Wednesday, September 15, was observed as International Day of Democracy to commemorate the importance of this system of government as the preferred form globally.
Democracy is hinged on the free will of the people to choose their leaders on a constitutional framework that guarantees rights and liberties of the citizens. It also makes the citizens more engaged to determine government policies and hold the government accountable, while it ultimately presents a platform for the government to ensure social good for the people in the largest possible scale.
However, in Africa, especially West Africa, democracy is under threat with constant interruption of coup d’ etats perpetrated by ambitious army officers, who sometimes capitalize on the undemocratic behavior and failures of the acclaimed democratic leaders in the sub-region.
The latest in the series of military interventions emerged on Sunday, September 5, when a group of soldiers, led by a French legionnaire, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, sacked the democratic government in Guinea and arrested the President, Alpha Conde.
Doumbouya, amid cheering crowds, accused Conde’s government of “endemic corruption” and of “trampling on citizens’ rights” even as he pledged to open talks on forming a new government, but it is uncertain when the junta will return power to democratic leaders.
The global community condemned the coup just as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) the West African regional bloc alongside the African Union (AU) suspended Guinea from their decision making bodies.
Rising from their emergency summit in Accra, Ghana, on Thursday September 16, the ECOWAS imposed sanctions on Guinea’s military leaders, which involved travel bans and freezing of assets of the coup leaders, while demanding that they return the country to democratic rule within six months.
Doumbouya and his men have however, reportedly rebuffed the regional bloc and maintained that no group or countries would dictate to Guinea on what it should do because it is a sovereign nation.
The defiance of the coup leaders in Guinea typifies the dilemma of most of the regional blocs in Africa because the mechanism to check military incursions is either non-existent or has gone comatose. This is compounded by weak institutions and poor democratic culture of most African countries with increasing tyranny of the acclaimed democratic leaders.
For instance, the 83-year-old Conde had served out his constitutionally required two terms of office but instead of leaving office, he allegedly manipulated the constitution to allow him run a third term which he won last year. This ill-fated ambition was rejected by the opposition and those who came out to protest against this were shot with live bullets on his orders.
This subversion of constitution for self-serving ends also reared its ugly head in Cote D’ Ivoire, when President Allasane Outtarra, served out his two- terms but manipulated the constitution to give him another term which he won to the disappointment of many.
In Mali, Colonel Assimi Goita last year overthrew President Boubakar Keita and took power. He was however, pressured to return the country to democratic order and he installed an interim civilian government. In May this year, however, Goita removed the interim government and appointed himself the new head of the interim government in a transition programme that appears not to inspire confidence.
In April this year, long-serving Chadian President Idris Derby, was assassinated by rebels and the soldiers of the country quickly appointed his 37-year-old son, Mahamat as the new leader of the country, again brushing aside the constitutional provisions which stipulate that power should be wielded by the Legislature in that circumstance. The transition process in Chad is sure to return Mahamat as the new leader of Chad in the months ahead.
In the midst of all these ugly assaults on democratic norms, the African Union and ECOWAS are hardly able to impose strong measures apart from the formalistic condemnations or sanctions that appear ineffectual.
Within the AU framework, there is a Peer Review mechanism that is supposed to be a democracy watch, a mechanism to oversee the health of democratic engagement. The operational mechanism of the peer review is that there should be an independent assessment of democratic processes in various African countries but this has not been effective for obvious reasons.
There is however, a charter of the AU that declared the sovereignty of each country devoid of interference by others nations. This might be what the Guinean military leader was referring to when he asserted that Guinea will not succumb to the dictates of any country or group that does not respect its sovereign right as a nation.
Speaking to LEADERSHIP on this dilemma, international affairs expert, Charles Onunaiju said in as much as military rule, no matter the allure, is not the solution to Africa’s problems, the mechanism to protect democracy appears to have vanished.
Onunaiju, who is the Director of Abuja-based Centre for China Studies, noted that if the peer review mechanism has been effective and active, it should have developed an early warning mechanism when democracy came under danger as in the case of Guinea when Alpha Conde changed the constitution.
He stressed that if Africa has generated a consensus that democracy is the best form of government, it must also guide it with effective mechanisms across countries.
“If we have generated a consensus on the nature of governance in Africa then we should also develop mechanisms to ensure that these governments are responsible. Democracy should not exist in the formalistic sense of having periodic elections where people are herded to vote and after the election people who are elected become gods unto themselves.
“So, let us face the fact, if we want to deepen democracy, it must not be only through periodic elections. It can only be deepened if people are genuinely involved and can participate, and if measurable and tangible developments are recorded and people’s lives are improved. Otherwise we would just be coming up against reality and when reality strikes, the best we can do is to accommodate it as we are doing now asking the Guinea junta to establish an urgent timetable to restore the country to democratic order.
“We must develop a template for democratic governance that is beyond handing power to the few people who are elected, and if we don’t, we should be ready to stand at all times at the graveyard to bury democracy as we have done in Guinea, in Chad and in Mali and may still do in others places.
“It is more than 30 years of democracy in Africa but people’s lives are nose-diving, peace is eluding them, security is eluding them. Therefore, we must have a responsible and accountable government that will ensure measurable improvement in the lives of the people. That is what may reduce incidents of coups” he said.