By Ajong Mbapndah L
Africa remains the land of promise for billions of people and we owe it to posterity not to destroy or squander what the Lord and nature have graciously put in stock for us, says Dr Christopher Fomunyoh, Senior Associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, NDI. In an interview to review the year in Africa, Dr Fomunyoh says Africa must play to its strength.
“We are the youngest continent on the face of the globe, we have the most youthful and resilient population, the most diversity and untapped resources and wealth; and if we don’t value all of these assets, the rest of the world will continue to turn us a blind eye. We must respect our own lives and our own people for no one else will do so in our place,” says Fomunyoh.
Fielding questions on major socio-economic and political developments that defined the year in Africa, Dr Fomunyoh opines that in the midst of all the challenges, it is not all dark and gloomy for the continent.
Thanks for accepting this interview to review the year in Africa with PAV and we would like to start with COVID 19, what assessment do you make of the African response to the pandemic?
To a large extent, Africa has been luckier than other continents in the sense that our worst fears and the cataclysmic projections about likely deaths across the continent have not materialized. Yet we must acknowledge that, like on every continent, the COVID 19 pandemic has had disastrous consequences in loss of lives and disruption of economic and political activity. As of this interview, based on statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), for the continent’s 1.4 billion inhabitants, we have had approximately 1.4 million Coronavirus cases and approximately 33,400 COVID-19 related deaths. That’s far less than other continents, but it’s still regrettable and heartbreaking. We must remain vigilant and respectful of preventive measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and other health measures. We must not lower our guard, especially because the public health, social and economic infrastructures of most of our countries are not robust enough to withstand all the shocks of this pandemic.
From people like Archbishop Kleda in Cameroon with his herbal cure, to President Rajoelina of Madagascar touting the merits of COVID Organics as a cure, may we get your take on these efforts from Africans to be proactive in seeking solutions and instead of waiting for others to bring solutions for them?
We cannot discount that our rich flora and the unique species of medicinal plants that our continent possesses can boost immune systems and contribute to other healing therapies for coronavirus and other ailments. The difficulties we face for such a global pandemic are in being able to scale up and sustain production on a national level and maintain quality control over therapies like the ones you mention.
What impact did the pandemic have on politics and democratic progress on Africa which you are well versed with?
The overall impact of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic on African politics has been very negative, as it has made it extremely difficult for citizens to exercise their rights and continue their advocacy for political space and good governance. We saw that in a country such as Burundi, the government pushed through presidential elections in the heat of the crisis, and then the former Head of State who had been campaigning vigorously through that period lost his life from COVID-19 complications. Eswatini (former Swaziland) just lost its prime minister to the pandemic. Ethiopia was forced to postpone its elections because of the pandemic, and the inability to find consensus on the matter then led to a political crisis between the central government and leaders of one of the country’s regions – Tigray – that has now convulged into a full-blown armed conflict with thousands of casualties and lots of refugees and internally displaced persons. In other countries such as Uganda and Guinea Conakry, regimes with autocratic tendencies are using the excuse of the pandemic to further clamp down on citizens’ rights and various freedoms, hence aggressively shrinking political space, and that is so shameful!
In Malawi, we saw a court overturn the results of Presidential elections won by an incumbent and ordered for a rerun won by the opposition, can you put some context on this and what lessons Africa could learn from this?
Malawi turned out to be a beautiful story in the midst of otherwise dark clouds. We must thank the justices of the Supreme Court of Malawi for their courage and independence in applying the law. We also must salute the tenacity and peaceful commitment of political parties and civil society organizations which, on finding weaknesses in the previous elections, sought legal redress instead of resorting to violence as we’ve seen in some countries. There’s something unique about Malawi as its people have faced several challenges in the path of the country’s democratic transition but have always risen to meet and surpass these obstacles. I remember the 1993 referendum on multipartism, and various instances during which even the Malawian Defense Forces sided with citizens for political pluralism and good governance. Lots of lessons to learn, and surely much that the rest of us Africans should be grateful to the Malawians for.
We also did notice the resurgence of the disturbing trend of leaders especially in French speaking Africa changing term limits to remain in power with Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire as key examples, what accounts for this setback for democracy and what needs to be done to avoid this becoming the new normal for African countries?
Despite the positive experiences of countries such as Senegal and Niger Republic, the alternation of political power and renewal of political leadership remain constant challenges in Francophone Africa. To date, only Benin, Mali and Senegal have seen multiple peaceful transitions from one elected president to the next at the end of two terms – and Senegal only after former President Wade was defeated as he ran for a third term. Other countries have taken two steps forward and multiple steps backward, hence giving the impression of very fragile or yet uncompleted transitions. As many of the Francophone countries are located in West Africa, the regional body (the Economic Community of West African states – ECOWAS) has in the past played an important role in upholding democratic norms in the region, and around 2015 came close to amending its protocol on governance to provide specific protections of presidential term limits. However, those efforts deserve to be reinforced to avoid further backsliding.
