“In the world, democracy often came after the construction of the state”

Interview with Gilles Olakounlé Yabi, economist and political analyst. He is the founder of the West African Citizen Think Tank, Wathi (www.wathi.org). Commentary on the future of democracy in French-speaking Africa.

RFI: What is your assessment of the state of democracy in Africa in 2020??

Gilles Yabi: Difficult to answer this question without first remembering the diversity of the continent. This diversity has profound implications for the assessment that can be made of the state of democracy in Africa. Political developments have differed from one region on the continent to another and from country to country within the same region. Each African country has its own particular political history with progress at given times in terms of democracy and freedoms, but also with setbacks. In Africa, we are in the cumbersome construction of political systems that are democratic and stable.

This construction has only just begun if one places oneself within the framework of states within their present borders, states whose political forms have been largely influenced by the conditions of colonization and by those of decolonization. It’s part of the continent’s recent history.

These differentiated political developments, which you mention, are particularly obvious when we compare Central Africa with other regional areas. How are these differences explained??

Central Africa suffers, perhaps more than the other regions, from the curse of its resources, especially oil. This had important political and geopolitical implications from colonial times. The selection of political leaders at the time of independence and immediately after in these countries has been crucial to their political trajectory until then. It was not the elites who seemed to be the most virtuous and most nationalistic who imposed themselves. Clientelism, the seizure of public resources from the power clans, which also benefit from external support, precisely because of the mainly exported natural resources, prevented democracy from beginning to settle there.

The approximately ten countries in this region are particularly rich in natural resources, but they are all politically frozen with presidents who have been in place for decades at the helm. This is particularly the case with Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Congo, which oppose real democratization and lasting openness to freedoms.

There have even been setbacks in this area. On the other hand, there has been a real democratization in West Africa since the early 1990s, which has affected the majority of the countries in the region and which has at least enabled the peoples to benefit from freedom of expression and the opportunity to participate in the election of their leaders.

It is also important to emphasize that this democratization agenda in West Africa was supported at the turn of the year 2000 by the regional organization, ECOWAS.

Benin and Senegal have long been at the forefront of African democracies. But this good reputation is tarnished today: for Benin by authoritarian abuses of the regime and in Senegal by the courts invalidating the candidacies of Macky Sall’s competitors before the 2019 presidential election. What is happening in these two countries?

It was in Cotonou that the national conferences were inaugurated in the early 1990s, paving the way for democratization, especially in French-speaking Africa. Benin was then a pioneer in the organization of multi-party elections, which resulted in genuine change.

This country has also set up institutions that have played their role of control and balance. I am thinking in particular of the Beninese Constitutional Court, which quickly established itself in its first years of existence as an important institution of political regulation, with the power to overthrow the decisions of the head of state if necessary. In my opinion, Benin has fallen asleep on his laurels.

We should have gone further and consolidated young democracy by encouraging citizen participation through public debates on issues of national interest and by promoting ethics in political and administrative practice. By delaying this work of consolidating democracy, we have allowed an illegible political system to settle, undermined by corruption and ultimately unproductive in terms of economic and social progress.

The current situation is characterized by a hyperpower from the executive that controls all the other institutions, and by a discourse that consists in fine in proposing “less democracy and freedoms” to “more economic development”.

In Senegal, it seems that the image of a stable democracy is still preserved, although today there is much criticism of President Macky Sall’s political and economic governance and many questions about his presumed will, but never expressed, to serve a third term.

Senegal remains vulnerable to democratic setbacks, as elsewhere, in the absence of a profound change in the relationship between the ruler and those in power. Guard and organizational capacity of citizens dealing with issues of democracy and the rule of law played an important role in preserving the democratic image of the country when President Abdoulaye Wade took office to be a candidate for a third and was eventually beaten by the votes.

The election process that led to the re-election of Macky Sall in 2019 has been described by observers as “available“,”transparent“, but D ‘”odd“. How these choices were unfair?

It is always inappropriate to judge the quality of an election simply on the basis of what happened on polling day and on the clarity or ambiguity of the results that came out of the polls. The selection process begins well in advance.

The criticism leveled at the re-election of Macky Sall concerned the disqualification of Senegalese courts by candidates who were considered the most dangerous for the president. The voting and counting of the ballot papers took place in a way that was difficult to dispute.

But it is clear that the political conditions at the election could be challenged. Although the principle of sponsorship introduced in the electoral process is not necessarily anti-democratic, it should only be applied in ways that are transparent and perceived as such by all political actors.

In the absence of confidence in the independence of the institutions responsible for verifying sponsorship, such a modality – very popular in the region – risks being used as a subtle means of excluding cumbersome candidates.

What lessons can we learn from the events in Mali about the progress or decline of democracy in Africa??

The coup in Mali is, of course, a failure of democracy in Mali, but it is above all another indicator of the bankruptcy of the Malian state. It would be unwise to learn from the coup in Mali for democracy in Africa. Mali has been a land of war in deep crisis for years. The 2020 coup after 2012 is part of this unstable course. The Mali problem is not limited to the democratic question and even less to a question of the credibility of the election. ECOWAS, like international actors, wants elections as soon as possible to elect a new president who would be legitimate.

However, we know very well that the election certainly does not guarantee the implementation of institutional reforms or better governance in the sense of the general interest of the peoples. We also know that we will not be able to sustainably maintain a democratic system in Mali without a state that is present throughout the territory that provides a minimum of public services, starting with security.

What participation in the election can we expect from populations living in insecurity and not having access to a minimum of important goods and services? In the historical reality of the world, democracy often came after the construction of the state, and it often went through phases of violence, reconstruction, debate, trial and error. In Africa, too, democratic construction will not be possible without this link between political development, economic development and social development. We have the formidable task of building simultaneously organized and efficient states and stable democracies.


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