By Boris Esono Nwenfor
“West Africa, once applauded for democratic progress now resembles a tattered showdown of itself with authoritarian opportunism on the rise, even from leaders that previously accessed power through the ballot box”, said Christopher Fomunyoh, Director and Senior Associate, Central and West Africa, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).
Dr Christopher Fomunyoh was speaking during the webinar organized by the Kofi Annan Foundation under the theme “West Africa: Is Democracy in Retreat?”
“I will respond to the affirmative that democracy is in a decline in West Africa,” Christopher Fomunyoh said.
“Democracy in West Africa for me reached the high watermark in 2015 because in that year the giant of Africa, Nigeria had gone through an election which the opposition won. For the first time in Nigeria’s history power changed hands from one political party to another in a peaceful manner.”
“Today, only Ghana and Cape Verde are the two countries that are considered free. The rest of the countries are struggling in terms of consolidating their democratic gains of the last two or three decades.”
According to the Kofi Annan Foundation, there is a growing distrust in the independence, neutrality, and impartiality of election management bodies in West Africa.
“The democratic process has to be citizen-driven. It has to be driven from the ground up and most of the changes we have seen from across the Sub-region in the past has been led by citizens expressing their frustrations,” Dr Christopher Fomunyoh said on the changes seen.
“We have to avoid false dichotomy; we have to avoid the impression that on other continents that people can eat and vote but in Africa we only want people to eat. People want to eat and vote at the same time. We have to make sure that Democracy delivers so that people see that through democratic governance your right to access to food is determined by the good policies that make it easier for you to get food now than it would be the case if bad policies were in place.”
The reasons for the decline in Democracy in West Africa are both internal and external according to the NDI’s Director. To him, civil society organizations, academia, political parties and even ordinary citizens are wondering what happened to the high expectations that West Africans had with regards to their democracy after the recent transitions.
Christopher Fomunyoh stated: “The two reasons for me for this decline is the dereliction of duty by political leaders and political elite who are coming up short on the expectations of citizens and the complacency of other actors that should be serving to safeguard and protect democracy for the benefit of citizens.”
“I am thinking not just about Heads of States that thinker on the constitution of their countries; I am also thinking about a legislature that no longer conduct their oversight duties to exercise the checks and balances; and members of the judiciary who have allowed courts to turn to be transformed to political instruments…”
Despite all these, Dr Christopher Fomunyoh said he is still optimistic about West Africa and his optimism comes from the vibrancy of CSOs in the Sub-region.
“CSOs in West Africa are ready to speak out when things happen even outside their national boundaries. It is this vibrancy that gives me hope that all is not lost. The salvaging grace will have to come when civil society and the population at large intensify their engagement to defend and protect a democracy that must never be taken for granted,” Dr Christopher Fomunyoh added.