Monday Philips Ekpe writes that West African leaders should prioritise the wishes of their people as an armour against discontent and rebellion
The hottest political news out of West Africa today is the travail of democracy and the threat of its redefinition, if not outright overthrow. Like whirlwind, military coups have in recent times successfully elbowed democratically elected governments in Mali, Guinea Conakry, Burkina Faso, Chad and the latest epicentre, Republic of Niger. In a familiar move, General Abdourahmane Tchiani led some other Nigerien soldiers to sack the government of President Mohamed Bazoum last month and have been holding the reins of power in Niamey since then.
The shades of the external reactions to the coup haven’t been unexpected, really. United States of America, France and the rest of the western world have condemned it in strongest terms. Even though the coup has no explicit support from Russia, the body language of Vladimir Putin’s country speaks volumes: it’s not about to echo the chorus coming from the self-appointed guardian angels of democracy. Moscow’s rascally mercenary organisation, Wagner group, has been less disguising in its endorsement of the Bazoum ouster. It is the display of this ideological difference, the same which has been on demonstration in the war between Russia and Ukraine, that validates the fears that a proxy war could well be brewing in a subregion with a track-record of lack and deprivation.
That China has not responded significantly to this troubling adventure may have resulted from her grasp of its own foreign policy priorities. One shouldn’t deny it that right. Oftentimes, most African nations are quick to cry to the international community for help in times of crises with little or nothing to show for it and have, in the process, compromised the very essence of the hard-won independence handed to them by their visionary leaders. Rather than rising to the occasion by putting their houses in order and acting responsibly, these countries have taken a mediocre, beggarly route and ended up on the lowest rung of global productivity and prestige. There’s no better action that exemplifies this sorry status than the position taken so far by the apex continental body, the African Union (AU), which only suspended Niger last Tuesday long after Tchiani displaced Bazoum. The AU has simply aligned itself with the stance of much of the rest of the world (not a bad thing to do, by the way) and endorsed the decisions and moves made by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On a good day, AU’s involvement ought to be more profound and engaging than these tokens.
Challenged by this common but stubborn phenomenon of military incursion into politics, West Africa is now expected to save itself from itself. It’s doubtful if there’s any other part of our planet that has witnessed more attempted or successful toppling of governments. When the practice started in the 1960s, the media called it military “intervention” in government largely because of the pervasive disillusionment triggered by the political elites who succeeded the colonialists. But that has since changed to “interference” as it didn’t even take long for the soldiers to expose their own inadequacies. Virtually every country that has tasted military administration must have also watched the contradictions of politicians in mufti and uniform at play. Why pretend to be saviours when in many cases they’re worse than those they unseat? Where is the real source of political power – bullet or ballot?
Hurriedly providing these answers which may appear obvious could actually be a part of the problem of understanding and possibly finding solutions to the resurgence of militarism in the region’s politics. But instead of allowing itself to be intimidated by a look on the map that has identified West Africa as a growing militarised zone, ECOWAS, a body primarily concerned with the economic fortunes of its members, should be more introspective in this matter. So much has happened since July 26 when Tchiani and Co. struck. The heads of governments of the countries (excluding those governed by juntas), led by its Chairman, Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, have taken a rough road against the Nigerien adventurers and have put a number of hard cards on the table including the use of force to get the adventurers in Niamey out of office.
It’s noteworthy however that, righteous as it seems, the threat of using an ECOWAS military command against Niamey has had more condemnations than commendations. Also, the Nigerien populace in whose interest the Commission is supposed to be acting have not only welcomed their gun-wielding ‘messiahs’ with wide-open hands but have made it clear, if the numerous media materials coming out of that nation is to be believed, that they’re ready to defend Tchiani’s gunpoint ‘mandate’ and give it their own version of moral legitimacy. These twin riddles may not be easy to unravel because the world should move away from the periods in history when people sat around tables in Europe to determine the geo-political fate of Africa and elsewhere. Put differently, what the majority of Nigeriens think about how they choose their leaders should be taken into consideration and respected by the rest of mankind, the reality of the world being a global village notwithstanding. Their convictions and sensibilities must come first, at least. Like the resolve to be free from their modern-day slave masters in Paris.
Never mind, the current tides could take other turns with time. The renegade West African states like Mali and Burkina Faso that have sworn to fight on the part of the Nigerien authorities and which have reportedly put their air power in combat-readiness for that purpose can shift their allegiance somewhere down the line. Reports from Niger indicate that the impact of the restrictions imposed on it by ECOWAS and some other countries is drastic and has no signs of abating soon. That means the present popular euphoria on the streets of Niger can even prove to be an infatuation. How long can Tchiani and his fellow travellers keep the honeymoon going? The soldiers may not have been oblivious of these possible twists in the tale they relish at the moment, scenarios that may have informed their willingness, albeit delayed, to negotiate with the Community. The announced plan to prosecute Bazoum for treason may be a grandstanding, a bargaining chip. And what is being projected as their sincerity for declaring a three-year transition to democratic rule may soon be up in smoke. Whichever way the precarious situation plays out, President Tinubu and his colleagues are clearly confronted with tough options for which the right lessons are also begging to be learnt.
Ordinarily, the rationale for democracy shouldn’t be in doubt. A representative government is that in which the choices and voices of the people are adequately conveyed through persons chosen to stand in for thousands or millions of citizens who can’t participate directly. What other system can be better than that? Monarchy? That’s an oppression by those with the proverbial blue blood. Autocracy? Of course, vesting total authority in only one or few individuals with all the flaws and risks that are inherent in absolutism is simply crazy. Military, then? Certainly not! For, gangsterism, banditry and armed robbery are only the less fancied crimes of the same root as any uniformed person shooting his way into a country’s top job.
Democracy is, therefore, literally incomparable. That’s mainly on paper in many parts of the world, unfortunately. West African leaders especially need to reflect on and promote true democratic virtues – sanctity of the vote, transparency and accountability, human dignity, satisfaction of the majority, wellbeing of the citizenry – all of which are scarce here. That would be a path to true statesmanship.
Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board