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West Africa's Democratic Progress is Slipping Away, Even as Region's Significance Grows

March 19, 2020

The 2019 elections in Nigeria were deeply troubled; the election commission postponed the first round of voting, and there were widespread irregularities during the vote. Credit: Commonwealth Secretariat via Flickr.

This article was first published on Just Security.

Rising authoritarianism is curtailing individual freedoms around the globe. But in an alarming development, the region that showed the fastest decline in political rights and civil liberties last year was West Africa, which had long been a driver of democratic gains.

In fact, over the last quarter century, no region in Africa has made more democratic progress. Generally open elections and regular leadership transitions were becoming close to the norm in West Africa. The reversal of this trend has stark implications.

Freedom House’s newly released Freedom in the World report, which we helped produce, provides striking evidence of the problem. Of the 12 countries with the largest year-on-year score declines around the world in 2019, no fewer than five are in West Africa—Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria. In Freedom House’s taxonomy of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries, Senegal and Benin fell from Free to Partly Free status, leaving Ghana and the island nation of Cabo Verde as the only Free countries in the region. Benin alone lost 13 points on the report’s 100-point scale, a remarkable drop for any democracy.

Throughout the region, flawed elections in 2019 took their toll. National- and state-level elections in Nigeria were deeply troubled; the election commission postponed the first round of voting hours before polls were to open, and the balloting that eventually took place featured widespread irregularities. Opposition parties in Benin were effectively excluded from competing in parliamentary elections, and an internet shutdown and violent state repression of protests further marred the lopsided vote. In Senegal, the two most prominent opposition politicians were barred from the presidential election due to criminal cases that were widely viewed as politically motivated.

In each of these instances, the problems were predictable. In 2018, there were politically motivated prosecutions in Benin, lawmakers made problematic changes to candidacy requirements in Senegal, and Nigeria’s president rejected multiple attempts at electoral reform. But the warning signs failed to spur corrective action.

Heavy-Handed – and Counterproductive — Responses to Extremism

Meanwhile, the expanding reach of armed extremist groups, especially in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, is sharply reducing physical security, free movement, freedom of expression, and access to government services. But heavy-handed responses by security forces have too often done just as much damage to individual freedoms, as authorities mete out collective punishment to groups perceived to be responsible for violence and use instability to justify antidemocratic legislation or regulation. The Nigerian government, for example, is pursuing social media legislation that would allow arrests for posting online content that is perceived to threaten national security.

Extremist groups are now creeping south from the Sahel toward coastal countries such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, raising concerns that excessive state responses there could similarly compound the problem.

Few regional heads of state are positioning themselves as defenders of democratic governance. Former presidents such as Olesegun Obasanjo in Nigeria or Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia were generally willing to defend democratic norms, and in the case of Nigeria, to deploy troops in West Africa to support the restoration of democratic governance. But today’s leaders seem more technocratic than visionary, and they tend to prioritize domestic economic agendas.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari evinces little interest in regional issues, even as his military battles Boko Haram militants who routinely cross national borders. The leaders of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire—Nana Akufo-Addo and Alassane Ouattara—come from economic and legal backgrounds, preside over fast-growing economies, and are seeking to accelerate adoption of a regional currency, but they have not articulated a parallel political agenda for the region.

For years the regional grouping known as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) outpaced other regional organizations in Africa in its support for democratic norms, coming close at one point to institutionalizing a two-term limit for all West African heads of state. But such an initiative is hard to imagine now, especially given that Nigeria, the regional heavyweight with great influence over ECOWAS, is increasingly consumed by internal challenges.

Potential for Worse in an Increasingly Important Region

Democratic norms may erode further in 2020. Already, Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé claimed victory in an election undermined by interference with election monitoring efforts, authorities' refusal to allow domestic election observers, and the blocking of some social media and messaging apps on election day, presumably at the government’s behest. Guinean President Alpha Condé, whose mandate ends in October, is seeking to modify the constitution to allow him to run for a third term despite substantial grassroots resistance. Gambia, where ECOWAS intervened in 2017 to enforce voters’ ouster of a longtime dictator, risks losing some of its hard-won progress as President Adama Barrow drops his previous commitment to serve only three years as a transitional leader. In an encouraging development in Côte d’Ivoire, President Ouattara, after months of flirting with a third-term bid, recently announced that he will not contest elections later this year.

The fundamental rights of West Africa’s nearly 400 million people are in jeopardy at a time when the geopolitical significance of the region is growing. Europe, recognizing West Africa as a major source of migration, has sought to bolster job creation in migrants’ home countries. Current U.S. policy is focused on great power competition with China and Russia, and emphasizes economic partnerships through the Prosper Africa initiative. Post-Brexit Britain is rushing to solidify trade relations with Africa, including through a recent gathering of African heads of state in London.

But time and again, undemocratic partners have proven to be unreliable partners, and West Africa is unlikely to be different. Repressive, corrupt, and unresponsive governments foster the economic and security conditions that drive migration and allow extremist groups to flourish. Such governments are also more receptive to opaque deal-making with authoritarian powers, and as seen in other parts of the world, they tend to mimic and create cover for one another’s abuses.

Failure by the United States, European nations, and other external partners to match their economic and security priorities with robust support for democratic governance and individual freedoms, through diplomatic efforts as well as partnerships at the grassroots level, is ultimately shortsighted.

Written by Jon Temin, Director, Freedom House, Africa Programs and photograph of Isabel Linzer, Freedom House, Research Associate.

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