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Senegal, Democracy and Africa: Despair or Hope?

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Macky Sall, President of Senegal

By Madi Jobarteh, Human Rights Activist

The unconstitutional postponement of the presidential election by Pres. Macky Sall and endorsed by the National Assembly should be received with deep concern as to what lies ahead for the future of democracy and good governance in Africa. A continent already reeling under immense and widespread poverty, state-generated conflicts and injustices, the people of Africa yearned for freedom, dignity, and prosperity when they sought independence more than half a century ago. Yet today, despite the immense human potential and huge natural resources, the masses of Africans remain what Frantz Fanon calls the wretched of the earth!

The Senegal scenario requires deep study about not only the role of the government but also the very purpose and impact of the African Union and its regional blocs on the preservation of democracy in Africa. Until Macky’s unfortunate declaration on February 3, the common mode of unconstitutional change of government around Africa was through military coups, armed rebellions, civil wars, rejection of election results, civil uprisings, and sham referendums on constitutional amendments. But the Macky Sall Approach, i.e. the practice of postponing elections on the very eve of that election and obtaining parliamentary approval for it is indeed a novelty in the practice of unconstitutional change of government in the continent. 

The Senegal scenario should get us thinking indeed because Macky’s unconventional and unconstitutional act is coming from a country which has long been touted as a success story for democracy and human rights in Africa. Senegal is the only country in West Africa that has not experienced a military coup since Independence. Its first president Leopold Sedat Senghor was the first post-independence leader to voluntarily hand over power peacefully in 1980. In 2000, former president Abdou Diouf became the first president in Africa to call his challenger Abdoulaye Wade to concede defeat leading to a peaceful transfer of power. Since 2000 to date, Senegal has been cited as a beacon of democracy in Africa enjoying presidential term limits and peaceful transfer of power. How therefore did things change in Senegal in 2024?

The lesson to be drawn from the Senegal debacle is the absence of the necessary political will and commitment in political leaders, in state institutions and in regional bodies. Obviously, the legal instruments and democratic institutions are present. The necessary knowledge and experience exist in public officials who know the law and have the expertise. What is lacking is courage, conviction, and willingness to uphold the law and the independence of institutions to function as required by law.  It is this lack of political will and commitment in Africa’s elected and appointed public officials that is the bane of African development and governance since Independence hence the excruciating poverty, inequality and injustice spread across the continent. 

For example, Macky Sall’s political trajectory clearly indicates that he has deep knowledge and experience in democracy and governance having served in public service long enough as a city mayor, Speaker of National Assembly, Prime Minister, and a party leader. Not only was Sall a leading actor in the PDS party of Abdoulaye Wade in the defeat of former Pres. Abdou Diouf in 2000, but Sall also came to successfully defeat Wade in 2012 thereby denying him a third term in violation of the Constitution of Senegal. Furthermore, Sall was the chair of both ECOWAS and the AU at different times. 

Thus, Macky Sall is quite familiar with the instruments and processes of democratic governance and elections. It was Sall himself who led a vociferous campaign with his fellow leaders to ensure that former Gambian dictator Yaya Jammeh respects the will of the Gambian people and step down following the 2016 presidential elections which he rejected. Hence Macky Sall has a duty more than anyone else to ensure that the Senegalese Constitution as well as AU and ECOWAS instruments are upheld and protected. For that matter, AU and ECOWAS have a duty to prioritize the inviolability of their instruments and principles of democratic governance over everything else. If, in the name of preserving peace and deference to presidents, ECOWAS moves with cold feet, the threats to peace will far outweigh the gains it is seeking to achieve through ‘diplomacy’.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that ECOWAS employed its usual modus operandi of ‘behind the scenes’ diplomacy so as not to embarrass a president or give impetus to the opposing side. This is evident not only in its nonchalant statement on Senegal but also it took a whole week after the frightening statement by Macky Sall for ECOWAS Chair Pres. Bola Tinubu of Nigeria found it necessary to urgently visit Dakar to have a face-to-face conversation with Macky Sall. One would have expected that both Tinubu and the ECOWAS Commission President Dr. Omar Touray would have been in Dakar within 72 hours of Macky’s election postponement speech! 

