Essays | March 21, 2014

Part II: Anxieties of West African Democracy: Six Presidential Elections in 2014-2015


In the first part of this article, the author describes the political context surrounding the high-risk presidential elections that will take place in six countries in West Africa in 2014-2015. It considered in particular, the anticipated intensity of electoral competition in each country, one of the three elements of risk he’ll use, to assess the likelihood of violence. In this second part, he examines the current security context of the different countries and the institutional environments that will oversee the electoral process. This essay was originally written in French and translated by African Futures. All issues of misinterpretation or mistranslation are therefore solely the editors’ responsibility. To ensure the author’s original nuance, please read the French version.

Guinea small
Guinea, among others, will have a tense
electoral environment to monitor
(UNDP – via Flickr Photostream, 2007)

The second element of consideration for an analysis of the risks tied to the West African presidential elections of 2014-2015, is a state’s general security situation. Unfortunately, for these six, this is not reassuring. Among the determining factors of a security context, this piece considers the existence or nonexistence of armed rebel or ex-rebel groups, the degree of political control and professional integrity of the security forces, the extent of alignment between political affinity and ethnic and regional identities, the conditions, peaceful or not, of the most recent presidential elections, as well as the magnitude and form of political and/or security involvement of important foreign actors.

Nigeria appears to have without contest the most fragile security environment. The 2015 election will unfold in a country already battling with the terrorist group Boko Haram in the Northeast, and harbors organized armed groups in the Niger Delta who are just as likely to either politically support or create pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan (who also hails from this South-South region). The country is also experiencing elevated levels of violence including political, economic, ethnic, and religious dimensions in the Middle Belt (the center of the country) and elsewhere in the territory. Furthermore, the Nigerian federation is accustomed to the violent aftermaths of elections, as was the case in 2011, even though the ballot was judged to be better organized and more credible than all other previous votes.

More than 800 people were killed in three days of riots and fury in twelve northern states of the federation. The trigger was the defeat of northern candidate Muhammadu Buhari who was facing Jonathan. Nigeria did not need the terrorism of Boko Haram to achieve such levels of violence, as ordinary citizens confronted one another with certainly a dose of spontaneity, but also a clear degree of preparedness to the violence brought on by political-ethnic entrepreneurs and religious extremists. From the perspective of 2015, the blackmail of violence has already begun in the country, driven by militant groups threatening either: “if Jonathan is not re-elected, there will be chaos” or “if Jonathan was re-elected, there will be chaos.” When this psychological distress is added to the very low level of confidence Nigerian populations have in the integrity and professionalism of the security forces, the fear of a dark debut to 2015 for West Africa’s great power seems very legitimate.

Guinea, because of the repercussions of ethno-regional political polarization and its history of violence, is also quite fragile in terms of security. It should be recognized that undeniable progress that has been made under the Condé presidency in the reform of the security sector, which has translated into an increased capacity of law enforcement to contain street protests, while no longer killing dozens of people at each occasion. This is not the era of Lansana Conté or Dadis Camara, but Guinea’s security forces are still far from showing exemplary behavior and the political neutrality of officials in charge of law and order is equally far from being a reality. The various protests that had punctuated the long and difficult march towards parliamentary elections in September 2013 still resulted in sometimes deadly violence. It is therefore likely that a few explosive face-to-face encounters between opposition protesters and security forces will occur during the process leading to the 2015 presidential election.

The security context is not particularly reassuring in  Guinea Bissau or Côte d’Ivoire either. In the first country, although the chiefs of the army have always considered themselves autonomous from the civil political authorities,  security sector reform, despite being on the international agenda for ten years, has never taken off. In Côte d’Ivoire, significant efforts have been made to manage the catastrophic consequences of post-election conflict in 2011, but it will take a few more years to provide the country with defense and security forces that are coherent, effective and politically neutral. The difficult legacy of years of rebellion and conflict will heavily impact the security environment and political developments…even after the 2015 election. Both in Guinea Bissau and Côte d’Ivoire, the presence of external actors mandated to maintain peace, the military mission of ECOWAS (ECOMIB) and the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), respectively, plays in favor of relative security around the next elections.

