By Bola A. Akinterinwa
At the 57th Ordinary Session of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government, held on Tuesday, September 8, 2020 at the Mahatma Gandhi International Conference Centre, Niamey, Republic of Niger, Nigeria’s leader, President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB), made an important and thought-provoking speech in which he raised some critical issues bordering on constitution-driven good governance and self-succession. The speech is commendable because it has a presidential flavour, strategic focus, and an objectivity of purpose, even though it is presented as if PMB is an extra-African president, rather than as an African or a Nigerian president. This is one area of the speech that I have qualms with. The rest of the speech is quite befitting of Nigeria as a leader in Africa, in general, and West Africa, in particular.
President Buhari, for instance, referred to West Africa or the ECOWAS region as a sub-region in his speech many times, and, by so doing, made whatever he was saying to be subjected to misinterpretation and unnecessary misunderstanding. As made known by his Senior Special Assistant, Malam Garba Shehu, PMB has it that, ‘as it is, the challenges facing the sub-region are enormous: from socio-economic matters to security issues, the ECOWAS sub-region cannot therefore afford another political crisis, in the guise of tenure elongation.’
On ECOWAS sub-region, which of the sub-region does the President have in mind? In the eyes of the United Nations, the whole continent of Africa constitutes a region. Africa is one of the regions of the world. In order to fast track continental integration in Africa, the 1991 Abuja Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community (AEC) divides Africa into five distinct regions in its Article 1(d). The Article says a ‘region shall mean an OAU region as defined by Resolution CM/Res.464QCXVI of the OAU Council of Ministers concerning the division of Africa into five (5) regions, namely North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa.’
Additionally, as provided in Article 1(e) of the same AEC treaty, a ‘sub-region shall mean at least three (3) States of one or more regions as defined in paragraph 1(d) of this Article.’ This is one major reason why the quest of Morocco to leave its Maghrebin North African region to join the ECOWAS in the West African region is most ridiculous. This is also an important reason why PMB must be very clear in his mind what a sub-region means.
Without any whiff of doubt, it is very wrong for any President of Nigeria or any Minister acting on his behalf, to refer to West Africa as a sub-region, because Africa is the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy. This requires giving priority attention to whatever is African in character. If the then OAU leaders wanted to promote continental integration by redefining the UN conception of a region, why should any government official in Africa be still using and promoting the UN definition of a region in Africa? This is nothing more than working directly against African development. African leaders ought to put on the African toga whenever they speak in Africa and elsewhere to reflect the African authenticity.
Truths about Tenure Elongation
The first critical issue raised by PMB is hostility to elongation of tenure of West African leaders, contrary to constitutional provisions. As he put it, ‘I urge us all to resist the temptation of seeking to perpetuate ourselves in power beyond the constitutional provisions. I commend those in our midst that have resisted such temptations, for they will be deemed exceptional role models in their respective countries and the sub-region as a whole.’ This advice, as good as it may be, is not quite reflective of the whole truth about tenure elongation in the political governance of Africa. Besides, if the Constitution is the only determinant of presidential tenure, what about the temptation to amend the Constitution for selfish purposes and particularly for unlimited tenure in office?
For instance, PMB is talking about ‘temptation of seeking to perpetuate ourselves…’ He also commended those who have resisted the temptation. How do we explain and understand temptation in this case? One truth is PMB’s silence over the incumbent sit-tight leaders in Africa. Another truth is that the dynamics of tenure elongation vary from one country to the other in Africa, to the extent that many African leaders have become role models, while tenure elongation has also become a reference point. In other words, the problem goes beyond individual level of temptation to elongate tenure.
In the Côte d’Ivoire, for example, Felix Houphouet-Boigny was President for 33 years as at the time he died. This made him the longest-serving president in the world by then. How do we explain his frequent re-election? One reason may be one party system at a point in time. Another might be the complicity of the people. French interest was also another issue.
In Togo, Gnassingbé Eyadéma led the country for 38 years and died in office. His son, Faure Gnassingbe, who was Minister of Equipment, Mines, Posts and Telecommunications from 2003 to 2005, was elected to succeed his father. First, why must he succeed his father? Is the political system that of a monarchy? Second, the 2005 elections in the country were fraught with critical allegations of fraud and violent protests. Yet, Faure Gnassingbe was re-elected for the third time because all efforts made by the opposition to limit presidential tenure to only two terms failed. In this case, if tenure elongation is to be thrown into the garbage of history, the effort should be at the level of how to enhance the people’s resistance in making any constitutional amendment on tenure elongation difficult, if not, impossible.
In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was re-elected for the fourth time in 2014 (1999, 2004 and 2009). He was 80 years old. He suffered a stroke in 2013 and, therefore, was partly incapacitated to act effectively as President. In fact, he was no longer able to participate in public functions. With this development, why was he still elected?
In Chad, President Idris Derby took power by coup in 1990. He civilianised himself and was re-elected for the fifth time in April 2016. All the re-election results were always contested but the contestation has always been to no avail. What about Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia? He was defeated in the December 2016 presidential election but he vehemently refused to step down. It took the intervention of the ECOWAS, which threatened military invasion, to remove him from office, before President Jammeh accepted to go on exile.
The third term tenure of President Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi is quite interesting and different. He was elected in 2005 by the parliament but re-elected on the basis of universal suffrage in 2010. Even though the Constitution of Burundi provides for only two terms of five years each, President Nkurunziza re-contested in 2015 and the opposition boycotted the election in the belief that the president could not contest contrary to the constitutional provisions. However, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of President Nkunrunziza on the basis that his first term in office could not count since he was elected by parliamentarians and not by the general electorate.
The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), unlike in Burundi, clearly and generally reflects how African leaders behave concerning tenure elongation. When President Laurent-Désiré Kabila was killed in 2001, his son, Joseph Kabila, was appointed to succeed him ten days after. He was eventually elected and re-elected. At the end of his two-term constitutional tenure in December, 2017 he simply refused to step down, arguing that there were no funds for the election and that he would want to stay until December 2018 to compensate for the delays in the voter registration.
Let us put the foregoing analyses interrogatively: Yoweri Museveni of Uganda was elected president in 1986 and had five presidential terms. Why was the Constitution of the country amended to allow him elongate his tenure? In Angola, Jose Eduardo dos Santos succeeded President Agostinho Neto when he died in 1979. Following the peace deal signed with the main opposition, UNITA, its leader, Jonas Savimbi, took part in the first round of the 1992 presidential elections but lost to Eduardo dos Santos. Jonas Savimbi contested to no avail the result and opted to resume his guerrilla warfare. The United States was then supporting Jonas Savimbi. The former Soviet Union was giving support to Eduardo dos Santos. Why was this so? Tenure elongation cannot but be understood within the context of these factors of global competition.
Perhaps more interestingly, not seeking to perpetuate oneself in power cannot but begin with the non-tampering with the national Constitution. The moment the Constitution is amended, reviewed, modified, etc, and tenure elongation or life presidency is legalised, no one can have the right of complaint. The foregoing history of tenure elongation in African politics shows a general character of love for power, use of power to retain power and accumulate not only wealth, but also to control and ensure self-preservation.
Robert Mugabe, who was leader of Zimbabwe for more than three decades, was quoted as follows: ‘African Education System has surprising outcomes. The smartest students pass with First Class and get admission to medical and engineering schools. The Second Class students get MBAs and LLBs to manage the First Class students. The Third Class students enter into politics, and rule both the First and Second Class students. The failures join the Army and control politicians, who, if they are not happy with, they kick or kill them… Best of all, those who did not attend any school, become prophets and which doctors, and everybody follows…’ The import of this quotation goes beyond its ordinary meaning or a sarcasm, but clearly shows the nature and challenges of political governance in Africa: putting round pegs in square holes.
Apart from the issue of tenure elongation raised by PMB, he also advised on ‘the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections,’ because ‘this must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.’ This is an ideal that PMB cannot be said to strongly believe in. The recent Local Government elections in Ondo State lent credence to non-free, unfair and non-credible election. In many polling stations, no election took place. Election day was really the day for thuggery. PMB’s advice was, therefore, nothing more than preaching ‘what I say, but not what I do,’ to borrow the words of Sir Victor Uwaifo.
Other critical issues raised by PMB are the saga in Mali, terrorism in the Sahel, the questions of ‘African solutions to African problems’ and regional single currency. He did not forget to also raise the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic. These issues can be generally addressed within the context of the renewed rivalry between and among the Anglophone and Francophone countries in the main, and between them and the Lusophones and Arabophones, in general.
The Truism of Francophone-Nigerian Rivalry
Development in the West African region has been largely slowed down since the time of time of general independence of African countries in the 1960s. One major rationale has been the cold war between the Anglophones and the Francophone, minus the Republic of Guinea which has been sharing more regional values with the Anglophones than with the Francophone counterparts.
And true enough, the Francophone began regional integration efforts before the Nigeria-Togo-initiated ECOWAS in 1975. It should be recalled here that the Francophone had the CEAO (Communauté Economique de lÁfrique de l’Ouest, that is, West African Economic Community), membership of which was exclusively reserved for the Francophone. When the ECOWAS was established in May 1975, membership was open to all the 16 countries in the then sub-region. Membership included Mauritania by then. The rivalry between the ECOWAS and the CEAO was also much by then.
This situation was not helped by the mutual suspicions that characterised the bilateral ties between Nigeria and France, which had a protectionist policy vis-à-vis Francophone Africa. France was not ready to allow Nigeria to have an influential foothold in the Francophone world to its own detriment. In the same vein, Nigeria, surrounded territorially by Francophone neighbours, does not want the use by France of the Francophone neighbours against her foreign policy interest. The mutual suspicions have always been reflected in state behaviours within the ECOWAS. Several examples abound to illustrate this point.
First, there was the time Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, then Foreign Minister of Nigeria, was sent to Mali to mediate the crisis in the country. The mediation was rejected. The crisis was considered as an internal matter. Secondly, the Francophone gave active support to Morocco’s membership of the ECOWAS but this is not true of the Anglophones. The matter is still pending. The hands of France are believed to be in all the efforts. The internal division in the ECOWAS is a resultant from the consideration that Morocco could not but be a new gateway for the influx or dumping of European products contrary to the ECOWAS Rules of Origin. Thirdly, and related to the foregoing, only Nigeria and The Gambia are on record not to have ratified the Economic Partnership Agreement between the ECOWAS and the European Union. The agreement is yet to enter into force simply because and mainly because Nigeria is the targeted market.
Consequently, the advice by PMB to his ECOWAS counterparts on tenure elongation is good but is most likely to fall on deaf ears, not because the advice does not have a Solomonic-wisdom content, but because it is a Nigerian initiative. Besides, the advice has very little relevance to Nigeria’s foreign policy challenge, particularly in the West African region. The challenge is deep-seated. It is a triangular conflict of interests involving the European Union, France, Francophone Africa, and Nigeria. It is the France-European Union relationship axis that is relevant to us in this column.
The genesis of the relationship is traceable to the March 25 Rome Treaty which established the European Economic Community (EEC) of Six. Articles 131-136 of the Treaty specifically enabled the Associate Membership of France’s former colonies of the EEC. Nigeria made strenuous efforts to also join as an Associate Member in the early 1960s but France frustrated the efforts in 1966 by refusing to sign the required agreement. Five countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and Germany) voted in favour of Nigeria’s accession to the Rome Treaty as an Associate Member, but with the refusal of France, the fulfilment of the requirement of the rule of unanimity could not be met. This would lead to re-negotiation of a special agreement with the then EEC.
It was on the basis of the Associate Membership status of the French former colonies that the CFA franc had to be tied to the European currency through France. This preliminary point is necessary in understanding Nigeria’s position on the question of the ECOWAS ”ECO”.
As explained by PMB in his statement, ‘Nigeria remains committed to the implementation of the Action Plan towards the actualisation of the monetary union and single currency programme of ECOWAS.’ PMB therefore also wants other Member States ‘to show support to the resolution of the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS on this matter.’
More important, PMB had it that ‘the premature adoption of the ”ECO” has unnecessarily heightened disaffection and mistrust among members of the emerging monetary union,’ and therefore wanted the UEMOA (Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest-Africaine, that is, West African Economic and Monetary Union), not only to return to the roadmap on the common currency in the sub-region, but also to ‘bear in mind that those economic convergence criteria must be based on sound and sustainable macroeconomic fundamentals.’
In this regard, PMB is asking for the delinking of the CFA franc of the UEMOA from the Euro, reserve pooling, design of the exchange rate mechanism, stabilisation fund, policy harmonisation, etc. With the various efforts being made by France to survive within the EU, it cannot but take a longer time before the special or preferential relationship between France and Francophone Africa can be done away it. It is visibly for the purpose of sustaining the preferential relationship that the Francophone countries have consciously and quickly adopted ECO, a name already reserved for the ECOWAS currency. Consequently, for as long as French interests in Francophone West Africa are not threatened by Nigeria, any advice from Nigeria’s PMB can be considered for possible acceptance. If France supports Alassane Ouattara in amending the Ivoirian Constitution to enable him have a third term, there is very little the ECOWAS can do, not to mention PMB’s advice. The truth remains that there is a Cold War within the ECOWAS which has not been helpful to regional integration. In this case, how good is the argument of ‘African solutions to African problems’? And which way forward?