The presidents of four Francophone West African states visited Washington recently, earning plaudits from the Obama administration. The four included newly elected leaders Alpha Condé of Guinea, Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire and Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, alongside president Boni Yayi of Benin. “All these leaders were elected through free and fair elections,” said President Barack Obama, citing their “extraordinary persistence in wanting to promote democracy in their countries despite significant risks to their own personal safety.” But closer examination reveals that democracy may be more fragile than it appears, writes Dominique Dieudonné.*
Following the violent aftermath of the Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential elections, recent reports of an assassination attempt in Guinea and coup plot in Niger, raised the disturbing prospect of a reversal of democratic gains less than a year after Guinea’s Condé and Niger’s Issoufou taking office. The elections that brought them to office were the result of massive international and domestic efforts to end the cycle of coups and counter-coups which have plagued the region for decades.
Those who do not follow Guinean and Nigerien politics might reasonably ask: why should events in those countries matter outside their borders? And for those who monitor sub-Saharan African politics, will the threat of coup d’états and assassinations always cast a shadow discussions of democracy, governance, rule of law, and human rights?
As for the first question, Niger is not only the world’s top uranium exporter, but also – as a recent article attests – of strategic importance to the U.S., as demonstrated by U.S.-government funded initiatives that “enhance [Niger’s] border capabilities against arms struggling, drug trafficking, and the movement of transnational terrorists [i.e. al-Qaeda in the Maghreb].”
But sustainable security demands more than state-to-state assistance, while a durable democracy demands investment in the political institutions and civil society that connect citizen and state. Niger recently organized regional, local, legislative and presidential elections as well as a referendum to approve the new constitution – all within a matter of months. No small task for a country which ranks 167 out of 169 on the latest UN Human Development Index and where 80 percent of the population works in agriculture. With only a small window for meaningful voter education and engagement, the country clearly needs assistance and strategic reform to improve the quality of governance.
Civic education, rule of law, and human rights – vital components of any governance agenda – all feature strongly in the programs of Niger’s Radio Anfani. The station, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, broadcasts in local languages across the south of the country – home to almost 70 percent of Nigeriens. The NED also supports public service delivery by funding Africare’s work on NGO capacity building efforts that allow local groups to develop programmatic and financial management capacities.
With only two governments in 50 years separated by two military coups instead of peaceful transitions, Guinea is a democratic new-comer. Despite the mineral riches of the world’s largest deposit of bauxite and some 4 billion tons of “high grade iron ore”, Guinea suffers from poor public service delivery and inadequate access to health care.
Guinea shares its border with five other countries – Guinea Bissau, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire – With “at least one of its neighbors at war” in each of the last fifty years, Guinea’s previous presidents, Sekou Touré and Lansana Conté, “leveraged regional conflicts to their own benefit,” through political violence and crackdowns, writes Alexis Arieff.
The legacy of this prolonged history of repression is an institutional vacuum and a lack of civil society capacity, especially when it comes to protecting human rights and empowering citizens.
The Obama administration has thrown its weight behind democratic transitions in both Guinea and Niger, but Guineans must seize the momentum and focus on reforming a resource-rich economy which has stagnated as a result of the world financial crisis.
Since 1992, the NED has funded grassroots efforts to improve human rights, supporting Les Memes Droits pour Tous, providing legal services with the newly established Avocats sans Frontières, building the leadership capacity of youth and women with the Association pour la Défense des Droits des Enfants et des Femmes en Guinée, developing community radio stations with Search for Common Ground, and working in resource-rich communities with the help of the Centre du Commerce International pour le Développement.
Recent reports suggest that official investigations into the assassination plot against President Condé are under way. Despite multiple arrests, an official list of detainees has yet been published. A decision by government’s media oversight body, the Conseil National de Communication, banning all private and public media outlets from reporting on the assassination plot attempt is not an intelligent move. The constitution states that freedom of the press must be preserved under any circumstances.
If media freedom is a reliable indicator of a democracy’s vitality, a recent Reporters Sans Frontieres report suggests that the transition in both Guinea and Niger remains tenuous and the potential for violence a real threat.
It has frequently been observed that sub-Saharan African politics is plagued by a winner-takes-all mentality that is hostile to compromise and recognizing political adversaries’ legitimate interests. As the four Francophone African presidents return home, we may hope that observing Washington’s contentious debates over the debt ceiling will yield the lesson that negotiations can be a grueling process for making decisions, but accommodating opponents’ interests is vital to ensuring consensus. For its part, the international community should continue to support constructive exchanges between civil society and elected officials in the region.
Niger and Guinea still need to tackle critical issues of security sector reform, corruption in the judiciary, and accounting for past human rights violations. These tasks cannot be done without the oversight and involvement of civil society, and efforts by either government to marginalize its critics will undermine future policy initiatives and the sustainability of these emerging democracies.
Dominique Dieudonné is the National Endowment for Democracy’s Program Officer for Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, and Togo.