Under Threat: Democracy in Africa
Our panelists discuss the most recent rise in violent conflict and coups in Africa, the threats these coups pose to fragile democratic institutions, governance, and civil society, and options to prevent further military takeovers on the continent.
SMITH: Good morning, or good afternoon for those who may be further afield. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting. I’m Shannon Smith. I’m the Middle East and Africa section research manager at the Congressional Research Service, and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. And it’ll be my pleasure to be presiding over today’s discussion.
It’s my real honor to introduce our panelists today.
Our speakers will include Madam Kamissa Camara, senior visiting expert for the Sahel, the United States Institute of Peace, as well as the foreign minister of Mali from 2018 to 2019, former secretary general to the president of Mali in 2020.
We are also joined by Christopher Fomunyoh. Chris is the senior associate and regional director for Central and West Africa programs for the National Democratic Institute.
And Jendayi Frazer is the adjunct fellow for Africa studies for the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She is the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African Affairs from 2005 to 2009.
So we have a very distinguished group here.
Our session today is entitled “Under Threat: Democracy in Africa.” We have been asked to examine a recent rise in violent conflict and coups in Africa, the threats these coups or takeovers pose to fragile democratic institutions, governance, and civil society, as well as options to prevent further military takeovers on the continent. Military officers have seized power in five African countries since 2020—Mali twice, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, and Burkina Faso. There were also reportedly failed coup attempts in Niger and Guinea Bissau. Additionally, other countries are experiencing active conflict, insurgencies, or delayed electoral processes that further challenge democratic governance. The COVID-19 pandemic and now rising commodity prices are adding still more stress. I would also emphasize that while Africa is our subject today, it may have experienced a surge of military takeovers, many of the pressures on democratic governance we’ll be discussing are more global.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres just described, quote, “an epidemic of coups,” speaking mostly about Africa. That implies an outbreak that is simultaneously contagious and out of control. And we can discuss both of those assumptions today. It also raises the questions of whether certain preexisting conditions make countries more vulnerable, as well as what the African Union, regional economic communities like ECOWAS, other international partners, and African countries themselves can do to break the cycle of transmission, if that is what is underway. Let me start, then, with that initial premise behind the secretary-general’s characterization of an epidemic, and start with you, Chris. What do you think this wave of military interventions—do you think it is, in fact, contagious? And do you see a takeover in one country as contributing to the risk of a coup d’état in another?
FOMUNYOH: Well, let me first say, Dr. Smith, thank you very much, and the Council, for inviting me to be part of this conversation. It’s really a privilege and honor to also being joining these very distinguished panelists who are well-known and well-established within the Africanist community both here in the States and across the continent.
On your specific question, in regards to Secretary-General Guterres’ characterization of the fragility of the continent, there’s two ways to look at it. First you can say yes. A lot of the emerging or nascent democracies on the continent are very fragile. We’ve got porous borders and populations that move back and forth across national boundaries and that identify with other sizable groups in different countries. We’ve got young militaries, many of them that speak to each other because they’ve trained the same military academies and they deal with the same grievances or may share grievances.
But that said, I would also say not necessarily, because the issues kind of differ from country to country. The relationship between civilian authorities and military establishments also vary from country to country. And the issues of legitimacy, which I think—which I believe really explain some of this—the fall of some of these governments, the issue of legitimacy is being handled differently from one African country to another.
And so we couldn’t make a general characterization, but at the same time we must really be worried about the fragility of democratic institutions and the fragility of governments that have come into power through the electoral process. And the fear is legitimate, I believe, that if nothing’s done we could reverse to the era of the ’70s and the ’80s, when coup d’états were part of the order of the day.
SMITH: Jendayi, during our preparatory session you mentioned that you have done your original research on coup d’états. Do you see a resemblance between what’s happening today and the ways of takeovers in the past?
FRAZER: Well, I’m not sure if I would say similarity. But what I would say is that, you know, I’ll go out on a further limb than Chris, and say that there probably are some generalities about which countries are more vulnerable to coup d’états than the others, while recognizing that the national dynamics or the domestic dynamics are really prevailing. But one of the things that you can see in terms of trends is countries that have coups are countries that had coups, right?
There’s a commonality of history, where if you’ve had a coup before you’re much more vulnerable to have coups then in the path. And you really see this in the concentration of coups in West Africa. You don’t really see coups in southern Africa, right? You don’t really see—you know, we have Sudan, which is, you know, the Horn. But it’s really West Africa that is—the fear of contagion, I would say, would be more West Africa. And that has to do with that very history that Chris was mentioning in the 1970s of so many coups.
And what I found in my dissertation research, which was, you know, many, many moons ago—I did that in 1989 or ’90, or something like that. So it’s really long. But I really looked at periods of transition. And particularly during those periods of transition, what is the relationship between the military and the civilian body? You know, what are the norms around civilian control of the military? What are the counterbalancing institutions to address—you know, or to prevent, to give greater capacity for civilian leadership to actually balance their own military, whether that’s security apparatus, gendarmes, and other things.
