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West Africa's institutions must stand with their people

West Africa's institutions must stand with their people
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Liberians have seen it all during the past two decades: dictators and warlords, civil war and regional conflict, 250,000 dead, more than a million refugees, a generation of children left uneducated and an economy shattered. Then came stabilization brought about by regional and international peacekeepers, followed by the election of the first woman to lead an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and 15 years of peace and economic growth. (Full disclosure: I worked as a political consultant to Sirleaf when she was first a candidate and then for the government of Liberia from 2005 to 2017.)

More recently, in January 2018, Liberia witnessed the first peaceful presidential transition of power in 75 years, when Sirleaf stepped aside, and George Weah was sworn in as president.

It’s precisely this tortured and triumphant history that makes Liberians so vocal about the threats now on the horizon to West Africa’s consolidation of democracy. These include a military coup d'état in Mali which, if it stands, will override its constitutional democracy, and civil unrest in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea, prompted by incumbent presidents who have bent their constitutions to allow them third terms in office

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Across Liberia’s social media, including diaspora, the debate is passionate about Mali, where Liberians argue there is no justification for a military coup and that it is the electoral process — not guns — that must be used to rid the country of a corrupt regime. They also warn against taking celebration in the streets as a measure of popular support for the military action. 

Liberia’s leading daily, Front Page Africa, suggests that the Guinea president Alpha Condé, and Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, are putting the region in jeopardy as scores take to the streets to protest what is perceived to be a subversion of democratic checks and balances.

Liberians have placed their bet on democracy. And they are not alone: It’s a collective opinion across the continent, driven by an energetic, talented, and impatient youth.

It’s about time that African leaders — and their representative institutions — aligned. 

In Mali, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was overthrown by his military earlier this month. Keita took office in September 2013 promising to unify the country and defeat the Islamist insurgency and won a second term in 2018, but his government failed to deliver, beset by corruption and nepotism. Local elections held earlier this year, which were expected to deliver an opposition victory, were rigged, triggering civil unrest and protests.

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In the midst of a global pandemic, the Mali military seized on the discontent, and Col. Assimi Goita, 37 years old and U.S. trained, presented himself as leader of the new military junta. 

In Guinea, 82-year-old Alpha Condé is running for a third term, taking advantage of a new constitution to circumvent term limits. The constitutional change was rammed through in a referendum in March that was boycotted by the opposition. Since that time, protests have left more than 30 dead. The elections are scheduled for Oct. 18, 2020.

In Côte d'Ivoire, a widely celebrated decision by 78-year-old President Alassane Ouattara to step aside after two successful terms in office was derailed when his party’s presidential candidate unexpectedly died. Without a Plan B, Ouattara cited a constitutional loophole and announced his intention to again run for the presidency. Like in Guinea, there is wide-spread opposition, leaving several dead and dozens injured in clashes with security forces. The rating agency Fitch, which previously showcased the country’s potential, has since downgraded its prospects over what is anticipated to be a disputed electoral process. Elections are scheduled for Oct. 31, 2020

Responsibility for seeking resolution in Mali, and for any deliberations in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, falls on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), collectively representing some 380 million citizens.

There are other global players of influence, including France and the United States, with its security commitment to Mali and the Sahel, and the western democracies who are vested in the future of a continent bound together by trade through the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement.

But it will be African leadership that matters, as it did three years ago in the Gambia, when a  constitutional crisis prompted by an incumbent president unwilling to accept electoral defeat ended peacefully, in no small part because of the regional diplomacy led by ECOWAS.

Failure to stand on these same principles today could have long-term consequences for the organization’s integrity and the credibility of other African institutions, including the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the East African Community.

As the ECOWAS mission, led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, continues its shuttle diplomacy in Mali and contemplates the implications of erasing term limits, it needs to take into consideration African sentiment.

Conveniently, this outlook has been captured by Afrobarometer, which reports that 75 percent of Malians express strong support for democratic institutions and practices — and that 78 percent of Ivorians and 82 percent of the people of Guinea support constitutional term limits for their presidents.

Empowered by data, and informed by trends, ECOWAS must seek to get ahead of a crisis and avoid expedient fixes at the price of long-term stability.

Dr. Abdoulaye Dukule, the Liberian Coordinator of the West Africa Center, suggests that the coup in Mali might have been averted if ECOWAS had pushed President Keita to cancel the fraudulent elections, permitting the ballot box to be the outlet for legitimate grievances.

Dukule, like many others, believes that the degradation of democratic institutions and norms is the greatest threat to stability in West Africa, and he sees little light of day between Mali’s military takeover and constitutional coups in Guinea and Ivory Coast. 

ECOWAS — the ball is in your court, and African popular opinion is on your side.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson