Can African leaders develop a framework to protect democracy?

African leaders are rightly worried about the return of coup d’état as a means of changing governments. And West Africa is leading the charge. For the third time in only five months, there is been military takeovers in the sub-region, namely in Guinea, Mali (twice in thirteen months), and Chad. The sub-regional body, the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) is worried but is responding in a predictable manner. It does not even have a sense of irony. If not, it will not be picking Ivorian leader, Alassane Ouattara, to accompany Ghanaian president, Nana Akufo-Addo to negotiate with the coupists in Guinea. The picture of the coup leader, Colonel Doumbouya, towering over Ouattara and peering down at him makes for an interesting watch. If not that Doumbouya always hides his eyes behind big dark sunglasses, it would have been interesting to watch what his eyes were saying to Ouattara. It would clearly not be admiration or even respect. It may well be disdain. He may even be saying in his mind “here is another usurper coming to secure the release of his brother dictator”.

Ouattara’s transmutation from an ardent democrat and fighter for justice to a sit-tight leader is depressing. Here is a man who ECOWAS and the international community went all out to support to wrestle power from another sit-tight leader even by force of arms turning round to become a sit-tight leader himself. After serving his maximum two terms in office, he engineered a dubious constitutional change to allow him to run for another term in office. That is the same reason why Alpha Conde was booted out. Worse, even after that, Ouattara solemnly promised not to run again only to change his mind a month or so to the election. I am sure Col Doumbouya would be thinking what has this ‘bloody’ usurper got to tell us about democracy and constitutionality? Had he not mortgaged his country to the French and were French gendarmes and troops not guarding his fortified palace, he too would have been booted out by dissatisfied Ivorian troops. It is even more unfortunate that ECOWAS did not see the irony of sending an illegitimate president to negotiate with the coupists.

It is no surprise that the coupists made a mockery of the ECOWAS team. While acknowledging ECOWAS’ six-month deadline for the conduct of elections, they simply said the people of Guinea, not the sub-regional body, will decide their own destiny. They were already holding consultations with various public figures, groups, and business leaders to map out a framework and timetable for elections. They, not ECOWAS, would decide the fate of their country. After all, where was ECOWAS when Conde was tearing the democratic framework and the constitution apart to enable him to run for an unconstitutional third term? On the travel ban and asset freeze imposed on the coupist, they laughed it away. According to the spokesman of the junta, the sanctions did not matter because the coupists had enough work to do in Guinea and won’t be needing to junket around yet and that there was even nothing in their accounts to freeze.

Then, on the main reason for their visit – which was to secure the release of the toppled dictator Alpha Conde, the coupists simply refused to say he is fine where he is. They have shown him on live TV and have allowed access to him. He is not been harmed but he will not be released to go lead an opposition movement in exile.

It is clear the African Union and sub-regional associations are still struggling hard to shed the toga of being dictators’ clubs.

It is clear the African Union and sub-regional associations are still struggling hard to shed the toga of being dictators’ clubs. Every of their move shows they are more concerned about the toppled leader (one of their own) more than the fate of democracy in the country. They have so thoroughly mismanaged the democratic momentum built at the turn of the 21st century to discourage or even outlaw unconstitutional takeover of governments. Whereas from the 1960s to 1990s, the greatest threat to the democratic order was military usurpers, the current threat to Africa’s democratic order is from elected leaders who desperately want to cling on to power even beyond their constitutionally allotted time. Sadly, the roles are now reversed and soldiers, these days, find themselves intervening to restore, not rupture, the democratic order.

This should naturally lead to a rethink by ECOWAS and the African Union on their strategies to ensure democracy continues to flourish in Africa. These bodies should be drawing up frameworks to discourage and sanction leaders for changing their constitutions mid-way into their terms to prolong their rule instead of focusing on military leaders, who, in most cases, are intervening to restore the democratic order. These regional bodies should not always act to protect or defend one of their own. They must act to defend the democratic credentials of the continent and their sub-regions. They must act to prevent leaders from bastardizing the very democracy that brought them into power. But how can they when these bodies are being dominated by sit-tight leaders themselves? It is chairpersons, of late, have, for the most part, been coupists or sit-tight leaders such as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and the late Idris Derby of Chad.

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