, Guinea has been stuck in military juntas, one-party regimes and fraudulent democracies all rolled into bizarre mix.

And Senegal is Ecowas’ oldest democracy, untainted by decades of military juntas that sauntered the sub-region. Even despite this, Senegal has been confronted with rebels in its Cassamance region that seek greater national goods and services and thinks there aren’t enough freedoms and democracy. In 1974 when the cunning Leopold Sedar Senghor, Senegal’s first president, created a strictly controlled multi-party system, with four parties allowed, which had to stick to political labels Senghor selected, and one of which parties was “Liberal” and called the Senegalese Democratic Party and was led by Abdoulaye Wade, the current president, Senegal is yet to free itself from the Senghor democratic shadow that has seen opposition and some media forces thwarted now and then.

In several ways, the challenges of West African democracies are a reflection of their elites, history and culture. Impatience to nurture democracy and freedoms are everywhere and pressure on Ecowas leaders to learn the nuances of democracy, more from within West African traditional values, is mounting. With only ten years into its democracy, Nigerians heavily complain about their democracy and wish Ghana’s strides could have been transferred to them. West African elites are yet to ground their democracy into their cultural idiosyncrasies and thoughts and mint a “West African way” that is drawn from the soul of the region.

As experts argue, even in advanced democracies it took centuries to form democracies but their elites soldiered on, seeing democracy, after much trials and errors of other ideologies, as the best form of governance. West Africans’ democracies are just some few years old and, as Guinea show, are yet to free themselves from decades of military and one-party systems mentality where rule of law and freedoms were suppressed. Though most of West African states see themselves as democratic, only three Ecowas states (Cape Verde, Ghana and Senegal) ranked within the top ten of the overall 2008 Ibrahim Index of African Governance - entreating the question: given the number of general elections of the past years, are West Africa and democracy well-matched? Considering West Africa’s history, culture and the mindset of its elites, the pains associated with the region’s emerging democracies aren’t surprising. But if the pains aren’t transformed into democratic growth, West Africans may be tired of democracies that do not produce fruitful results and with time soften the memories of frightful military dictators/one-party rules and homesickness for overthrown authoritarianism may swell. One other West Africa democratic riddle is how it can unravel a mix of paternalistic control and market economics that wheel around “crony capitalism” that flourish in the want of democratic checks and balances. In Ghana, ex-president Jerry Rawlings, who ruled for almost 20 years in strings of military juntas, one-party regimes and multi-party democracy, and others whose democratic roots and actions are suspect following their being forced to democratize, hover in the background. In Nigeria, Guinea before the December 23, 2008 coup, Guinea-Bissau, the Gambia and Cote d’Ivoire more citizens are complaining about their democracies in the face of weak institutions and autocratic tendencies. In Cote d’Ivoire, journalist Venance Konan, writing in pambazuka news, argues that Côte d’Ivoire’s democratic “impasse … reveals that the interminable delays in setting a date for the elections are due to the machinations of political elites who continue to benefit from the status quo. While various protagonists on the political stage drag their feet, ordinary citizens continue to suffer grinding poverty and the imminent threat of renewed violence.” Against the fact that the cornerstone of democracy is the rule of law and freedoms, Freedom House, in its Freedom in the World 2009 reveals that democratic growth in West Africa isn’t all that sexy, and the negatives outweigh the positives. Thomas O. Melia, deputy executive director of Freedom House, said “The causes of sub-Saharan Africa’s setbacks in 2006 varied from country to country.” But a “region-wide analysis, however, suggests that weak rule of law and lack of government openness play critical roles.” The report notes that among West African states that are “partly free” or “not free” democratically are Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Niger, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, and Togo. Only Mali, Ghana, Cape Verde and Benin are democratically “free” out of the 15 Ecowas states.

At critical level and in the context of the economic trials facing West Africa, its elites have to shape the region’s democracy within its history and culture – more the integration of its traditional institutions into their various decentralization exercises – in relation to that of the Western-style democratic system that dominates and “is a one-size-fits-all” that doesn’t consider each Africa state’s mindset, history and culture.

The key task that should spur an Ecowas democratic enlargement is how to handle economic challenges and threats of reverting to authoritarian rule. West Africans are yet to tie the fact that economic tests should drive their toddler democracies as presidential candidate Barack Obama did in the US in 2008 elections and after. Despite the IMF projecting that Liberia's economy is expected to grow 11 percent annually on average over the next five years, how it will achieve this depends on how it goads greater democracy and freedoms in a country with deep scars of human rights violations and democratic stasis, some emanating from some aspects of its culture.

