Joseph Phillip, Governance Program Coordinator at the Goodluck Jonathan Foundation, dissects issues around the Crisis of Democratic legitimacy in West Africa and the role of Leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
On 5 September 2021, the President of Guinea Alpha Condé was captured by the country’s armed forces in a coup d’état led by Special Forces commander Mamady Doumbouya. This was the third military coup in West Africa; twice in Mali in 2020 and 2021, and once in Guinea in 2021.
While these events attracted widespread condemnations from the global community and imposition of sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the first coup in Mali and the recent coup in Guinea were seemingly greeted with jubilations on the streets of the respective countries.
These jubilations are not necessarily informed by the people’s inclination to military regimes, but the unpopularity of the dethroned civilian leadership. Despite this foregoing, a common feature in ECOWAS response statements to these coups is the condemnation of such acts as a direct violation of the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
The Protocol is an integral part of the 1999 Mechanism on Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security, as it links governance with peace and security and advocates the adoption of common and universal norms on democratic governance by member states through “constitutional convergence”.
These constitutional convergence principles as outlined by the protocol are targeted at promoting the rule of law, autonomy for the parliament and judiciary, free and fair elections and political participation, civilian supremacy over military forces, and civil liberties, with special provisions for women and youth. However, the level of compliance and implementation of these principles by ECOWAS member states have been the subject of debate. Central to these debates is the holding of regular elections as a democratic tool and limiting presidential terms.
As all countries in the region are ‘constitutional democracies’ which identify elections as a means to ascend to power, analysts have argued that a major challenge for the sub-region is regular attempts by sitting heads of states to use the parliament, judiciary or other State institutions like the Electoral Management Bodies, the police and military to manipulate electoral outcomes or the constitution to their advantage or that of their political parties.
This has been singled out as one of the major factors behind the sudden resurgence of military coups within the region. Article 1 (b) of the protocol provides that “every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections”. It also demands “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”.
The first coup in Mali was preceded by protests led by a coalition of opposition political parties, religious organisations and civil society known as the June 5 Movement (M5-RFP), calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in the wake of the country’s April parliamentary elections. The protests were spurred by a Constitutional Court’s decision to overturn some of the election results, which the opposition said unfairly helped members of Keita’s party to remain in office.
Prior to the military takeover in Guinea, the 2020 Presidential Elections in the country that saw the emergence of Conde as President had huge legitimacy concerns. This was further compounded by the fact that he amended Guinea’s constitution to enable him to run for a third term. All efforts to convene national dialogue had been resisted by the opposition over fears that the institutions responsible for facilitating such a process will skew the outcome to favour the party in power.
While the region’s zero tolerance for military takeover is highly commendable, the conspicuous silence to violations of the constitutional convergence principles as outlined by the protocol by member States has raised legitimacy concerns and doubts over the sincerity of ECOWAS in championing democracy and good governance within the region.
Why has the “coup” by some Heads of State within the region to elongate their term in office not been met by the same level of condemnations and sanctions? Why is the regional body seen to endorse elections which have been alleged not to be free and fair, or far below standards as articulated in the ECOWAS Protocol for Democracy and Good Governance?
These unanswered questions give the impression that the regional body is more interested in the security of tenure of member Heads of State than the promotion of universally accepted democratic norms and good governance.
ECOWAS inaction or silence have been attributed to the absence of the legal basis for intervention in “domestic issues” confronting member states. There were also attempts by the regional body to introduce in 2015 to push for the prohibition of the Heads of States, staying beyond two terms. Such a move was rejected by some West African leaders who argued that each country has a different political context and there cannot be a blanket ruling.
The region has so far adopted an iterative approach in developing its peace, security and governance agenda by developing instruments to address issues facing the region as they emerge. This has further been demonstrated by the recent call for the review of the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Governance by the Heads of State during the Extraordinary Session of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government held in Accra Ghana on 17th September 2021.
This has been followed by a unanimous call by President Akufo-Addo and the ECOWAS Parliament for “third term” to be outlawed within the sub-region. Speaking in his personal capacity, President Nana opined that he believes outlawing “third term” is the surest way to safeguard Africa’s fragile democracy and prevent coup d’états from happening in the sub-region.
Now more than ever is an opportunity for the region to demonstrate the leadership and political will it has always been known for in working collectively to address some of these issues which have continuously threatened the peace and stability of the region.