The Liberian example

George Weah’s victory as president consolidates the country’s post-civil war democracy   

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:43 pm IST

Published - January 09, 2018 12:02 am IST

Football hero George Manneh Weah’s emphatic victory in Liberia’s presidential run-off in late December is noteworthy for a far less sensational, but no less significant, reason. Here, the tiny West African state witnessed a smooth political transition, echoing a resilient democratic culture that is evolving in a continent where one-party dictatorship still remains entrenched.

The election was violence-free by most accounts, belying fears of a descent into instability following the termination late last year of a UN peacekeeping mission. What helped was the relatively stable rule in the country, of more than a decade, under the outgoing President, the tenacious Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and also Africa’s first elected woman head of state. The 2011 Nobel Laureate for Peace (which she shared with two other recipients) earned global acclaim for her stewardship of a nation ravaged by the 14-year civil war in which hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and and others displaced. Among several candidates in the running for the top job was the former guerrilla leader and mastermind of the 1990 coup that ousted the President, besides the ex-wife of Charles Taylor, the warlord sentenced to 50 years by a Hague tribunal. Accusations of a fraudulent poll and judicial intervention did force the deferment of the run-off but could not prevent the eventual concession of defeat by the outgoing Vice-President.

When the democratic process commenced in 2016 to elect her successor, the refrain of Ms. Sirleaf, the Harvard-educated former World Bank executive, was that neither the people nor her age would allow her to continue in power after the second term. Such a stance was in stark contrast to the constitutional crises orchestrated by the plutocracies in several African countries.

Extending entrenchment

In 2015, for example, the entrenched rulers of Burundi, the Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, respectively, legally extended their tenures beyond the original constitutional stipulation. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza faces accusations of committing crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the brutal suppression of opposition to his manoeuvres.

In Brazzaville, President Denis Sassou Nguesso won a referendum that authorised him to a third term. In the case of Kigali, the former rebel leader, Paul Kagame, could rule till 2034.

This spell of wilful subversion of established procedures, broken in Burkina Faso under public pressure, has proved more of an exception.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, at the helm since 2001, has brazened out violent opposition against his refusal to hold the ballot due two years ago. Similarly, the prospects for Cameroon’s scheduled polls this year depend on the whimsical Paul Biya, who scrapped the term limits a few years ahead of his 2011 re-election. Uganda’s ruler since 1986 is also following in his footsteps. Yoweri Museveni is currently backing a bill to scrap the upper age bar in time for the 2021 elections. Bettering them all is Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s autocratic ruler since the nation’s independence in 1980, and only recently deposed. He is known to have opposed a 2013 constitutional amendment limiting terms.

Monrovia joins Banjul (Gambia) and Abuja (Nigeria), two other West African capitals, where new governments have recently defied the odds. When the 2015 polls that elected Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari were postponed for weeks, the move raised fears of army interference in the democratic exercise. But the landmark verdict turned out to be the first instance since the end of military rule in 1999 when an incumbent was voted out.

A defiant Yahya Jammeh, Gambia’s dictator of two decades, after his defeat in December 2016, caused President Adama Barrow to assume office in neighbouring Senegal. The latter returned from exile only after the intervention of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Intervention in the 2010 elections in the Ivory Coast, the world’s leading cocoa producer, is another instance of decisive action by the 15-member ECOWAS. The bloc endorsed President Alassane Ouattara’s victory, a result that was confirmed by the UN. That was an eminently more workable arrangement than the alternative proposal for power-sharing between the rivals after a bitterly-disputed poll.

The ECOWAS initiative underscores the paramountcy of security and political stability for sustained economic and trade cooperation among countries. The example thus raises awkward questions for the prospects of the East African Community (EAC) — the trade group that comprises among others, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda — with their egregious constitutional violations. Similarly, as a pre-eminent member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africa could do more to foster compliance with the rule of law and the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls. The founding charter of the African Union (AU), the bloc that brings together the continent’s 54 countries, commits members to effect a periodic change of leadership in accordance with constitutional procedures. Integration at the pan-African stage could prove critical to regional stability.

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