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Compared to the countries of the center of the African continent, whose leaders have an unfortunate tendency to endure power by trampling on human rights, West Africa still displays encouraging democratic vitality.
But lately, the record has been tarnishing. In Mali, in the heart of summer, a group of officers ousted an elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, known as “IBK” from power. The next presidential elections in Guinea (October 18) and in Côte d’Ivoire (October 31) promise to be eventful. Those planned in the wake in Burkina Faso (November 22) and Niger (December 27) will take place under the threat of jihadist groups.
Let us add the case of Togo, where the Gnassingbé dynasty already has fifty-three years of contested power, and Benin, where President Talon is slowly stifling the local democratic system – admittedly out of steam – in the name of economic development.
The democratization of the region smells of sulfur, polluted by deliberately flawed electoral processes. As such, the Malian coup d’etat may be a case study. Let us note, as a preamble, that this anti-democratic exercise has become rare across the continent. The coup leader in uniform and sunglasses is out of fashion.
A torn democratic contract
According to accounts compiled by The Center For Global Impact – part of the American International Republican Institute – their number declined substantially, from 120 in the decade 1960-1970 to “only” 24 between 2010 and 2020.
They would also have moulted. The Malian military thus explained, in essence, that they were removing a president legally installed by the ballot box in order to renew with the population a democratic contract torn apart by a patronage and corrupt political class.
The political base of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta had indeed gradually melted since his first rushed election in 2013. At the time, the dust raised by the French tanks of the anti-jihadist operation “Serval” had hardly settled, but Paris was keen to this ballot without waiting too long.
The re-election of “IBK” in 2018 in a country still so poor and once again shaken by attacks by radical Islamist armed groups had hardly aroused enthusiasm. The local elections at the beginning of 2020 have finished it: the crude frauds of the capacity which, under the table, transformed into victory its failure at the polls, fed a vast movement of protest in the streets. A movement taken over by a group of soldiers who went to meet the aspirations of a part of the population, often young and idle, bored by its aging leaders.
Since then, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an organization of the fifteen states of the sub-region, has been trying to put the pieces back together. Aware of the limits of the previous regime, the ECOWAS obviously cannot legitimize the military putsch. Except that the moral and political authority of this organization has weakened as part of its members play with the democratic standards that have been imposed since the end of the era of single parties in the early 1990s.
This is the case with the constitutional “arrangements” noted in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea. In recent months, these two countries have each adopted a new constitution which allows outgoing and aging presidents, in this case Alassane Ouattara (78 years) and Alpha Condé (82 years), to run for a third, or even, afterwards. , a fourth presidential quinquennium.
The legal argument exists to defend this reset of the counters. The opponents of this decision denounce, for their part, the violation of the spirit of the law since, in both cases, the new constitutions limit, again, to two the number of presidential mandates.
Lack of fairness and transparency
In a note published on September 14, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies estimates that this kind of “Circumvention weakens governance in Africa”. This is not just a moral posture. Based on Transparency International’s ranking, the authors establish a direct link between time spent in power and the degree of corruption in regimes. The note also notes that “Nine of the ten African countries facing civil strife (excluding Islamist insurgencies) are those that have not limited the number of presidential terms”.
Along with limiting the length and number of terms of office, the important thing is also to respect and maintain established rules. The balance of power is at stake in an environment marked by the relative weakness of independent democratic institutions such as the legislative and judicial powers, the public service, security, the armed forces, the media … But the example, extreme, the military coup in Bamako recalls the difficulty of building a democratic system within the framework of a weak state.
And Mali is not a special case. We only need to remember the deadly crisis of 2010 in Côte d’Ivoire, born of the refusal of outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo to concede his electoral defeat to Alassane Ouattara. In Guinea, dozens of people have been killed since October 2019 by security forces on the sidelines of protests against Alpha Condé’s third term, raising fears of further excesses during the poll scheduled for October 18.
Undermined by the lack of fairness and transparency, the way to the ballot box ceases to be a peaceful outlet for legitimate grievances, but a potential source of violence liable to destabilize the fragile democratic constructions of West Africa.