Saturday 12 July 2014     15 Ramadhan 1435
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Violent conflict and democratic regression in West Africa

Last week, I was in Niger Republic attending a workshop organised by the Centre for Democracy and Development marking the take off of a research project on a perspective study on the prospects for peace and political stability in West Africa over the next three years.

The research is focused on seven countries – Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali and Niger. The research sets out to identify key political, electoral and governance trends characterising the countries. To examine vulnerabilities that affects the state at the levels of the incidence of poverty, population dynamics and the youth bulge, ethnic and religious identities and citizenship. The intention is to use the analysis to carry out an assessment of emerging conflicts, if any, and to propose conflict prevention strategies that could be employed to address them. By looking at possible scenarios on the risk of violent conflict over the next three years, we hope to develop policy recommendations that could be used in conflict management and prevention strategies to avert negative outcomes.
It was a very depressing workshop because all the experts from the seven countries were of the view that their countries were already in a state of violent conflict or were heading there fast and the simple reason was that all over West Africa, incumbents were eroding democratic practices, engaged in mega corruption and were trying to manipulate state institutions to secure tenure elongation for themselves and their families.
It will be recalled that in March 2010, the ECOWAS Commission had organised an international conference on “Two Decades of Peace Processes in West Africa: Achievements, Failures, Lessons”. It was an opportunity to review substantial work done by the regional organisation in preventing violent conflict and restoring peace in countries that have had serious challenges in maintaining human security. The conference reviewed the process used to restore peace in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau and the prevention of war in many other states. The Conference concluded on the note that ECOWAS had succeeded in developing “home grown” strategies to prevent conflict and to respond to them where they cannot be prevented. The reality on the ground today is that the optimism expressed at that Conference has to be reviewed in the light of the current deterioration of the political situation in the region.
West Africa is vulnerable to violent conflicts because we have too many risk factors including high rates of poverty, a galloping demography and a youth bulge, growing unemployment, devastation of communities due to climate change and its impact on agriculture, increased levels of national and trans-border crime, especially trafficking (drugs and humans) and poor institutional and organizational capacity to respond to emergencies. As the Human Development Index (HDI) shows, West African States are characterised by poverty, underdevelopment and appalling economic conditions. Poverty is linked to political instability partly because it creates the conditions whereby politics is transformed into a vicious competition for scarce resources in which elite corruption, nepotism and rent seeking become the norm. West Africa contains 11 of the world’s 25 poorest countries and is currently one of the unstable regions of the world.
One can trace the trajectories of conflicts in West Africa from the early 1970s when the region’s economic crisis began. At that time, the global economy had experienced stress due to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and increases in commodity prices in addition to the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973/74. The impact of the crisis was particularly serious in West Africa where most countries lost control over their domestic economic situation and economic indicators went into free fall as a result of the sudden rocketing of national expenditure owing to increases in oil prices, short-falls in export receipts, and dwindling productivity. In their attempts to borrow from the Bretton Wood institutions, particularly the IMF and World Bank to make up for the resultant balance of payment deficits, many countries incurred crushing debts. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of some countries subsequently declined substantially. The average annual percentage growth rate of total GDP of West African countries dropped phenomenally from 2.2% between 1975 and 1980 to about 0.5% by 1985. Concurrently, total average annual population growth rate increased from 2.6% to about 2.8% in the same period.
Between 1989 and 1993, West African optimism grew as military regimes and single party regimes in West Africa were replaced by multi-party democracies. Human rights, multi-party systems and elections and the rule of law returned to the agenda for some time. Over the past decade however, most of the Presidents of West African countries have abused powers of incumbency to seek to prolong their rule and have thereby created fragilities within the political system. The Niamey workshop emphasised the following fragilities that are created the conditions for or amplifying violent conflict in the region.
The first is the attempts by sitting Presidents to change the Constitution so that they could continue to rule beyond the norm of two terms. The champion in this regard is Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso who has been in power for four years as deputy and 28 years as President and is this year seeking to create a Senate that he can use to once again change the Constitution so that he can rule for the rest of his life. In the process, he has created huge political fractures in the country that could lead to violent conflict over the next year. Constitutional and political manipulation by incumbents are also causing political crisis in Guinea and Benin while in Togo, the Constitution has already been amended to allow the young son of Eyadema to rule the country for the rest of his life, as his father did. Related to this is the growth of clannish and family rule and the ethno-regional re-composition of the armed forces to support ruling Presidents which has been the tradition in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Nigeria.
The most salient aspect of governance in West Africa is the phenomenal growth of mega-corruption. The transparency and accountability mechanisms introduced in the early 1990s have all been subverted in the region and kleptocracy is the order of the day. Ruling cabals in many countries such as Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Guinea and Guinea Bissau are not only looting massively from their respective state treasuries but are also linking up with criminal gangs and narco-traffickers thereby transforming their countries into narco-criminal states.
As the states degenerate in character, elections are becoming increasing manipulated and citizens are getting frustrated at the prospects of elections without real choices. As this happens, ethnic and religious differences become manipulated and magnified leading to the growth of violent conflicts and the emergence of insurgencies fuelled by religious extremists. The Azawad uprising and secession in Mali was not just a Malian problem but an indicator of an active attempt to challenge the current boundaries of West African states and create a new Caliphate in the West Sudan along new foundational principles. It’s a danger that could change the face of West Africa, as we know it today.
One insidious problem identified in Niamey is the impact of climate on nomadism and the active agency of rural violence in which Fulani nomads are increasing engaged in armed conflict with farming communities in Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana. When you add into this equation the systematic discrimination and marginalisation of the Fulani in Guinea, the only country where they are a majority of the population, the risk of generalised violent conflict around the “Fulani question” becomes very high.
The impact of these processes is the rapid growth of political violence and internally displaced persons in the region. Meanwhile, democracy is unable to play its role of promoting political stability as political parties are weak and opposition is divided. The most frightening problem according to participants is the refusal or inability of Nigeria to play its traditional role as a regional leader and as nature abhors a vacuum, France has stepped in as the regional leader with 6,000 troops deployed in Africa and having the capability for rapid mobility and deployment.