By Ajong Mbapndah L
The resurgence of coups should be a wake-up call that democratically elected leaders need to perform better and find concrete ways to address grievances and aspirations of fellow citizens, says Dr Christopher Fomunyoh. The Senior Associate and Regional Director for Africa at the Washington, DC based National Democratic Institute. Says every time the military steps into the political arena, it is a step backwards for the country in question and the continent.
“The African Union and the subregional organizations have a critical role to play in making sure that their own norms, standards, and constitutive acts are respected. These organizations must hold leaders accountable whether they have come to power in a coup or through elections. It is also incumbent on these regional bodies to ensure that elections are credible and meaningful, and that leaders do not drain democracy of its value and substance,” says Dr Fomunyoh in an interview with PAV.
The hope is that these recent military coups will serve as a rude awakening to these organizations so they can become more effective and assertive in ensuring that citizens’ voices are being heard and their aspirations met, Dr Fomunyoh says.
Hailing the professionalism of the overwhelming majority of African militaries who remain apolitical and focused on their primary constitutional roles and responsibilities, Fomunyoh urged African leaders to create avenues to listen to their fellow citizens.
“We must diminish the growing gap between political elites and the vast majority of citizens who increasingly feel disconnected by governance and disaffected by decisions made by their governments. Additionally, it is critical to create opportunities for the African youth to feel included and to have a voice and a seat at the table of decision making,” Dr Fomunyoh opined.
Thanks for agreeing to grant this interview. Why is there currently a resurgence of military coups in Africa?
Dr Fomunyoh: In this day and age, every time the military steps into the political arena is a step backwards for the country and a stain on the image of the continent. Every democratic society provides a specific constitutional role for its military, which consists of guaranteeing the safety of citizens and the security of institutions and national borders. So, a priori, coups must be condemned because they breed instability and violence, and further aggravate the socio-economic situation of countries in which they are staged.
In recent times, some militaries have used arguments such as poor governance, including tinkering with constitutions and elections by civilian led governments, and failure to curb violent extremism in the Sahel. Whether perceived or real, these arguments are a wakeup call that democratically elected leaders need to perform
better and find concrete ways to address the grievances and aspirations of their fellow citizens.
Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, and most recently Gabon: what accounts for the fact that all these military coups are being staged in Francophone African countries?
Dr Fomunyoh: There is no denying that over the years anti-French sentiments have been on the rise in francophone Africa for reasons that have to do with French economic and monetary policy , issues pertaining to the FCFA currency, and also ambiguities in French responses to African crises such as French President Emmanuel Macron attending the inaugural for a president in Chad who came to power through unconstitutional means, while condemning coups in other French speaking countries. These grievances also coincide with strong demands by African youth for change, and more transparent and equitable relationships between Francophone African countries and France. Some of the militaries have taken advantage of those sentiments to position themselves as change agents, even though their track record in that regard is thin and abysmal.
Unlike the other coups, the recent coup in Niger generated forceful and coordinated opposition from the regional organization ECOWAS, France and the USA; why were such coordinated efforts missing during earlier coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea?
Dr Fomunyoh: All of the other coups were also condemned, but the heightened focus on Niger can be understood because President Mohamed Bazoum and his government has been in power for only two years, they have projected a lot of promise and the strongest democratic credentials in the Sahel, demonstrated encouraging economic performance too in infrastructure development and its fight against corruption, and recorded tangible results on security and countering violent extremism that outmatched other countries in the area. Under those circumstances, how can anyone rationalize a coup, except for the selfish interest of the coup makers who, incidentally, have been an integral part of the system they now claim to be against?
In the past, most Africans condemned coups; so, how concerned are you that recent coups seem to have been openly embraced by citizens who enthusiastically endorse the new military leaders?
Dr Fomunyoh: As I’ve stated in several of my media outings, what we see in the streets after military coups needs to be well dissected and understood in the proper context. In my opinion, citizens take to the streets more as an expression of their frustrations with the previous government and less in a holistic embrace of military rule. Highly reputable institutions such as Afrobarometer continue to highlight in their surveys that close to 70% of Africans aspire to live in democratic societies. Ultimately, the short-term excitement with coup makers dissipates over time as citizens realize that the military doesn’t bring along the long term sustainable democratic governance to which they aspire. One only has to look at how the military is destroying Sudan in a useless war, or the fact that in Mali civic leaders, some of whom initially supported the coup, are being arrested for expressing their views on the ongoing transition; or that in Burkina Faso, people who criticize the junta are being forcefully conscripted and sent to the war front. Terrible deprivation of rights and freedoms and a broader sense of insecurity are happening under these regimes and will lead to citizen disaffection as these misdeeds are exposed.
How effective can the African Union and regional bodies such as ECOWAS and ECCAS be in stemming the tide, considering legitimacy issues affecting many civilian leaders of the countries represented by those organizations?
Dr Fomunyoh: The African Union and the subregional organizations have a critical role to play in making sure that their own norms and standards and constitutive acts are respected. These organizations must hold leaders accountable whether they have come to power in a coup or through elections. It is also incumbent on these regional bodies to ensure that elections are credible and meaningful, and that leaders do not drain democracy of its value and substance. My hope is that these recent military coups will serve as a rude awakening to these organizations so they can become more effective and assertive in ensuring that citizens’ voices are being heard and their aspirations met.
In the particular case of Gabon, what is your reading of the opposition leader Ondo Ossas’ claim that the coup was a power play by some members of the Bongo family to hijack his electoral victory?
Dr Fomunyoh: Without an assessment mission to Gabon, it would be difficult to determine the motivation behind the coup or the accuracy of claims by political actors. However, one must note that an election is not only what transpires on election day, it is an entire process which in the case of Gabon was already lacking in many respects. It would be imperative that the elections to be conducted by the transitional government are inclusive, transparent and credible, such that whatever results are announced can be seen as a true reflection of the wishes of the Gabonese people.
