On the occasion of the International Day of Democracy, the Tournons La Page movement calls on the international community and socio-political actors in Africa and elsewhere to no longer turn their eyes away from the major challenge for the continent that is democratic transitions. The pursuit of stability and the illusion of multiparty politics and poor quality elections have run their course; there is a need to broadly support civil societies engaged in this area and to invest in democratic processes in a sustainable manner.
In August 2020, the Tournons La Page movement highlighted the risks posed by the constitutional coups in Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea not only for peaceful changeovers but also for the future of democracies in West Africa. Long considered a more benign area compared to Central Africa, where dictators impose themselves in violation of constitutional law, the region's democratic backsliding is glaring. The coups in Mali, Chad and Guinea illustrate the failure of international institutions that are supposed to work for peace and democracy.
Unable to enforce their own texts, the African Union and ECOWAS gave in on term limits, first in Togo, then in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. Sclerotic by heads of state and external partners (EU, USA, UN...) concerned only with the stability of the regimes in place, these institutions have lost their compass and their capacity for action. So much money and energy is spent on extraordinary summits and mediations when the prevention of social conflicts, in particular by holding firm on the respect of presidential term limits, would have been more effective. As the Africa Center for Strategic Studies points out, in the 21 African countries that have maintained presidential term limits, heads of state have been in power for only four years, on average. In contrast, the average time in power for the 10 African leaders who have evaded term limits is 22 years. Constitutional coups undermine public confidence in political institutions and reduce civic space through repression and the concentration of power they engender.
Regional and sub-regional bodies are thus caught in their own contradictions. The condemnation of the coup d'état in Guinea is a normal reaction for an institution whose texts condemn any seizure of power by the military. But these same institutions remain silent when it comes to constitutional coups. These constitutional changes for personal ends, which are most often accompanied by relentless repression and the collapse of the institutions of control, are also profound attacks on stability, peace, security and development. The international community and its institutions must avoid double standards, or risk losing what little credibility they still have.
What the falls of Idriss Deby and Alpha Condé remind us of is that, obsessed with the stability of a regime, we forget that those who lead it are not eternal; even less so when they reach retirement age. Today on the continent, the average age of the population is 19 years, and the average age of presidents is 63. In Africa, 8 leaders have been in power for more than 20 years. Often elderly, arched on their throne, they build the foundations of violent successions: Zimbabwe in 2017, Chad and Mali in 2021, Guinea now. Paul Biya and his 87 years, Denis Sassou Nguesso and his 77 years or Ali Bongo, younger (62 years) but with failing health since his stroke in 2018, carry in their militarized governance and closed to civilian actors the seeds of new coups.
When in 2014, we launched the campaign (which has since become a movement) Turn the Page, so many interlocutors from Europe and Africa, did not consider it useful to look at the respect of constitutions, the quality of electoral processes or democratic governance. For some, civil society should not get burned by taking an interest in public affairs and political life. For others, elections and referendums were held in these countries, the people were thus consulted, and despite some upheavals, it was not necessary to interfere in the political life of African countries. Timidity on the one hand, ostrich policy on the other. Seven years later, the issue of peaceful changeover has become unavoidable.
Faced with this situation, there is no fatalism. Citizen mobilizations are flourishing everywhere and international partners understand, at their expense, as in the Sahel, that the simple security response is a dead end. We need to invest in these young people who are moving the lines, not only from the fetish angle of micro-entrepreneurship, but above all by giving them the means to act in the social and political field: freedom of association, assembly, expression or demonstration, electoral transparency and respect for the choice of the ballot box, etc. Supporting those who defend and expand civic space is an absolute necessity. The last months and certainly the next ones, remind us of this urgently.
Marc ONA ESSANGUI
President of Tournons La Page