For most of its modern history, West Africa has been the most violent corner of the continent. By one count, the region has seen 40 coups in the last 60 years. Civil wars have raged through the region, leaving death and unspeakable destruction in their wake. Until recently, no West African generation had seen uninterrupted peace.
But now, save for the never-ending Jollof wars between Nigerians and Ghanaians on Twitter over who makes the best version of this spicy rice, the number of peace-threatening conflicts in West Africa can be counted on one hand and typically involve universally-reviled insurgents (like Boko Haram) with weak claims to legitimate power. Democracy is taking over West Africa and little stands in its way.
To my mind, there have been three major challenges to the participation of Africans in the political process since independence. The first is lack of respect for term limits (“third-termism” according to the BBC). The second is disrespect for the electoral process by incumbents (and their parties). And the third is the overthrow of legitimate presidents through coups d’etat, which often devolve into brutal civil war.
In West Africa, each of these challenges have been largely overcome, sometimes with great pain. For instance, the ink is just drying on the certificate of Julius Bio, who won Sierra Leone’s presidential election runoff on March 31, defeating Samura Kamara, the candidate of the ruling party. Defeating a ruling party, as all Africans know, is still a rare achievement on the continent. In West Africa, it has become quite common.
Liberia, Sierra Leone’s neighbour to the northwest, also saw its first democratic transfer of power since 1944. And incumbents have been toppled in Nigeria and Ghana (where it has become routine). In Ivory Coast, where incumbent Laurent Gbagbo tried to remain in power after electoral defeat in 2011, force was brought to bear and he was removed. He is now a guest of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
In Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, who had been in power for nearly 30 years, was forced out by a sustained popular uprising in 2015. A countercoup by General Gilbert Diendéré, his friend, failed miserably and landed him in jail. The country now has a freely elected president in Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.
Much of the progress is owed to the impressive fact that the regional economic bloc, ECOWAS, is not afraid to heavily involve itself in the transitions. Sometimes, it goes so far as to commit military force to guarantee respect for the electoral process. Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled The Gambia for 22 years, was convinced to step down in early 2017 partly by Nigerian warplanes flying over his small country.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when West Africa started its turn towards democracy. The year 2000 could mark the starting point. That is the year a ruling party was ousted for the first time in Ghana. It was also the year Abdoulaye Wade and Laurent Gbagbo came to power, in Senegal and Ivory Coast respectively. Both leaders would attempt, unsuccessfully, to overstay their welcomes a decade later.
I have long speculated, to myself of course, that perhaps West Africa’s nascent comfort with democracy has deep roots in its bloody past. West Africans have paid the price of authoritarian rule and perennial conflict. They know the cost of a lack of democracy. And so they are willing to practise it, and to impose it on their neighbours when they think it is the only way to guarantee regional legitimacy.
I am not alone in thinking this way. A Kenyan writer, analysing the Sierra Leonean election, comes to the same conclusion. When considered from an East African perspective, it is paradoxical that a region so scarred by memories of war and violations should host the flowering of democracy after all. After all, it was East Africa that always held the greatest promise. East Africa was supposed to get there first.
But, all considered, it does make sense that we should see it this way. East Africa’s attempts at democracy have been made up of fits and starts that are never carried to fruition, reluctant exercises held back by fears of rocking the boat too violently lest it become impossible to steady. Reactionary forces always tend to cut short the train of liberation.
This is why Rwanda now has a president doing a third term, with a possibility of more; why Uganda is being ruled by a man who strode to power in 1986; why Tanzania’s president feels comfortable levying exorbitant license fees on independent bloggers to let them practise their craft; and why Kenya has an ex-ICC president whose second term is built on the blood of innocents, including little children, and the ruin of their homes.
Of course, this should not be taken as an endorsement of violent revolution, nor an exclusive trust in its power to deliver legitimate strong democracies; after all, countless countries, like Somalia, have seen revolutions that never resulted in democracy. Nor should this be taken as a claim that democracy is the only solution to Africa’s problems. In fact, West Africa still has significant issues with corruption and poverty.
Nevertheless, what is happening in West Africa is a good thing for the continent. Every election in the region now brings a milestone, and as president after president serves his term(s) and leaves peacefully, a tradition of democracy is being built on what was once a heaven for authoritarians. And with the new tradition comes greater moral authority for West African countries to demand better of their neighbours. This is how virtuous cycles are built.
I look for the day when the West African influence that will spread beyond the region. Then, perhaps, the rest of the continent will benefit from the pain that led the West Africans to this point.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.