« Around the world, democracy has often come after state building »


Interview with Gilles Olakounlé Yabi, economist and political analyst. He is the founder of the West African citizens’ think tank, Wathi (www.wathi.org). He talks about the future of democracy in Francophone Africa.

RFI: In 2020, what is your assessment of the state of democracy in Africa?

Gilles Yabi: It is difficult to answer this question without first recalling the diversity of the continent. This diversity has profound implications for the assessment we can make of the state of democracy in Africa. Political developments have been different from one region of the continent to another, and from one country to another within the same region. Each African country has its own particular political history with advances at certain times in terms of democracy and freedoms, but also with setbacks. In Africa, we are in the laborious process of building political systems that are democratic and stable. This construction has only just begun if we look at states within their current borders, states whose political forms have been largely influenced by the conditions of colonisation and decolonisation. This is part of the continent’s recent history.

These differentiated political developments that you mention are particularly striking when we compare Central Africa with other regional areas. How can these differences be explained?

Central Africa is suffering, perhaps more than other regions, from the curse of its resources, especially oil. This has had important political and geopolitical implications since the colonial period. The selection of political leaders at the time of independence and just afterwards in these countries has been decisive for their political trajectory up to now. It was not the elites who appeared to be the most virtuous and nationalistic who prevailed. Clientelism and the monopolisation of public resources by the clans in power, which also benefit from external support, precisely because of the natural resources that are mainly exported, have prevented democracy from taking hold. The ten or so countries in this region are particularly rich in natural resources, but they are all politically frozen, with presidents who have sometimes been in power for several decades. This is particularly true of Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo, which are resisting real democratisation and a lasting opening up of freedoms. There have even been setbacks in this area. On the other hand, in West Africa, since the turn of the 1990s, there has been real democratisation which has affected the majority of countries in the region and which has at least enabled the populations to benefit from freedom of expression and the possibility of participating in the choice of their leaders. It is important to note that in West Africa, this democratisation agenda was supported at the turn of the year 2000 by the regional organisation, ECOWAS.

Couverture du rapport «Pas de démocratie sans alternance. En Afrique comme ailleurs», publié par le collectif Tournons la page.
Couverture du rapport «Pas de démocratie sans alternance. En Afrique comme ailleurs», publié par le collectif Tournons la page. tournonslapage.com

Benin and Senegal have long been among the leading democracies in Africa. But this good reputation is now being tarnished: in Benin, by the authoritarian excesses of the regime, and in Senegal, by the invalidation by the courts of the candidacies of Macky Sall’s competitors before the 2019 presidential election. What is happening in these two countries?

It was in fact in Cotonou that the national conferences were inaugurated in the early 1990s, which paved the way for democratisation, particularly in Francophone Africa. Benin was then a pioneer in the organisation of multiparty elections that led to a real alternation of power. The country also set up institutions that played their role as a counterweight. I am thinking in particular of Benin’s Constitutional Court, which quickly established itself during its first years of existence as an important institution of political regulation, empowered to overturn, if necessary, decisions of the head of state. In my opinion, Benin has fallen asleep on its laurels. We should have gone further, consolidating the young democracy by encouraging citizen participation through public debates on issues of national interest and by promoting ethics in political and administrative practices. By delaying this work of consolidating democracy, an unreadable political system, undermined by corruption and ultimately unproductive in terms of economic and social progress, has been allowed to take hold. The current situation is characterised by the hyper-power of the executive branch, which controls all other institutions, and by a discourse that consists in proposing « less democracy and freedoms » for « more economic development ».

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In Senegal, it seems to me that the image of a stable democracy is still preserved, even if there is now a lot of criticism of President Macky Sall’s political and economic governance and a lot of questions about his presumed, but never expressed, desire to serve a third term. Senegal remains vulnerable to democratic setbacks, as elsewhere, in the absence of a profound change in the relationship between the governing and the governed. The vigilance and organisational capacity of citizens committed to democracy and the rule of law played a major role in preserving the country’s democratic image when President Abdoulaye Wade was forced to run for a third term and was ultimately defeated at the ballot box.

The electoral process, which led to the re-election of Macky Sall in 2019, was described by observers as « free », « transparent », but « unfair ». How were these elections unfair?

It is always inappropriate to judge the quality of an election simply by what happened on voting day and by the clarity or opacity of the results that came out of the ballot box. The electoral process starts well in advance. The criticism of Macky Sall’s re-election was that the Senegalese courts disqualified those candidates who were considered the most dangerous to the president. The voting and counting of ballots was hardly contestable. But it is clear that the political conditions of the election could be contested. While the principle of sponsorship that was introduced into the electoral process is not necessarily anti-democratic, it should only be applied in a way that is transparent and perceived as such by all political actors. In the absence of confidence in the independence of the institutions in charge of verifying sponsorships, such a modality – very much in vogue in the region – risks being used as a subtle means of excluding troublesome candidates.

Manifestation de l'opposition pour la candidature de Karim Wade à l'élection présidentielle sénégalaise de 2019, à Dakar, le 29 novembre 2018.
Manifestation de l’opposition pour la candidature de Karim Wade à l’élection présidentielle sénégalaise de 2019, à Dakar, le 29 novembre 2018. SEYLLOU / AFP

What lessons can be drawn from the events in Mali about the progress or retreat of democracy in Africa?

The coup d’état in Mali is certainly a failure for democracy in Mali, but it is above all yet another indication of the failure of the Malian state. It would be unwise to draw lessons from the coup in Mali for democracy in Africa. Mali is a country at war, in deep crisis for years. The 2020 coup, following the 2012 coup, is part of this unstable trajectory. Mali’s problem is not simply a question of democracy, and even less a question of the credibility of elections. Both ECOWAS and the international community want elections to be held as soon as possible to elect a new, legitimate president. However, we know very well that elections do not guarantee the implementation of institutional reforms or better governance in the general interest of the people. We also know that it will not be possible to maintain a democratic system in Mali in the long term without a state that is present throughout the country and that provides a minimum of public services, starting with security. What participation in elections can we expect from people who live in insecurity and do not have access to a minimum of essential goods and services? In the historical reality of the world, democracy has often come after the construction of the State and has often gone through phases of violence, reconstruction, debate and trial and error. In Africa too, the construction of democracy cannot be achieved without this coherence between political, economic and social developments. We have the formidable task of building organised and efficient States and stable democracies at the same time.