Thus, the Senegal scenario has cleared all doubts that indeed the AU and its regional blocs are a club of presidents who care for only their own positions rather than the need to preserve and strengthen democracy in the continent. It demonstrates that within the AU and ECOWAS, like the rest of the regional blocs, there exist officials who lack the political will and courage to uphold the very essence of the instruments and institutions they proclaim and occupy. For example, the AU Constitutive Act stipulates in Article 30 that, Governments which shall come to power through unconstitutional means shall not be allowed to participate in the activities of the Union.”

Yet across Africa it is common knowledge that not only many of its leaders came to power through coups and armed rebellion but also several more have maintained themselves in power by illegitimately changing, manipulating and weaponizing laws and institutions just to stay. Previously it was through sham referendums that we saw leaders like Alpha Conde of Guinea, Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda among others orchestrate to either prolong their tenure by restructuring or totally removing presidential term limits. But these leaders were never suspended. Yet the AU and ECOWAS suspended military coupists in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

The latest in the game of illegally prolonging one’s tenure is what has just unfolded in Senegal with the postponement of the elections. Yet these are malpractices that are contrary to the spirit and objective of the Constitutive Act, the ECOWAS Treaty and their various protocols on governance, democracy, peace, and security. Are the people therefore wrong to perceive AU and its regional blocs as selective in favour of the sitting civilian or military-turned civilian presidents?

The AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance was created purposely to promote democracy and good governance to guarantee development and protect rights as expressed in its Preamble and Article 2. For that matter, it shunned unconstitutional change of government “as a serious threat to stability, peace, security and development.” Article 23 specifically mentions that “Any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments…,” constitutes one of five illegal means of accessing or maintaining power hence unconstitutional change of government. It says such an act “is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government” and should trigger appropriate sanctions from the Union. Yet here we are with Macky Sall blatantly violating this Charter by getting the National Assembly to amend a constitutional provision on elections without any accountability from the AU!

Vision 2050 of ECOWAS seeks to create, 

“A fully integrated Community of peoples, living in a peaceful and prosperous region, with strong institutions and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, striving for inclusive and sustainable development.” 

Of the five pillars of the Vision, Pillar 2 speaks to ‘Governance and the Rule of Law’. One of the fundamental principles underpinning the ECOWAS Revised Treaty is the “promotion and consolidation of a democratic system of governance in each Member State…”

For that matter, ECOWAS has created the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance purposely to entrench democratic governance, ensure free and fair elections, and promote popular participation in decision making. It specifically upholds the principle of “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”.

Within both the AU and ECOWAS there exist in their instruments the necessary institutions and processes to enforce their protocols, i.e. to ensure states uphold their obligations and avoid violations of governance principles. In the AU there exists the Peace and Security Council, while ECOWAS has the Mediation and Security Council, created, and equipped with the mandate to enforce their decisions. One is tempted to ask, therefore how come in the face of these instruments and institutions, the incidence of violation of human rights, the disregard of the rule of law and unconstitutional change of government are widespread across Africa and perpetrated by elected and appointed public officials? Why are the institutions of the AU and ECOWAS and other regional blocs not effectively enforcing their own instruments to ensure members abide by them or face accountability? 

While in most instances a lot of focus is placed on the assembly or authority of heads of state of the AU and its regional blocs, it must be noted that the critical institution in these bodies is the commission. This is the administrative, operational, and monitoring mechanism for these blocs and their instruments. To bring effect to the mandate of the AU and its regional blocs, it is necessary that there is an efficient, effective, and professional commission. The staff of the commission should be men and women who have the courage of their convictions and are uncompromisingly committed to enforcing the instruments of these bodies. It appears that indeed the AU Commission, just like the commissions of the various regional blocs, leave much to be desired. 

For example, the AU Commission states, in its website that it acts as the “custodian of the AU Constitutive Act and all other legal instruments”, works with “AU organs to guide, support and monitor the AU’s performance to ensure conformity and harmony with agreed policies, strategies, programmes and projects, providing operational support for all AU organs and assisting Member States in implementing the AU’s programmes.” Has the AU Commission been fully performing this task given the plethora of abuse and neglect of democratic principles and human rights in member states? 