The political position of the defense and security forces and the maintenance of their unity are uncertain elements within the security context of Burkina Faso, which saw violent mutinies in 2011. It is impossible to know how the Burkinabe army and the different generations of officers that compose it, will handle this unprecedented situation of political uncertainty after 2015. Many senior military officials were appointed after the mutinies of 2011 to regain control of this essential pillar of Compaoré’s power. Do they consider their fate bound to Compaoré staying in the presidential palace after 2015? How do the president’s closest officers, who have accompanied him since the very brutal early years of the regime, imagine their future? There are many questions and few answers, which should not lessen the anguish of Burkina Faso and many of their West African neighbors. Conversely, in Togo, the question of political positioning of the security forces and the army is less difficult to answer: the secure grasp on the power in Lomé seems to resist the hands of time.

Finally, it is important to interrogate the institutional framework in which these presidential races will be unfolding in the different countries. These frameworks include the rules, procedures, and institutions that are mobilized from the beginning to the end of the election process, and which play a determining role in the credibility of the elections and in particular the final results which designate a victor. Even if the credibility of the electoral process is not a guarantee of the absence of crisis and violence, the perception of a substantial lack of credibility is almost always a trigger of serious troubles. More so, when presidential elections happen in a country where the security environment is already fragile, and in the context of an intense competition for power, the credibility of the institutional setting of the election can be decisive for saving the country from falling into a post-electoral crisis.

Yet it is wise not to relay too much on these structures. The electoral laws, the conditions for establishing voter files, the political neutrality and the technical competence of institutions put in charge of organizing elections and examining post-electoral legal claims are subjects of controversy everywhere. None of the countries with an upcoming presidential election in 2014 or 2015 is considered as a model in the region in organizing free, transparent, and credible elections. Some, like Nigeria, have accomplished notable progress in the past years, but they are still far, very far, from the models in West Africa, which are Ghana, Cape Verde and Senegal, where electoral commissions and/or other institutions have been able to run some very competitive, yet credible elections.

In Nigeria, a number of reforms that were recommended by experts in the wake of the general elections of 2011 to correct the biggest failures of the system, but they were not implemented. In Guinea it took rounds of mediation, intrusive international technical involvement, and a fiercely negotiated political agreement to organize the legislative elections in September 2013. The list of tasks to accomplish in order to render the provisioned elections more credible in 2015 is very long. It includes the establishment of a new voter registry and putting in place new institutions such as the Constitutional Court, which should replace the Supreme Court’s key role of validating final results. Even in Côte d’Ivoire, where the current president promised a revision of the constitution, nothing has been done to put an end to the special institutional framework designed by peace agreements and to equip the country with a new credible and politically neutral electoral authority.

To conclude, all one can do is agree with citizens of West Africa, who are understandably anxious regarding the approaching electoral seasons. After considering the three elements of evaluation simultaneously, none of the countries will be safe from strong tensions prone to degenerate into serious violence. Despite taking the risk of being wrong (who can truly predict all possible scenarios in each of these countries several months before the different elections?), it is reasonable to classify Nigeria and Guinea as very high risk countries, Burkina Faso as a high risk country, and Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo as moderate risk states, this last category certainly not meaning “low” or “non-existent” risk.

Calamitous elections are not yet unforeseeable and inevitable natural disasters. The citizens of each of the countries in question, ECOWAS, and important international actors, have the means to tame their anxiety by strongly mobilizing to prevent violent crises. But there is also a risk in understanding elections solely and uniquely as moments of impending danger for states, and thus seeking only violence-free elections. This often leads regional and international organizations, to prefer the manipulation of the electoral process in favor of the more powerful camp, and therefore more capable of provoking chaos in case of defeat, compared to free and fair elections where the outcome is uncertain. The risk is forgetting and make people forget the electoral rituals so essential to young and fragile democracies: anchoring little by little a democratic culture in the society. If citizens must continue to vote every four or five years with fear in their hearts, it is the popular adherence to the democratic ideal in West Africa that will be ultimately threatened.

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