In Nigeria, its citizens are concerned about how its governance doesn’t answer democracy’s most basic task: to exemplify the will of the people in the face of economic plight and the fact it is one of the leading oil producers in the world. Sierra Leone and Liberia are yet to transform its dire poverty and war pains into democratic capital and freedoms and help spread prosperity. As some gains in democracy make inroads into progress, the arithmetic is how Ecowas elites answer the old arguments of either economic progress should predate democratic reforms or democratic reforms should predate economic progress, or reconcile the two against the ambiance of global financial emergency, suppleness and open leadership. At the heart of this policy discussions are West African cultural idiosyncrasies, accountability, transparency and the rule of law that should underpin West Africa’s democratic consolidation, and help create middle-classes, as bulwarks against undemocratic actions, across Ecowas.

Pleasing the Electorate

Though over 271 million out of Africa’s population of 937 million live in West Africa, with Nigeria having the largest population of 135 million, West Africa is yet to see leaders build broad-based support for influential policy varieties. In Ghana’s 2008 general elections, the two main parties – the now ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the main opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) - had virtually the same programmes that it was critically hard to differentiate between them.

Without reservation, in the final presidential results, the NDC’s John Atta-Mills had 50.23% and the NPP’s Nana Akufo-Addo had 49.77%. The parliamentary elections saw an even legislature with the NDC having 114, the NPP 107 and others 7. There are so little varieties among the parties that there are vigorous national calls for broad-based consensus building and participation among the parties to push Ghana’s democracy forward. Unsurprisingly, the Taiwan-based global consortium of comparative surveys across emerging democracies and transitional societies Asian Barometer Project found that though majority of Africans support most democratic ideals, they are committed to higher limits on politicians’, as ways of helping to brew varieties of choices and consolidate democracy. But how to achieve this, to a point, is informed by the lack of trust in West African elections riddled with consequences of derisory political education.

The mechanism of engaging West African electorate by floating variety of choices to address pressing issues is test for Ecowas elites. Nigeria is still entangled with its Niger Delta militants for political goods and services, as rich petro-dollar crude oil flows in the background. As one of the top Ecowas democracies, Mali is yet to appropriate its 16-year democracy to neutralize Tuareg rebel groups that have been engaged in periodic armed struggles for several decades. Whether in Burkina Faso, Nigeria or Guinea-Bissau, Ecowas democratic consolidation will be attained by conscious push and going through numerous electoral series, with the understanding that no electoral method is perfect (vote-buying, for instance, afflicts most Ecowas states).

Constructing checks and balances

One of the brightest aspects of the December 2008 general elections in Ghana wasn’t the fact that it was keenly contested but the prospects that it saw the opposition NDC winning competitively and further opened the democratic space. Whether in Nigeria, the Gambia, Togo or Senegal, one party in a multiparty democracy has taken a stranglehold on politics, its power nourishing on itself and deflating real opposition. Nigeria has been controlled by the People’s Democratic Party since multiparty democracy was instituted 10 years ago, while the Rally of the Togolese People dominates Togo. The Rally of the Togolese People has been in power for more than 40 years and this isn’t good for healthy West African democracy and particularly for Togo, where the democratic opposition is referred to by government publications in undignified ways as the “radical opposition.”

Though not widespread, Togo exemplifies how dynastic democracy, in which the same families - Faure Gnassingbe, son of the late President Gnassingbe Eyadema, was prepared by his father and picked by their northern Kabyé ethnic dominated army to succeed his father - act as if it is their birthright to rule, and the electorate accordingly votes them in. This is against the fact that Togo is made up of coalition of about 40 ethnic groups. West Africa has the largest number of ethnic groups in Africa – and this should intellectually help grow vibrant democracy and do away with dynastic or ethnic influenced democracy.

Added to this is ethnic democracy, which is widespread in West Africa. West African electorates are yet to learn to identify leaders past families, clans and ethnic groups or party symbols. Short of that the region's toddler democracy will only feed the historical assumption, as somehow read in the writings of the British thinker John Stuart Mills and appropriated by colonialism, that Africans are in some ways unprepared to hold democracy. The colonial assumption was that Africans were somehow not enlightened adequately to grasp democracy. However, the healthiness of the December 2008 Ghanaian elections, as was the case in Sierra Leone a year ago, and the praise it garnered internationally is a matter of pride for West African democracy.

Beefing up institutions

Neo-patriarchic African “Big Man” syndrome is stifling West African democracy and freedoms. This cultural situation has also affected the growth of independent institutions, one of the cornerstones of democracy, that are to check and balance elected leaders. Ghana is attempting to integrate its traditional institutions into its decentralization exercises as a way of harmonizing the schism between democratic practices and traditional institutions. In some West African states, the media, as prominent watchdog of democracy, are uncomfortable, some muzzled. Against the fact that African journalists have operated in difficult conditions, in 2007, the Community Court of Justice of Ecowas issued a hearing notice for a suit filed against the Gambian government by the Accra-based Media Foundation for West Africa on behalf of a “disappeared” Gambian journalist, Chief Ebrima Manneh, reporter of pro-government Banjul-based “Daily Observer” newspaper. As Ghana’s new president John Atta-Mills indicated in Nigeria, Guinea’s inability to institute vigorous democratic practices stems from its weak institutions. The solution is to institute democratic political systems that stem from the fact that building institutions can moderate conflicts.