In fact, the ECOWAS Revised Treaty went even further to explicitly guarantee the independence of the Commission in Article 20 on the ‘Relations Between the Staff of The Community and Member States. It states that, 

“In the performance of their duties, the Executive Secretary, the Deputy Executive Secretaries, and other staff of the Community shall owe their loyalty entirely and be accountable only to the Community. In this regard, they shall neither seek nor accept instructions from any government or any national or international authority external to the Community. They shall refrain from any activity or any conduct incompatible with their status as international civil servants.”

With this protection from non-interference and intimidation from governments and presidents of the member states, it begs the question as to why the ECOWAS Commission is silent in the face of blatant disregard of ECOWAS instruments by member states? When Alpha Conde or Ouattara and now Macky Sall sought to undermine their national constitutions and flout the ECOWAS instruments, the Commission should have been up in arms to advise the Authority of Heads of State to act according to the Community instruments. The Authority or the Commission cannot tell us that they act behind the scenes because diplomacy is not done in the public when in the final analysis unconstitutionality is what prevails. What then is the impact of diplomacy behind the scenes? 

For example, in its communique of 10 December 2023, ECOWAS rightly condemned the armed attack in Bissau a week before and commended loyal forces for putting down the assailants. But the communique ignored the fact that on at least two occasions, Pres. Embalo dissolved his country’s parliament based on his whims. It is not democratic for a president to unilaterally dissolve a parliament! Secondly, on democracy and good governance, while the communique expressed ECOWAS’ lamentation about the spectre of unconstitutional change of government in the region, the Authority failed to speak to the widespread incidence of abuse of human rights, disregard of the rule of law and rampant corruption perpetrated by officials in the governments of member states with impunity. 

In its Constitutional Convergence Principles espoused in Article 1 of the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, it stipulates that, “The State and all its institutions belong to all the citizens.” In agreeing with this proposition, I hereby share this sentiment by the renowned people’s intellectual Naom Chomsky that,  

“A society is democratic to the extent that its citizens play a meaningful role in managing public affairs. If their thought is controlled, or their options narrowly restricted, then evidently, they are not playing a meaningful role: only the controllers, and those they serve, are doing so. The rest is a sham, formal motions without meaning. So, a contradiction.”

The Controllers in Africa are its presidents, who serve as the Assembly or Authority of Heads of State of AU, ECOWAS, SADC, EAC, etc., and their Secretariat or Commission who are preventing quality popular participation to bring governments in line with the will of the people. These elected and appointed public officials in these bodies must have the courage and conscience to uphold and defend the rights and interests of their people. But alas, this is not the case because, as espoused by the African Patriot Frantz Fanon, in his Wretched of the Earth

“The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.”

The African masses have been living for far too long with the tragic mishaps of public officials. Inequality, injustice, violence, deprivation, and poverty characterize the lives of most Africans. Millions of Africans die or perish daily in the high seas and the desert as they flee Africa because their governments cannot give them hope and opportunity. Thanks to hopelessness and voicelessness millions are sucked into extremism and terrorism. The ravages of climate change are denying African people the ability to feed and sustain themselves. The unbridled corruption and gross incompetence of the African government and public officials have rendered their people the wretched of the earth in the face of abundance! 

Until ECOWAS as an Authority and Commission responds to these prevailing realities of democracy and development in member states, the dream of an ECOWAS of the People cannot be attained. Far too many West Africans are deprived, hopeless and disempowered in their own countries thanks to the misconduct and incompetence of their presidents and governments. Thus, the preoccupation of ECOWAS should not be to protect the interests of its heads of state; rather they must hold these presidents and their governments accountable on behalf of and for the welfare of their citizens, first and foremost.

In this regard, ECOWAS must ensure that Macky Sall does not go scot-free with this illegality. ECOWAS and the AU must ensure that there is a presidential election in Senegal on 25 February 2024. In the worst case scenario where this election did not take place, ECOWAS and the AU must ensure that Macky Sall resigns and steps down from office by 2 April 2024when his mandate ends. A government of national unity which excludes his Benno Bok Yakaar coalition members should be instituted to guide the country to elections within the shortest possible time. Macky Sall and his accomplices in the legislature and the executive must be identified and imposed with severe sanctions for their undemocratic conduct and as a deterrent for public officials who have similar schemes up their sleeves.

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