Today, many ask why should people trust the opposition when leaders such as Professor Alpha Conde in Guinea who fought for democratic reforms most of his adult life, and even Alassane Ouattara in Cote d’Ivoire, get to power only to perpetuate and excel in the same undemocratic practices they vowed to fight?
That’s a very valid concern, and I believe pro-democracy advocates and civil society, as well as development partners should be urging these leaders to think about their legacies and how they think they will be judged by history. Africa today yearns for leaders that can emulate the examples of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, or Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Botswana’s Festus Mogae, Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and others that made their countries and the continent proud when they handed over power peacefully after serving their terms in office.
You were in Ghana for the 2020 elections where President Nana Akufo Addo was proclaimed winner, but the opposition is crying foul, how did the elections go from your perspective?
In fact, although in the past 20 years, Ghana has always experienced very close and competitive elections, the 2020 polls seem to be the closest both for the presidency and the parliament. Ghana’s two main parties — the National Patriotic Party (NPP), and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) — are both quite solid and do start every election with a substantial base of support. As per the official results of the Electoral Commission, the next parliament will be divided right down the middle and will require a lot of tact and parliamentary agility and collaboration to get elected officials on both sides to work together. With regards to the presidential race, the two main candidates and their respective parties set up their own data centers where they collected results from polling stations to track those officially announced by the Electoral Commission. I’m therefore hopeful that once they clean up their numbers, they will come to the same conclusion as the Commission. I’m very confident that both presidential candidates are men of peace and committed democrats who mean well for Ghana and the continent of Africa. They will not allow Ghana to go down the path of other countries that have experienced violence in the post-election period.
What lessons do you think other African countries can learn from Ghanaians?
Many lessons indeed: For example, that regular peaceful elections can be the norm in Africa. By holding its elections on schedule every four years, and also taking steps to engage in electoral reforms after every exercise, Ghana is proving that all that comes out of African elections is not doom and opacity, and Ghanaians should be commended for that. There’s open political space in Ghana that allows civil society and media to independently monitor the polls without any incumbrances, to the point where a coalition of civic groups (CODEO) now conducts parallel vote tabulations as a permanent fixture in the process since 2008. Ghana also has strong and effective political parties that make it easy to gain citizen input into the policy formulation process and to run issue-based campaigns. I hope that Ghanaians will share freely of these experiences as they exchange views and compare notes with other Africans.
What do you make of the EndSARS in Nigeria, with a myriad of problems across the continent, is there something that other African countries could learn or draw from that?
In my opinion, the ENDSARS movement in Nigeria was a spontaneous demonstration of how citizen dissatisfaction with government performance can erupt in unexpected ways. It all started as a protest against police brutality, but then other grievances popped up in ways that the Nigerian government may not have expected. A couple of lessons stand out for me, including the fact that police brutality and violence is unacceptable and must be stopped, and governments must put in place mechanisms to listen to citizen responses to their performance. I am pleased that commissions are being set up in various states across Nigeria to look into matters of social justice and policing, and that Nigerian youth and civic leaders are having a seat at the table to make their voices count and their views heard.
May we get your take on the Building Bridges Initiative in Kenya where fierce political rivals are trying to chart a new political discourse and path?
That too is getting extremely heated and polarizing, and we can only wish that Kenyans, who have gone through similar experiences with past constitutional debates and reviews, are reminded to do the right thing for their people and the country.
In Cameroon, the Anglophone crisis continues to rage on with no end in sight, at this point in time, what do you suggest as a way forward to a lasting solution?
It is incredibly sad and revolting to see what began as a citizen’s petition regarding legitimate rights and grievances morphed into a crisis and now a full-blown armed conflict with its daily dose of killings and atrocities. As I have said since 2016, when the crisis first broke, a military solution is the worst approach to settling grievances that are long embedded in historical facts and missteps. The only solution is for genuine negotiations among all parties, and with third party facilitation. So much death, damage and destruction have befallen the English-speaking people of former Southern Cameroons. With now thousands of deaths, over 70,000 refugees in neighboring Nigeria, over 800,000 internally displaced and over 4.2 million people at risk of famine, everything must be done to bring the conflict to an end. The international community and friends of Cameroon must do more to help us bring an end to the war and address the genuine grievances of the afflicted populations.