Should citizens in the Central Africa region be fearful of copycat coups after Gabon?
Dr Fomunyoh: There is considerable regime fragility in many of the Central African countries, either because of the age of leaders or their longevity in office, or even the manner in which these leaders got to power through coups of their own or flawed elections. My hope is that citizens will be able to organize themselves to bring about the change they deserve without inserting the military or violence into the equation.
What do you make of the role that some analysts attribute to Russia and / or the mercenary group Wagner in some of these coups; and do you see a risk of returning to the cold war era, with Africa at the center of competition and conflict between the West and Russia?
Dr Fomunyoh: There is no doubt that in countries such as the Central African Republic, Mali and increasingly Burkina Faso, Russia has made inroads by providing security assistance and subsequently influencing political and governance processes. Even then, my feeling is that as disruptive as these interventions by Russia and Wagner may be, Africans will be able to decipher for themselves where their best interests lie. I am often reminded that of the 55 African countries, none has demonstrated tangible economic or political progress because of its implementation of the Russian model of governance. I should add that today’s world is a global village, and the superpower rivalries and competition that you refer to are being felt not just in Africa, but also in Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and other parts of the world.
Given your expertise and years of experience with democratization efforts across Africa, what measures should be taken by African countries to reverse the trend of military coups?
Dr Fomunyoh: First and foremost, I salute the professionalism of the overwhelming majority of African militaries who remain apolitical and focused on their primary constitutional roles and responsibilities. We must acknowledge them, even as we must call on African leaders to create avenues to listen to their fellow citizens. We must diminish the growing gap between political elites and the vast majority of citizens who increasingly feel disconnected by governance and disaffected by decisions made by their governments. Additionally, it is critical to create opportunities for the African youth to feel included and to have a voice and a seat at the table of decision making. If proper avenues are created for substantive citizen engagement, mutual respect and healthy communication, that the talent, creativity, energy and knowhow that young Africans possess would be properly channeled to improve the wellbeing of all citizens. That ought to be the vision of every one of our leaders on the continent.
In Cameroon, it’s been four years since the major national dialogue that was supposed to bring an end to the ongoing armed conflict in the North West and South West regions of the country.Have you seen tangible progress in resolving the crisis in the English-speaking regions as a result of that forum?
Dr Fomunyoh: Judging from the level of violence and economic disruption this first half of September, I feel, and many Cameroonians would say that the conflict is still burning, which means that whatever that took place in Yaoundé four years ago hasn’t had the anticipated impact. As I’ve said since 2017, the ‘Anglophone conflict’ in Cameroon will only be resolved by genuine third party mediated dialogue that addresses not just the horrible deaths and destruction of the past seven years, but also the root causes of the grievances of the Anglophone population. That explains why there was a burst of hope and optimism when Canada announced in 2022, its willingness to host talks that could have helped bring an end to the conflict. To have sustainable peace for the duration and curb further alienation of the population in these regions, these grievances that are well known would have to be comprehensively addressed.
In the current Cameroon context, what options would you propose as a permanent way out of this ‘Anglophone crisis or conflict?
Dr Fomunyoh: To provide proper context, grievances over Anglophone marginalization existed prior to 2017; and then came the armed conflict that has led to thousands of deaths, approximately a million internally displaced, tens of thousands of refugees, tremendous destruction of property, dislocation of lives and cultures, and a significant population disaffection with the state. It therefore means that a holistic approach to the resolution of the crisis will require, at a minimum, fundamental, structural changes to the way in which Cameroon is governed. That would entail, at a minimum, significant constitutional changes and a dramatic shift from the way in which the state engages with citizens, so that citizens can feel empowered, and their dignity restored.
Presidential elections are due in Cameroon in 2025, how would you describe the ideal profile of the next President of Cameroon?
Dr Fomunyoh: Well, keep in mind that in Cameroon as in any other country, elections are not just a one-day event but a process that entails creating the right environment for healthy political and citizen engagement, having a legal framework that guarantees transparent and inclusive elections, and creating a level playing field for candidates and political parties to interface with citizens who can then make informed decisions about those they elect. From the background we just discussed, it invariably goes without saying that the next leader of Cameroon has to be someone capable of reconciling citizens among themselves, and then mending their relationship with the state. Someone who can speak to the grievances of Anglophones and the millions of other Cameroonians that have been burned and so aggrieved by the 41 years of the Biya regime; and who has the wherewithal to galvanize a renewed sense of belonging and pride in the country, both domestically and on the international scene. Two years is a lifetime in politics, and a lot can still happen between now and 2025.
Back on the international scene, not much has been heard of the #GrainFromUkraine initiative for which you are a Goodwill ambassador alongside former President Joyce Banda of Malawi, former Minister Oby Ezekwesili of Nigeria, and former Foreign Minister Mohammed of Somalia: is it still ongoing, and has it had the intended impact?
Dr Fomunyoh: The #GrainFromUkraine initiative functioned extremely well during the first half of 2023, as countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen were beneficiaries of shipments which helped alleviate their vulnerability to food insecurity. You may be aware that the United Nations has declared food security a priority of the times, and the UK will be hosting a high-profile conference on that this November. Of course, the #GFU initiative has slowed down since Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea agreement at the end of July, and the bombing of Odessa port and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of stocked grain. As we speak, there are efforts underway to find alternative ‘solidarity’ routes that can still allow vulnerable countries in the Global South to benefit from this initiative. It is my understanding that Nigeria and Sudan may soon be beneficiaries of shipments from Ukraine, and for which, as an African, I am thankful.