West African Leaders Are Rolling Back Democratic Gains

Taking a page from Vladimir Putin's playbook, undemocratic leaders in Guinea and Togo are seeking to extend their rule through ostensibly democratic means.

A man holds a poster displaying Togolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre on April 11, 2015 in Lome, Togo.
A man holds a poster displaying Togolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre on April 11, 2015 in Lome, Togo. EMILE KOUTON/AFP via Getty Images

As much of the world’s attention was glued to the U.S. Democratic Party primaries and the continued spread of the new coronavirus, an unexpected announcement threw the democratic future of a West African country into further chaos earlier this month. Guinea, home to almost 13 million people, postponed a referendum on a constitutional amendment that was due to take place the following weekend.

Guinean President Alpha Condé announced a “slight postponement” on Feb. 28 after concerns emerged days earlier over the integrity of the electoral rolls. The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, an international organization of French-speaking countries, said it found 2.49 million “problematic” names on the electoral register, which included dead people or those too young to vote. The African Union had recalled its observer team ahead of the polls.

It’s unlikely that the postponement will change the outcome unless foreign and regional powers demand a transparent vote free of government intimidation and meddling.

The concerns over the voter rolls were legitimate, as were general worries over the integrity of the vote, considering an opposition coalition was boycotting it and the violent lead-up and heavy security presence meant there were questions over whether it would be free and fair.

Although Condé is trying to extend his stay via the amendment under consideration, it’s beneficial for him if it appears to the outside world that due process was followed. It’s unlikely, however, that the postponement will change the eventual outcome unless foreign and regional powers demand a transparent vote free of government intimidation and meddling.

Condé has been in power since 2010, when he won Guinea’s first-ever free and fair elections. He won a second and final constitutionally allowed five-year term in 2015. But in 2019, Condé refused to rule out running for an unconstitutional third term in this year’s October polls. Last December, a referendum on a constitutional amendment was officially announced.

The revised constitution would still include term limits but would increase each term from five to six years. Crucially, Condé, 81, would be eligible to run under the new law. He’ll be 94 when he leaves office if things go according to plan.

Condé’s move is straight out of the playbook of undemocratic leaders seeking to extend their tenures by democratic means. Just recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed a plan in which he would become eligible to run for two more terms following a proposal by the lower house of parliament that restarts the clock on his candidacy, subject to an April referendum.

Changing the constitution is a tactic now increasingly employed in African countries where most institutions—parliament, the judiciary, and the electoral bodies—are weak and often serve at the pleasure of the president.

Civic groups, opposition parties, and ordinary citizens took to the streets of the Guinean capital Conakry to protest. They were met by emboldened security forces who fired tear gas, arrested hundreds of people, and reportedly killed at least 36 protesters, according to Human Rights Watch.

Guinea witnessed decades of authoritarian rule and military coups before the return of democracy in 2010, and, understandably, its citizens are not keen to return to those dark days. A 2017 survey found more than eight in 10 Guineans favored a two-term limit for the presidency, including 70 percent of those who supported Condé’s ruling party.

But it is unlikely the will of the people will be heeded, as Condé is expected to get his wish when the rescheduled referendum takes place. Vote-tampering could occur through voter intimidation, where people refuse to turn up due to a heavy security presence. And, according to an analyst, most of the problematic names on the rolls were found in regions where Condé already enjoys support.

If Condé does succeed, he will be following the worrying trend of increasing authoritarianism among West African leaders.

West Africa is regarded as having the most stable democracies on the continent, according to Freedom House, a think tank tracking democracy globally. But the group has raised concerns over a shrinking democratic space in the region, characterized by military crackdowns and a lack of press freedom.

If Condé succeeds in extending his term, he’ll be following in the footsteps of Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé, who secured a fourth term in office last month. The elections were marked by accusations of fraud by the opposition candidate Agbéyomé Kodjo, whose house was surrounded by military troops on Election Day.

Gnassingbé followed the now-familiar path to electoral success by first seeking a disputed constitutional amendment that put a cap on presidential term limits to two five-year terms. As is now customary from Moscow to Lomé, the new law restarted the clock, clearing Gnassingbé to run in last month’s vote and in 2025 should he choose to do so.

The electorate returned Gnassingbé to office with more than 70 percent of the tally, a figure that “strains credulity,” as one expert put it. Like Guineans, a vast majority of the Togolese population said in 2017 that they supported two-term limits and disapproved of Gnassingbé’s desire to run in the 2020 elections. It seems highly unlikely that a population who rejected their president in opinion polls would then vote for him overwhelmingly in such a way that he increased his vote tally to over 70 percent from just 59 percent in 2015.

On election day, the government deployed 10,000 soldiers—and it expelled observers from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute on Feb. 18, four days before the vote. The largest independent civil society organization in Togo was barred from observing the vote, and an influential former archbishop of Lomé was put under house arrest after calling the elections a fraud.