Despite the huge toll on people in the North West and South West Regions, the international community has remained so indifferent, why is the international community turning a blind eye to the crisis in Cameroon?
Some countries within the international community have made multiple declarations on the conflict, but their admonitions have fallen on deaf ears. Even the last session of the United Nation Security Council meeting on December 9, 2020, discussed Cameroon; however, by now, it should be clear to everyone that simple declarations and statements alone will not suffice. People are being killed and innocent lives lost daily in the North West and South West regions. We are in the 21st century, and world leaders should not sit by idly or passively while these atrocities continue with absolute impunity.
President Biya has been largely absent from the scene, and no one seems to know exactly who is in charge; how important has his absence been as an impediment to a peaceful resolution of the conflict?
To many descendants of Southern Cameroons, Paul Biya has become a huge part of the problem, and a lot has been documented about how his government’s mismanagement of the crisis has exacerbated it. When governing a country in conflict or crisis, leaders are known to exert themselves tirelessly in search for peace – in the Cameroon case we don’t see Biya doing that. It’s difficult to say who is giving the orders today, but individuals must know that, ultimately, they will be held accountable for their roles in the massacres and atrocities.
As the succession battle plays out behind the scenes in Cameroon, there are some who have suggested that a President from the English-speaking regions of the country could be one of the confidence building measures, do you agree?
That was the spirit of the Federation that existed at reunification from 1961 – 1972. At the time, there was an understanding as two equal entities the positions of president and vice president could alternate between leaders from the two cultural and linguistic entities that formed the Federal Republic of Cameroon. Unfortunately, that too was abrogated by Francophone leaders who began a process of over centralization of power and attempted assimilation of the Anglophones. At the fast rate of today’s deterioration, I am fearful that if the conflict is not brought to an end swiftly, it’ll go past the point where simple elite bargains will be sufficient or credible enough to bring peace and harmony.
And a word on your own political ambitions, if you are called upon by Cameroonians to answer the call for a new leadership in the country, is that something you are willing to consider?
The challenges at hand demand that we all shelf our personal ambitions until we can get our people out of the total mess and sense of distress and hopelessness in which they find themselves. The situation is heartbreaking and depressing, it is extremely difficult to project into the future while surrounded by the current dark clouds that risk annihilating a whole generation of our people.
The year in Africa also saw the passing of big personalities from former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings, to President Nkurunziza of Burundi, South African iconic Lawyer George Bizos, Manu Dibango and any word from you for these departed Africans?
Indeed, 2020 has been a very difficult year at multiple levels. I knew President Jerry J. Rawlings personally, and had the pleasure on many occasions to visit with him in Accra, and to work closely with him on the African Statemen’s Initiative which was a gathering of former African Heads of State that were very active in humanitarian and other good causes across the continent. His sheer presence and personality, his positive energy and big vision for Africa are unmatchable. We will all miss him, just as his fellow country men and women of Ghana would. Manu Dibango was also a class act of a legend – the world-renowned self-made man whose leadership in music and culture were unrivaled. He too was an African legend and an ambassador for the continent. It’s still very difficult to imagine that ‘Grand Manu’ is gone to his final resting place. May the souls of these departed African leaders rest in perfect peace and their memories remain a blessing.
As we move into 2021, what will the agenda for the NDI look like with regards to its engagement with Africa?
NDI and its various partner organizations are committed to working to reverse some of the backsliding that we discussed earlier. For example, we are looking at providing multiple platforms for Africans to foster discussions on how to safeguard and consolidate the progress that has been made in some countries while drawing lessons from those successes to address shortcomings in other countries. For example, we are gladly joining various African experts, advocacy groups and civil society organizations in what we hope will be a continent-wide conversation on constitutional term limits and the rule of law as tenets of democratic governance. It is important to curb the resurgence of ‘life presidents’, something that the continent worked so hard to dismantle in the early 1990s, but that seems to be resurfacing in a number of countries. In that endeavor, we take comfort in knowing that of the continent’s population of 1.4 billion people, more than 75 percent are youth 35 years or younger, a vast majority of whom aspire to have a strong say in the politics and public policy of their respective countries, and to be governed justly and democratically.
We end the interview with your wish for Africa in 2021, what will you like to see for the continent?
The new year wish for Africa 2021, is that we give our young men and women the opportunities to lead. Our continent must play to its strength — we are the youngest continent on the face of the globe, we have the most youthful and resilient population, the most diversity and untapped resources and wealth; and if we don’t value all of these assets, the rest of the world will continue to turn us a blind eye. We must respect our own lives and our own people for no one else will do so in our place. The continent still remains the land of promise for billions of people, and we owe it to posterity not to destroy or squander what the Lord and nature have graciously put in stock for us.