June 4, 2010

ECOWAS suspension of Guinea, Niger

THE Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Monday, May 31st 2010,  finally announced the suspension of the Republics of Guinea and Niger from the West African regional body. The reason for the suspension was not unconnected with the military assumption of power in both countries.

On Tuesday, December  23rd 2008, the military authorities in Guinea announced in a statement that it had dissolved the government of Mr Lansana Conte, the ailing 74 year-old President of Guinea who ruled the country with an iron fist for 24 years. Later on, the death of Mr Conte in unclear circumstances was announced. Captain Moussa Dadis Camara assumed power.

When the transition to civil rule programme was reeled out it was clear that Camara was interested in succeeding himself in office by running for president while in uniform. Demonstrations erupted all over Guinea and the army was mobilised for a brutal crackdown which claimed the lives of hundreds. On 20th January 2010 Captain Camara was shot and wounded in the head in a military mutiny. Till date the country remains under military rule.

In a slightly different circumstance, the Nigerien military on February 19th 2010, arrested the entire cabinet of President Mamadou Tandja after a prolonged military assault on the presidential palace in Niamey. The military then took over the reins of power.

Tandja had dubiously conducted a constitutional change to enable him go for extra terms of office against popular will. While he was going about it, the ECOWAS prevailed upon him to change his mind and spare his country the chaos that usually goes with the imposition of this nature, but all efforts by well meaning concerned friends of Niger Republic fell on the deaf ears of Tandja.

Explaining the suspension of the two French speaking countries, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Idi Hong, declared: “ Niger and Guinea remain suspended from ECOWAS in line with relevant provisions of the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and the African Union Constitutive Act of 2000 until constitutional order is restored in the two countries”.

We welcome this step meant to drive home the message that military intervention in the political affairs of countries is no longer fashionable or acceptable even in a West African sub region where only one country – Senegal – has been spared the harrowing experience of military rule since decolonisation.

The instability occasioned by serial truncations of democracy is chiefly responsible for the political and economic backwardness of the sub region. They also tend to plunge countries into civil wars because of the ethnic and sometimes religious undertones of these unconstitutional interventions.

While we applaud ECOWAS for this decision measure, we urge it to also follow with similar resolve the need to keep elected presidents to the constitutional limits of their tenures in office. If at all a country is to change the constitution to enable leaders to contest for more terms in power, there must be acceptable conditions attached.

These include ensuring that the incumbent officials would not be beneficiaries of such amendments, or if they are to benefit, there must be clearly transparent referenda to ensure it is a genuine popular will.

In order to establish this, ECOWAS and other international concerned bodies such as the African Union must be notified whenever a country wishes to amend the constitution for that purpose to enable them play the unbiased umpire role and ensure that such exercises are democratically credible and acceptable.

Presidents should no longer be allowed to impose themselves on their people through unilateral constitution amendments because this amounts to civilian coup. A civil coup is worse than a military one in that it gives a false legitimacy for leaders to sit tight in power. This, in turn, leads to popular revolt and the dangers of political implosions.

The ECOWAS must, therefore, be proactive in ensuring that free and fair elections prevail in West Africa, just as it monitors constitution amendments and assists countries under temporary military rule to work towards speedy return to democratic rule.