Diagnosing the new wave democracies of West Africa

Friday, April 12, 2019

Elections and Democratization in West Africa 1990-2009, Edited by Abdoulaye Saine, Boubacarr Ndiaye and Mathurin Houngnikpo, Africa World Press, 452 pages.

This volume brings together various takes by scholars of West African politics on the new wave of democratization in the region from 1991 with the fall of the Kerekou Marxist dictatorship to date. The book explores the extent to which elections as a vehicle of democratization have enhanced economic performance and well-being of citizens in West Africa. In order words, the book relates the link between elections and democracy and well being. The poorest people on earth live in the worst dictatorships. The leitmotif of this well-informed book, edited by among others our leading political scientist Prof. A. Saine who teaches in the USA, is that democracy pays.

Saine’s chapter on the 2006 Gambian elections (p.349) is indeed telling of this link between good governance and economic performance. In this chapter, Saine argues that ‘notwithstanding the 1996, 2001, 2006 presidential elections The Gambia has not moved any closer to a more democratic culture’( p.364). This democracy deficit is what he also ably related to the dour economic situation which the country faced under the disgraced despot Jammeh. This was clear in the decline in agricultural production and the rise in poverty to cover 69 per cent of the population’ (p.362). ‘In sum, the state of affairs today grips The Gambia against the backdrop of deepening poverty and with opposition political parties and civil society so severely weakened or terrorized…’ (p. 364). Here the author, who also doubled as a steadfast critic of the former regime, continues to build the nexus which links open democratic spaces and economic performance.

The book also carries well thought-out articles on the state of democracy in other countries in the sub-region. Prof. Peter Mendy’s exposé on the 2005 presidential elections in Guinea Bissau, which allowed the now slain dictator Nino Vieira back to power until his tragic end in March 2009, is also among the gems of this book. He calls Guinea Bissau a ‘precarious state’ (p.214), and concludes that these elections were a farce as the military were so heavily involved that they were neither free nor fair and only helped to entrench a dictator. Here we see how elections which are seemingly democratic can sometimes become nothing other than a mask for dictators to redeem themselves and continue to oppress.

The chapter on the destabilizing role of the Mauritania military in that country’s quest for democracy is well argued out in p.303 onwards by Boubacarr Ndiaye; he relates how the democratically elected government of 2007/2008 was cut down by intrigues from top echelons of the military which later did a coup and subverted the will of the people.

The Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mauritania examples show that in West Africa when the military have a taste of power they never relent again: they are bound to turn into civilian clothes and ask for an electoral mandate, as was the case of Jammeh, or even if they hand over, it is in protocol only and not in substance as they will continue to pull the strings from afar, as in Mauritania in 2007 and 2008.

I will recommend this book to all students of political science and West African integration.

It is available at Timbooktoo, tel 4494345.