Military governments found their most marked expression on the African continent recording an unprecedented eighty-five violent coups and rebellions from the time of the Egyptian revolution in 1952 until 1998.Seventy-eight of these took place between 1961 and 1997. Undoubtedly, West Africa was the worst affected region and it continues to experience more coups, rebellions and civil wars. Given this history, it is no wonder then that this region formed a regional bloc, The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to foster regional economic integration but also prioritising the maintenance of peace and security in the mandate of its bloc cognisant of the intimate link between peace, security and stability and economic growth.
Over the years, ECOWAS has proved itself determined to see an end to unconstitutional changes of government including coups, rebellions and incumbents who refuse to vacate office after losing elections.
In 2009, ECOWAS suspended Niger from ECOWAS after Mamadou Tandja successfully changed the constitution to permit him to run for office for a third term, and went ahead with elections which were boycotted by the opposition. When the army staged a coup against Tandja claiming to protect the constitution, ECOWAS swiftly negotiated a return to civilian rule and the holding of democratic elections. After 14 months of transition, the military junta in Niger formally handed over power to newly elected President Mamadou Issoufou as promised.
In 2010, when Laurent Gbagbo of Cote D’Ivoire lost a presidential election to Alassana Quattara but refused to vacate office, ECOWAS threatened to remove him by force and faced opposition from many sections of Africa including SADC heads of state. In the civil war that ensued, they maintained their position insisting on recognising Quattara as the legitimately elected leader. As the then Ghanaian President John Kufour stated “if Gbagbo [had been] allowed to prevail, elections as instruments of peaceful change in Africa [would have] suffer[ed] a serious setback.”
Earlier this year, when former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade decided to stand for an election against the spirit of the new Constitution limiting presidential terms arguing that the constitutional provisions did not apply retrospectively, Senegalese citizens protested this decision. The violence that erupted could have gone out of hand and led to a civil war but the maturity of the Senegalese people themselves as well as the heavy involvement of ECOWAS through political talks allowed for a relatively peaceful transition of power through an election in Senegal. Today Macky Sall stands the democratically elected leaders of the Senegalese Republic.
ECOWAS condemned the recent coup of 21 March 2012 in Mali led by Amadou Haya Sanogo and swiftly took action. They suspended Mali from ECOWAS, applied an embargo on Mali, froze access to finance from the regional bank in Dakar and began discussions for a negotiated plan to return to civilian rule. Their intervention resulted in an agreement by the military junta to restore constitutional order by handing over the reigns to the Speaker of the National Assembly today as a first step towards returning to democratic rule. They also considered the possible deployment of the regional Standby Force, should the rebels refuse to observe a ceasefire and engage in dialogue.
Surely this record speaks volumes to the regional bloc’s seriousness and commitment to see democratic rule where the people’s choices and voices are respected and to restore peace and security. ECOWAS continues to reiterate the regional bloc’s commitment to the principles of democracy and the rule of law, and their opposition to unconstitutional transitions of power.
The Southern African Development Committee (SADC) on the other hand has increasingly displayed its inadequacy to address similar issues. In 2008 when Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe lost an election to Morgan Tsvangirai and the subsequent runoff was marred by horrendous violence, SADC did not make a firm decision to respect the people’s choice. Instead they negotiated a power-sharing deal which was not only unconstitutional but in violation of the demands of a minimum democracy where the ruler must be instated at the choice of the people, chosen by the people and his term of rule exhibit governance patterns that respect the will of the people. Despite many violations of the negotiated deal that SADC negotiated, the regional body has largely failed to ensure that these terms are respected and that democracy is served.
In 2009, when Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar was ousted out of power by Andry Rajoelina in a coup staged by the army which then ceded power to Rajoelina as its leader, SADC failed to take decisive measures to ensure a swift return to civilian rule. Since then, the High Transitional Authority, a negotiated deal by the African Union in collaboration with SADC setting up a leadership authority comprising the members of the Ravalomanana and Rajoelina camps has been in power and the people of Madagascar’s right to choose their own leadership continues to be undermined.
Yes, SADC believes it is being strategic diplomatically when it pursues the non-interventionist policy towards resolving regional governance issues. In the end it is us the citizens who are being done a disservice. Such precedents where the bloc is placating undemocratically elected individuals to enjoy power and continually denying SADC citizens the right to choose who they want to lead them are unsustainable. Maybe we ought to learn a thing or two from ECOWAS or better still, borrow them the next time we have similar crises. Bottom line, SADC needs to act decisively, with consistency and with one voice in the face of such blatant disregard to the will of the people.