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In search of suitable governance systems for African countries — By Paul Ejime

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With the resurgence of military incursions in politics and the concerning deconsolidation of Western-style democracy in Africa, Benin Republic’s Foreign Minister Olusegun Adjadi Bakari has lent his call on African countries to adopt effective governance systems consistent with the socio-cultural and ethnic diversities of their people.

“Western-type multiparty democracy is not working for Africa, so the countries must rethink their political framework putting into consideration Africa’s cultural and ethnic diversity,” Bakari told scholars, diplomats, and researchers on African affairs at the British policy Thank-tank, Chatham House, Lonon on 18 October.

In the last five years between April 2019 and August this year, there have been more than a dozen reported failed or successful military coups in African countries – Sudan, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Gabon, and Guinea Bissau. There were also rumoured or unreported attempts.

Minus Guinea Bissau, the six listed countries plus Chad are now under military dictatorships, raising the question of whether the continent is sliding back to the dark era before the wave of multiparty democracy swept through Africa in the 1990s.

During the Chatham House interactions moderated by Dr Alex Vines, Director, Africa Programmes, Bakari, who was an advisor to President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo until 2021, and Benin Minister Advisor for Investments before assuming the Foreign Affairs portfolio in April 2022, said the multiplicity of political parties was unhelpful to electoral processes in Africa.

For instance, he said that 200 political parties and dozens of presidential candidates, with many of them scoring less than 1% vote in elections in a country such as Benin with 13 million population, was not his idea of a good governance system for Africa.

On Benin’s commitment to regional cooperation to tackle the rise in violent extremism in the Sahel and broader political instability in West Africa, Bakari, 44, said the country’s unsavoury experiences with military coups, with one to three putsches every year between independence in 1960 and 1972, necessitated some drastic political reforms.

“Our (Benin’s) strong position against the (July 2023) military coup in Niger is informed by our past experiences, and we stand with the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) on the need to restore constitutional order in that country through negotiations,” he said, adding that Africa must strengthen governance institutions through effective leadership.

“I am aware of constitutional and other types of coups (such as leaders altering constitutions to obtain or retain power), but military coup is the worst,” Bakari affirmed, stressing: “if there are differences or disagreements, we should discuss at the table, but not topple government through military coups.”

He said that key political reforms in Benin, included zero-tolerance for military governments in whatever guise, adding that military personnel interested in holding political offices must first resign from the military, while the constitution also has strict provisions limiting presidential term to two in the “lifetime” of any Benin citizen.

Bakari might have struck all the right notes on the need for critical interrogation and re-examination of the democratic practices in Africa, but his boss, President Patrice Talon, a cotton tycoon, has come under severe criticism for some of his political reforms, especially the crackdown on his opponents.

Talon swept to power as an independent candidate in 2016 and won re-election with 86% vote in the 2021 presidential election marred by violence and boycotted by much of the opposition parties.

Once praised as a vibrant multi-party democracy in a politically restive region, tagged the “coup zone,” Benin under Talon, is criticised for “slipping into authoritarianism,” and he is also accused of using a special economic crimes and terrorism court and electoral reforms as tools to sideline his opponents, with some serving jail terms, and others forced into exile abroad.

For instance, Ms Reckya Madougou, a former Justice Minister and presidential candidate in the controversial 2021 elections is serving a 20-year sentence for terrorism offences which her lawyer dismissed as a “political hit job,” while Mr Joel Aivo, another Talon rival is also sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting against the State and money laundering.

Still fresh in the memories of many is the political crisis that followed a disputed parliamentary election in April 2019, due to a change to the electoral law rammed through that year, which requires presidential candidates to be sponsored by at least 16 deputies or mayors.

Tension erupted into mass street protests broken up forcefully by security forces resulting in several casualties with political parties allied to Talon winning all the legislative seats after opposition groups were effectively banned and only six of the 159 elected officials belonging to an opposition party.

Asked about Benin authorities’ apparent strong-arm tactic against political opponents, Bakari said he could not say much because the cases were before the judiciary. But he insisted that oppositio

If Bakari is coy in discussing authoritarian tendencies in Benin, President Talon makes no secret of his discomfiture with Western-type democracy.

In a speech on 30th August 2022 to the French Business community at the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF), an annual gathering in Paris, attended by President Emmanuel Macron, the Benin President was quoted as saying: “Democracy can lead to anarchy and paralyze government decisions… and I don’t intend to fully implement it”.

Of course, he is entitled to his opinion, but governance is a product of structured consultations and engagements among stakeholders, including the government, non-state actors, an independent parliament and judiciary, various interest groups, civil society, including the media, which should hold the government accountable to the governed.

Democracy might not be the best system of government, but of all the systems of government tried and tested over the centuries, it remains the preferred option, particularly because it affords the governed, the opportunity to change their leaders through periodic elections.

Also, since democracy is a dynamic process and not an event, its principles can be nuanced or adapted to local conditions or peculiarities, so long as the objectives, rights and responsibilities of government to the governed, with human rights and the rule of law spelt out, upheld and respected.

But is the system or type of government really the problem in Africa or the operators, particularly the politicians, through their dispositions, that have failed the system?

Any governance changes for positive transformation must begin with a solid foundation, a clearly defined constitution and grundnorms.

Even so, just like a good constitution does not necessarily equate to good government, Africa’s governance challenges do not necessarily derive from the name or typology, but the determination, sincerity and commitment of political actors and other stakeholders, including the governed.

An effective governance system is driven by the principles of separation of powers among the three arms of government – the executive, legislature, and the judiciary – which must be independent, such that no arm dominates or controls the other two and with the judiciary serving as the last hope of the common man, a bulwark against impunity and tyranny.

For instance, after 17 years of military rule along Marxist-Leninist lines, Benin was among the African states that initially opened up to multi-party democracy in 1990. Yet, its governance system, like many in others on the continent, is still work in progress and will continue to evolve.

However, a governance system decreed or imposed on the citizens through a process that stifles alternative views or shuts out political opposition is authoritarian/dictatorial, no matter how well-intentioned or benevolent.

The Western-style democracy is not an imposition on Africa, yet, unfortunately, Talon and his Benin examples only mirror experiences in much of Africa.

After more than 60 years of political independence, African countries should be well placed and at liberty to change, adapt or fashion out alternative and best-suited systems to deliver the benefits of good/effective governance to their people.

But this will depend largely on visionary and dynamic leadership with the capacity to leverage the advantages of pluralism, inclusivity, and the continent’s rich socio-cultural and ethnic diversity.

More importantly, caution must be exercised to avoid replacing an existing governance system with a flawed or worse alternative.

Paul Ejime is a Global Affairs Analyst and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications

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