West Africa has a reputation as one of the continent’s most democratic regions, but this is at risk of slipping, and crises such as the coronavirus pandemic create an enabling environment for democratic erosion. Over the past two years, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara has engaged in domestic political brinkmanship that has opened the door for regional democratic breakdown, even though he rules out running for a third term.
Ouattara announced on March 5 — after vacillating for almost two years — that he would not run for a third term in the country’s upcoming October elections. Ouattara, Côte d’Ivoire’s president since 2010, floated the possibility of a third term in June 2018, musing that the two-term limit in the country’s 2016 Constitution did not apply to him.
Indeed, he appeared to be leading Côte d’Ivoire down the well-trodden path of an elected ruler deciding he likes being in power and amending the Constitution to stay there. Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky have termed such politicians “would-be authoritarians”. Ouattara’s suggestion that Côte d’Ivoire’s Constitution must be made “more coherent” encapsulates the authors’ claim that democracies tend to die “more with a whimper than a bang”. Ultimately, last month Ouattara announced he would not stand again, retreating from the brink.
The decision not to run is critical for the future of democracy in Côte d’Ivoire and West Africa generally. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) praised the decision as a “real step forward for respect for term limits in Africa”. It comes at a crucial moment for the region, as analysts warn that the democratic reputation of Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) is in a precarious position.
In March, President Alpha Condé of Guinea rammed through a dubious constitutional amendment with an implausible 92% of votes, permitting him to run for a third term, despite months of civil unrest protesting the matter. A month earlier, Togo’s President, Fauré Gnassingbé, ejected election observers as he cemented his grip on his fourth presidential term amid accusations of ballot-box stuffing. In Benin — a longtime democratic stronghold — President Patrice Talon has threatened political rivals with jail terms. And in The Gambia, President Adama Barrow’s decision to renege on his promise to stand down after his first term threatens the country’s fragile transition process after the removal of longtime strongman Yahya Jammeh in 2017. Meanwhile, jihadist conflicts across the Sahel and Nigeria have prompted severe crackdowns by state security forces, encroaching on civil and political rights.
The next 12 months are crucial for democracy in West Africa: six Ecowas countries have elections. The Covid-19 pandemic offers would-be autocrats with opportunities to seize more power. Bans on public gatherings mean that protest movements — a decade-long fixture of African politics — will need to adapt or evolve. The pandemic provides a perfect opportunity for the spread of misinformation, undermining trust in institutions. If elections are not postponed, fears of community spread can depress voter turnout, skewing the results. Furthermore, savvy political operators could take advantage of the fact that the attention of the international community is focused elsewhere. So, the coronavirus pandemic, although it is not a root cause, provides an enabling environment that may accelerate democratic backsliding.
Lack of leadership
Political scientist Seva Gunitsky suggests anti-democratic waves are a transnational phenomenon, and regional democratic consolidation has never been strong enough to immunise West Africa from democratic collapse. Had Ouattara decided to run for a third term, it would have been a body-blow to Ecowas’s democratic credentials. Nevertheless, his decision not to commit earlier to not run for a third term, as Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou did in 2017 and Nigerian President Muhammudu Buhari did earlier this year, reveals a lack of leadership.
Ouattara’s understanding of his role within the region is important and remarkable. In a recent interview, Ouattara noted that he did not “think about another country or another head of state”, when asked about the effects of his decision not to run within the West African region.
This jives with his flippant comment last November. When asked his opinion on Condé’s attempt to alter the Guinean Constitution and run for a third term, Ouattara merely uttered, “Ask a Guinean,” knowing full-well what this was signaling to his counterpart in Conakry.
Ouattara would likely explain that his comments speak to the priority of Ivorian concerns in his agenda, and that he was avoiding meddling in Guinea’s domestic politics. However, his decision to vocalise the possibility of a third term as far back as 2018, his suggestion that his country’s Constitution needed modifications, and his refusal to criticise Condé’s machinations in Guinea, have all helped to undermine the region’s democratic foundations, as well as the fragile democratic norms in his own country.
When asked about his actions, Ouattara implied they were part of a strategy to box-out former presidents Laurent Gbagbo and Henri Konan Bédié, who recently joined forces, as well as Guillaume Soro. In fairness to Ouattara, neither Gbagbo nor Bédié are inspiring candidates: Gbagbo was recently acquitted of war crimes, and Bédié, who is 85 years old, announced that his 2010 presidential run would be his last. The other candidate, Soro, has had a career as a rebel leader and left his mark on regional politics by playing a role in the 2015 Burkinabé coup. Ouattara’s government accused him of attempting a coup last December.
And so, Ouattara’s intuition that none of these men would make a good president may not be entirely baseless. Nevertheless, his underhanded tactics to ensure none become Côte d’Ivoire’s next president may very well jeopardise the entire region’s political future.
The political climate in West Africa is ripe for would-be autocrats to push through anti-democratic agendas. As the novel coronavirus spreads across the region, political entrepreneurs skeptical of democracy may be emboldened to take advantage of the confusion. In late March — amid a curfew — Mali held parliamentary elections, even though an opposition leader had been kidnapped by violent extremists. The weekend prior, Condé pushed through his constitutional reform referendum in Guinea amid the country’s first cases of the virus. And, though Ouattara alone is not responsible for these developments, he must accept some share of the blame as West Africa’s democratic bona fides are increasingly strained.
Louis Metcalfe is based in Washington DC where he works in democracy, governance and countering violent extremism, with a focus on West Africa. Metcalfe is a member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa policy accelerator.