Across much of West Africa, the judiciaries are seen as compromised and under the grip of the executive and some powerful “Big Men/Women” who found their way around the judicial system. In its 2007 report on democracy, human rights and labour, the US State Department says though the government of Burkina Faso or its agents didn’t “commit any known politically motivated killings, security forces killed civilians, criminal suspects, and detainees.” On February 17, Fousseni Traore, a soldier, killed his sweetheart, Alima Sakande, in Tampouy, Ouagadougou City. On February 22, police arrested Traore in Leraba Province and moved him to military detention soon thereafter. Nothing was heard about the case any more.

But there are attempts to restore faith in the West African judiciary as way of deepening democracy and its institutions. In Nigeria, the government is battling corruption, a serious national development problem, and opening its hands world-wide for assistance. Nigeria’s formidable Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has taken on increasingly powerful and much-feared “Big Men/Women” and helped brighten the image of the judiciary and democracy. Nigeria is ranked the second most corrupt country in the world by the Berlin-based Transparency International. Abuja is working with various United Nations agencies as way of “strengthening the rule of law, both at the national and sub-national level” in order to augment “the capacity and integrity of the justice system, in particular the judiciary.”

Except West Africans feel like the judiciary is independent, not influenced by political influences, ethnicities and the ancient “Big Man/Woman” syndromes, democracy cannot flourish. As regional giant Nigeria has demonstrated, standing up for judicial autonomy depends on the courage of non-governmental agencies, individual judges and institutions. But it also relies on political leaders who will refrain from interfering with the judiciary - and who know that doing so will risk them in the next general elections.

Enlarging civil society

Athwart Ecowas, movements towards democracy and freedoms have occurred for the past 10 years on the average because of West Africans conviction that democracy is better than authoritarianism. Democratic and freedom energies are sweeping the region, despite obstacles. In Benin, Ghana and Nigeria people-driven revolution brought down military juntas and one-party regimes. However, whether in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Niger, the Gambia or Togo, the superseding years have produced disappointment within Ecowas’ civil society.

Open Society Initiative for West Africa and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) report in their 2006 investigations that most civil society outfits in West Africa “have fallen to disgrace by subjecting themselves to manipulation by those in power. This has put most of the organizations at risk” and have had backlash on democratic struggles where the national conferences in Benin and Cote d’Ivoire “courage of independent activists leading the downtrodden masses“ aren’t felt no more. Nigerians think their democracy is so corrupted that it is rendered worthless in the face of retreating pro-democracy activists that had earlier helped brought the dictatorship Gen. Sani Abacha down. In a West Africa where deep wounds of brutal military juntas and threatening one-party regimes top Africa, civil society activists are vital both for their capacity to inspire the masses to act more justly and to speak out when leaders slip toward authoritarianism.

While Guinea’s famous trade unions have been in the forefronts for reforms against democratic frauds and authoritarianism consistently for the past 50 years, in Ghana, the Committee for Joint Action (CJA), a pressure group known for protesting on national and international issues during the years of ex-president John Kufour, has evolved as non-partisan, objective, and a national conscience. Over the years, CJA has evolved as part of Ghana’s growing democracy, taking on more or less a centrist position that has allowed Ghanaians of diverse beliefs to come together for common national causes without fear of persecution. Not surprisingly, Tain, a tiny remote marginalized rural community in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region virtually determined the outcome of John Atta-Mills as the president of Ghana in the 2008 elections. Whether in Tain (Ghana), Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea or Togo, all of these advances, despite years of death, threats, harassments and fears, have been the result of years of struggle by West African civil societies. And these tussles hold out optimism for the future of West African democracy.

That the new American President Barack Obama will have immense effect on West African democracy is unarguable. Across Ecowas obamamania is still reeling. Nowhere is this seen more than in Ghana, where John Atta-Mills and his NDC used Obama’s famously “change” theme in the December 2008 election campaigns, striding Atta-Mills photographs with Obama’s in campaign posters. Again and again in debates, campaigns and speeches, Atta-Mills talked about the need for Ghanaians to find in themselves “change.” Atta-Mills “change” has more to do with the fatigue and the perceived democratic arrogance of the eight years of NPP years. That made the Atta-Mills “change” a vain mantra not necessarily a therapeutic or democratic enlargement concepts but the periodic democratic reinvention, where Ghanaians, for the past 17 years, dig out of their deepest problems and every four years elect a new government. It is a way they save themselves from some useless politicians and institutions, decline, stagnation and other developmental futility. The Ghana Obama-inspired “change” serves as a fine example to Ecowas’s democracy.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi