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West Africa’s burdened democracy

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.





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