The legitimacy of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) is on the line. There have been three military coups in less than two years: in Mali, in Guinea and in Burkina. But this does not necessarily mean that democracy is in decline in West Africa or that there’s a “coup bloc” in the making. This view is more an optical illusion, based on lazy analysis and willful ignorance of history, than a reality.
The string of recent coups in West Africa are a clear sign that limited democracy “delegated” by the Western “powers that be” fails to deliver development and does not reflect the will of the people. The status quo is just not good enough. ECOWAS, West Africa’s main regional bloc, should stop copying Western-style procedures when dealing with conflict or a coup. Instead, it should, as argued in a previous article (What's in a Coup?), recover and revalue traditional African democratic practices rooted in the continents precolonial societies.
Africans want the power to decide on the direction in which they want their nations to move. They want to be taken seriously and respected. Indeed, the recent string of coups in West Africa should be understood as a reaction to two conditions: 1) questionably elected strongmen who have consistently violated the rule of law for political purposes (greed and unbridled lust for power) and 2) foreign manipulation and interference. The National Conference approach can serve as a mechanism for building peace and reconciliation between the different components of the nation and between the nation and its regional neighbors.
Promote democracy instead of imposing punishment
Africa’s regional institutions and their Western allies are called to understand and respect African-rooted democratic institutions, practices, attitudes and motivations. In the aftermath of a military takeover, instead of applying the typical Western type of punishment – such as suspension or expulsion from a regional governing body, sanctions, reprisals, or God forbid, military intervention in the name of “freedom” – ECOWAS should use indigenous Mechanisms for Democracy Protection (MDP).
Instead of approaching the aftermath of the coups with an attempt to control the situation by imposing restrictive actions, ECOWAS needs to focus on how to facilitate deliberation through public debate that identifies elements of choice for positive change through the diversification of views and inputs of civil society. Rather than impose compliance with rules and processes that for many Africans are foreign, debate should be facilitated in a way that underscores shared societal values that can be productive for national development in a way that is meaningful and relevant for Africans.
Mechanisms for Democracy Protection (MDPs) are a tool for the promotion of democracy in a post-conflict situation. They consist of formal, semi-formal and informal rules and procedures by which a regional organization can intervene (in the sense of actions taken to improve a situation, not interference) when there is a democratic crisis, such as a military coup.
The aim of MDP rules and procedures is not to impose punishment for a lack of democratic behavior. Nor should they be defined by “external pressures” from Western global powers (i.e. Europe and the United States) with vested interests in the region. The intervention should be made in the interests of the region first and within a framework defined by the political and cultural realities of Africa and African identity. This avoids the “clash of cultural identities” that inevitably accompanies external pressure.
Use the National Conference as an MDP mechanism
The primary Mechanism for Democracy Protection (MDP) mechanism par excellence that ECOWAS should encourage and facilitate is the National Conference, without external interference. A National Conference is a method for bringing together the different national stakeholder groups, including the leaders of the coup, to discuss and plan key aspects of the country’s future development.
National conferences are a uniquely African public forum, held over an extended period of time. They are based on consensus and are a particularly useful means for discussing and developing a plan for the country’s political future.
Convening a national conference allows groups other than the military junta to participate in the decision-making process. Agreeing to hold and participate in a national conference does not guarantee political freedom or the sharing of power with other political factions; it is an agreement to conduct a nationwide, inclusive and highly visible political and transparent dialogue to jointly plan steps for an indigenously-generated, gradual, “managed” transition towards democracy (Jacques Mariel Nzouankeu).
A national conference is an avenue for bringing about political and leadership change based on the principles of national sovereignty, proportional representation and one-person-one-vote; it is not to be used as a legitimizing rationale to strip leadership of its power. It seeks to achieve consensus on fundamental issues of democratic process through dialogue, bargaining and a variety of context and culture specific symbolic actions.
Popular sovereignty, procedural legitimacy and the rule of law serve as basic building blocks, but appropriate attention must be given to political language, symbols and imagery proper to the nation, if the terms of relations between civil and military factions are to be successfully renegotiated (Pearl T. Robinson). Indigenous institutions, values and behaviors are therefore of critical importance, while securing support from international finance institutions and aid donors is of secondary importance.
A successful national conference includes all the vital forces of the nation, regardless of their affinity – toute les forces vives de la nation, quoique soient leurs affinités. It must ensure representation of a mixed group of individuals, organizations and associations (including youth and women, whose intrinsic interests in democratic reform must be specifically recognized and represented), political parties, and government institutions. It does not include representatives of foreign powers, other than as invited and vetted observers, and cannot be limited to the political class, local notable and the elite. It must be politically relevant to the average citizen without the impingement of external forces, which inevitably limits the voice and power of the Africans, for whom the conference is intended.
The use of the National Conference approach as an MPD mechanism will be successful to the extent that it is culturally anchored in African notions of social justice, economic opportunity, political accountability and popular participation. Its inclusive nature will lock in the interests of democratic actors - interests such as respect for the rule of law, respect for property and commitment to free trade - and turn the attitudes of non-democratic actors, such as the armed forces, towards democracy. And because it is ingrained in the African culture of politics, rather than resting precariously on the perception of political liberalization that can eventually lead to economic benefits, it also raises the cost of potential disruptive acts thus dissuading other actors who might be motivated to seek power outside of democratic rules and procedures ( Pearl T. Robinson ).
Promote a level playing field
However, a National Conference is not a process that can be forced or hurried by anyone and least of all by foreign allies, who generally take a time-is-money-and-influence approach that is leader- centered and focused on “nominating” a “strong, transformative leader” who can take unpopular steps to take charge. This makes for very bad medicine. An authentic National Conference is African-inspired, organized, managed, and led with the aim of leveling the playing field, preventing further conflict, building national consensus on the country’s future, and bolstering the support of citizens for state institutions.
The strength of African democracy is not to be found in the indicators of democracy elaborated in North America, Europe or Nordic countries. It is to be found in the struggles that are shaping the future of the region and, above all, the refusal of the Africa people to become resigned to their “lot” so they can be rescued by Western messianism with forceps.
What the recent coups in West Africa underscore is an undeniable emergence of a battle for democracy “from below”, not for Western liberal democracy but for democracy African-style, one that honors and respects the roots of African democratic practices and processes. Africans have the right.