It’s hard to believe these recent elections are anything but a choreographed attempt to keep a dictator in power through a facade of democracy.

Given that there were massive street protests when the amendment was first proposed that led to at least 16 deaths and several injuries, it’s hard to believe these recent elections are anything but a choreographed attempt to keep a dictator in power through a facade of democracy. The Togolese government even completely shut down the internet during anti-government protests in 2017 and 2018, effectively silencing opposition groups given that protests are often organized on social media, especially WhatsApp, where the bulk of the population is active.

To make matters worse, Gnassingbé has been in power since 2005, when he replaced his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who himself ruled the country from 1967 until his sudden death. For a large number of people in the small West African country, they have only had a Gnassingbé as president. And if the current president stays in office until 2030, as many expect, his family would have ruled for 63 years.

In Ivory Coast, it appeared that President Alassane Ouattara was also set to test the limits of his country’s fragile democracy late last year when he signaled his intention to run for an unconstitutional third term. But if Condé and Gnassingbé cloaked their antidemocratic efforts as popular demands made by the voting public through referendums, Ouattara made no such pretensions. He was simply interested because his rivals, veterans of the country’s political scene, had designs on reclaiming power.

“I want everyone in my generation to step aside,” the 78-year-old Ouattara said at a rally last November. But “if they [former presidents Laurent Gbagbo, 74, and Henri Konan Bédié, 85] decide to be a candidate, then I will be a candidate.”

Ultimately Ouattara decided against running last week when he addressed lawmakers, citing his desire to hand over the helm. “I have decided not to be candidate in the Oct. 31 presidential election and to transfer power to a new generation,” he said earlier this month.

Yet even that declaration rings hollow considering that the former rebel leader Guillaume Soro—47, and decidedly of a new generation—is currently in hiding having declared his intention to contest. He is currently the subject of an international arrest warrant after the government said it had evidence he was planning on overthrowing it. Several of Soro’s allies have since been arrested.

Ouattara’s initial suggestion that he was going to run was especially shocking because he was a beneficiary of a working democracy when he rose to power in 2010. When he decisively defeated Gbagbo in that year’s elections, the then-incumbent refused to leave office and triggered widespread violence that killed more than 3,000 people and culminated in his trial at The Hague. It took a global clamor and an engaged citizenry for Ouattara to claim his rightful place.

Ouattara made the right call by backing down; running would have been hypocritical. This is what makes Condé’s heel turn in Guinea surprising and shameful. A longtime opposition leader, he was sentenced to death in absentia during the authoritarian rule of President Sékou Touré and only returned to the country in 1991, seven years after Touré’s death. A former proponent of democracy has now become a perpetrator of the worst excesses of authoritarianism.

What comes next for Guinea is unclear. Unless there’s a massive change of heart from Condé, which is highly unlikely, the referendum will take place on March 22.

The task of enforcing democratic rule falls on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), but there are few signs of an appetite to do so, although a delegation of leaders from neighboring countries plans to fly to Guinea next week. Guinea’s plight has largely gone under the radar beyond attention from the usual U.S.-based development experts and Africa specialists. And the African Union is historically weak on this issue and did nothing to ensure fairness until it pulled out its observers days before the polls.

ECOWAS can rightfully point to its successful effort to unseat Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh in 2017 after he initially refused to accept defeat to the little-known Adama Barrow in 2016. But the intervention only came after Jammeh ran roughshod over the country for 21 years, overseeing a period of corruption and gruesome human rights abuses.

There is also a strong case to be made that Jammeh was susceptible to military threats from ECOWAS, whose troops moved into Gambia and were poised to swoop into the presidential quarters if he refused to leave as agreed. He eventually left and is in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

As always, it is the people who bear the brunt of shrinking democratic spaces. Freedoms, real and imagined, are curtailed as economic inequality deepens. Internet shutdowns—a tool loved by autocrats—now harms citizens’ economic well-being, with so many businesses now reliant on the internet.

The onus is on the African Union and ECOWAS to prevail on these leaders to leave when their time is up. Although not ideal, a good way to get them to cede power would be to negotiate an exit strategy that frees them from possible prosecution when they leave office. Africa is hardly a priority of international organizations, and the Trump administration in the United States has no clearly defined policy regarding the continent beyond making up new countries and denigrating existing ones as “shithole” nations.

West Africa’s recent democratic progress is now under active threat and risks being lost to the selfish whims of autocratic leaders who should know better but have shown they will use every means necessary to cling to power. Donors, global powers, and regional neighbors must now come to the aid of engaged citizens in their quest to force these leaders out of office.

Aanu Adeoye is a Johannesburg-based Nigerian journalist covering politics, technology, and development in Africa. Twitter: @aanuadeoye

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