Heeding the Demands of the People

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Adama Gaye

By Adama Gaye  |

MANY gatherings of African Heads of State and Governments are too often depicted as historical. Yet with hindsight few stand the test of time. It should not be the case if the Summit of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, convened this week end in Abuja responds to the demands that the West African people put on their leaders in the wake of the popular up-rising which has up-rooted the longest serving Head of States of the region, namely Burkina’s Blaise Compaore. He was forced out of office at the end of October following huge demonstrations in various cities of his country. These were triggered by his barely hidden ambition to remain in power for another term despite the constitutional limitations over the presidency.

That this landmark event, beamed live on the national and international TV channels across West Africa, has occurred less than two months ago cast the ECOWAS Summit in a new light. It is a direct challenge to the regional leaders. They are expected to meet the growing calls for more democracy and for the true implementation of the organisation’s self-imposed Declaration of political principles adopted in the early 1990s which calls for political pluralism in its member States and in its selection of the community’s executives.

The West African leaders must heed such calls sweeping West Africa at a time when the technological revolution unleashed all over the world has reached its shores making its people more aware of what is happening around them. It has in fact transformed them into active citizens. Netizens or concerned citizens, they are empowered. No wonder they now seek to be part of what is being heralded as Africa’s time.

Transparency is what they expect to see not only in the political arena but in the management of their economies and natural resources. They also want an end of the ‘one man, one vote, once’ which used to be the main meaning of tropical democracy when leaders once chosen even fraudulently ended up only being concerned by a selfish ambition to self-perpetuate themselves. So far, democracy has not delivered the goods.

It has even generated a sense of frustration across various strands of the West-African citizenry. To many, it is just the new way for political actors to get access to the riches of their nations with the blessing of the ballot boxes. It is indeed no longer necessary to go through the barrels of the guns as used to be the case during the violent civil and military conflicts that almost torn apart the region in the 1980s and 1990s. Following the demise of the authoritarian regimes that prevailed then, copying the European or Asian models of communism, and the fall in grace of several autocratic capitalistic regimes which were protected by the West, many expected West Africa to take a turn towards real democratic progress. But the region has not yet achieved its aggiornamento.

Electoral democracies are of course in place in many of its countries but to what extent it is genuine democracy in action is to be seen. And on another front, across the region, the challenges are still overwhelming. Poverty is still gripping millions of West Africans. Transnationals challenges are lingering on, such as Islamic or ethnic terrorism. Ebola and other pandemies have laid bare the lack of health infrastructure in West Africa. Obstacles to free movement of persons and goods have not been lifted so far. Worse, calls for secession, contradicting the yearning in principle for more integration, have not been contained from Casamance in Senegal to Northern Mali. To compound it all, the regional integration process, 40 years after the creation of ECOWAS, remains an elusive goal.

The question is: has West Africa got the leaders to engage its structural transformation in order to attain its stated integration objective?

What is even more worrying is the fact that nowadays, as opposed to the past when colonial forces came to the West African shores using their guns and missionary drive to subjugate its people, these days darker forces are at work either coming in as emerging nations partners or as former colonial representatives using their local networks —the new compradores— in order to capture what is available in West Africa in terms of businesses, while placing political poodles in power.

Not all is dark but one has to be careful about the seriousness of the challenges ahead or surrounding the ECOWAS countries. In this regards, it is clear that this Summit must discuss in earnest the issues at stakes, including the need to side by the populations’ calls for real democratisation, the transparency in the process of selecting the leaders for the region and for the countries as well as the necessity to avoid being late when things, like in Burkina Faso, unfold.

There are issues where ECOWAS is expected to deliver: can it realise at long last the monetary union it has been calling for since ages? Can it mobilise its forces to face the challenges of separatism and terrorism? Can it increase the volume of trade between its nations? Can it tear apart the many tariffs and non-tariffs barriers hindering commercial and human ties? Can it demonstrate its ability to ensure that democratic principles, starting with pluralism, are truly respected? Will it avoid back-doors deals when it discusses what should be the healthy competition between West African candidates for the post of chairman of the African development Bank, ADB, and avoid to throw its support behind one of them no matter how qualified he may be as this will be seen as a violation of the community’s own norms?

Let us not be pessimistic about its future. In fact, since it was created as an economic community ECOWAS has never been faced with such a more conducive climate as is the case at the moment. Despite the challenges ahead, the prospects are great. As for the rest of Africa, West Africa is indeed witnessing an impressive growth rate in many of its member States; hydrocarbon resources are being discovered all around the place; a more conscious population is ready and willing to serve; many West African members of the diaspora are returning home with talent and financial resources; and the technological advances made in the world have made the region part of a global arena.

West Africa can make it. It is a natural gate to many other regions of Africa. And it can lead the continent in this new age of possibilities provided that its leaders show that they are able not in words but indeed to act as agents of positive change. To avoid forcing the streets to boil as in Burikina Faso. The option to be made is too clear. But vigilance is still the order of the day as without an effective monitoring of the actions taken by its leaders there is a risks that West Africa may continue to fare below its democratic and economic potential.

Adama GAYE, A Senegalese, Author of China-Africa, The dragon and The Ostrich, is a former editor of West Africa Magazine and former director of Information of ECOWAS. He consults for many multinationals and advises one of the candidates for the African Development Bank Chairmanship. [email protected]

— Dec. 22, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT

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