So I would say, you know, if you had a coup in the past, you’re more likely to have a coup in the future, because that’s a breakdown in norms. If you have a rapid decline—and this is really research coming out of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation rather than my dissertation many years ago—but they have found where there’s a rapid decline in participation, rights, and inclusion you’re more likely to have coups. And that’s based on research over the last decade, from 2010 to 2019 in their Ibrahim Index of African Governance.
And obviously, the deterioration of security and the rule of law in particular, when you’re in a context of, you know, fighting extremist terrorist organizations or—you know, if you look at Burkina Faso and Mali and, you know, many of those West African countries, where they’re really fighting against, you know, non-state actors—extremist non-state actors. But in the context of doing that, their security forces may also be acting against their own civilians. And so where you have that deterioration of security, that’s also, I think, a trigger for coup d’états.
And I would argue that you really do see this in, again, West Africa, more than other parts of the continent. Although, we are now seeing it in northern Mozambique as well and we have episodes in Kenya because of its borders with Somalia and other countries that, you know, have had a hard time establishing state authority and state security and stability. So I think that those are all, you know, triggers in a general sense, recognizing that each particular country has particular dynamics that can lead to these coups.
SMITH: Madam Minister, or Kamissa, if I may, can you comment then on this question of whether or not you see this as a trend that may continue, or if that’s a helpful way to frame the discussion?
CAMARA: It’s really hard to say. I believe that—well, I agree with what has been said just now. I would say that—I would strongly disagree with what Secretary-General Guterres has said when he said that we’re seeing an epidemic of coups. As has been said before, I believe each coup d’état has its own actors, its own root causes, its own triggers. And it’s really hard to say that whether we are going to continue seeing this trend of military coups and, more specifically, in West Africa and in the Sahel.
But, having lived through a coup myself very recently, I would ask the difficult question of whether this type of election guarantees the legitimacy of a country to rule, or a regime to rule. The government I was a part of won over 70 percent of the votes back in 2013—a score that has never been held by any former president before. And yet, the president I was serving was literally picked up by the military from his living room. So there are questions that are being asked today by the youth of those countries about whether the democratic model that has been applied to African countries is really one that Africans want for themselves.
And although it’s a difficult question for us who are currently in the international community to ask, I think it’s a question that’s worth it. Is the democratic model that we’re know, when you have an election happening, and then a leader elected, and then the end of a term, and then another election happening—is this model the one that Africans really want?
In some countries, the countries that have coups recently, elections are not even on the table and citizens are not asking for elections. They’re asking for jobs. They’re asking for better health infrastructure. They’re asking for education for their kids. They’re asking for better lives. They’re asking for electricity. So what countries need or citizens are asking for are democracies that really deliver. So that is what I think we need to be looking at.
SMITH: That’s a great point. And, Chris, maybe you can take us further down this road then. Thinking about this in a couple different lenses. One is, yeah, how do we address this question about, you know, public support for democracies of instant polls by Afrobarometer or others, but, you know, some cases, you know, sort of crowds, you know, sort of celebrating the coups or the sort of prioritization of other issues beyond elections. How do you sort of view it through this lens?
FOMUNYOH: Well, I think we have to continue to make the case that elections do not a democracy make. And I think that one of the unfortunate things that has happened with the whole narrative and the whole conversation about democratization in Africa in the past two or three decades is that I don’t think there’s been sufficient conversations about the meaning, the substance, the practice of democracy, and that the word has been kind of battered around so often that in many countries people go through one election, as bad as it may be, but just the fact that people came out and cast ballots have people saying the next day that that country has suddenly become democratic. And we’ve even seen leaders who were, you know, committed democrats, and said the right things, and promised—made the right promises when in opposition, once elected be the same ones that dismantled the institutions that ought to allow democracy to thrive.
You know, one thing—as, you know, being with the National Democratic Institute—the one thing our Chairman Madeleine Albright—and, you know, we’re still dealing with her passing—she always said—her mantra was: democracy has to deliver. People have to see a remarkable difference in their wellbeing from what it used to be before once their country has gone through a democratic transition. And I think that some of the failings that we’re seeing now across the continent, or some of the jubilation that we’ve seen with people coming out to cheer coup makers, is because people look at their lives five or ten years back when they participated with enthusiasm in an electoral process and elected officials, who proclaimed their attachment to democracy. Why we see those people jubilating is because they look back and they see that their lives haven’t changed. Or, if anything, that it’s changed for the worse.
And so, you know, Jendayi was talking about security, for example. If you go into a country like Nigeria today and you ask Nigerians whether they feel more secure today than they were—than they felt five or ten years ago, my sense is that a majority of the Nigerians will say no, because insecurity has become quite a problem. And what this means is that many Nigerians will be asking whether the current dispensation is one that has really improved upon their security situation. That said—so in that light, I believe we have to talk about democratization and democracy with a lot more discernment than do the ordinary people in the streets.
But I would also then to say that the enthusiasm that has been demonstrated in some circles about these new coups, even amongst people in African countries, is going to be short-lived, because almost every military regime is popular the day right after the coup or the day of the coup itself. But as time goes by and citizens begin to realize that the military is not going to be able to deliver on security—look at what has just been happening in Mali itself. In the past few months, including massive atrocities with hundreds of civilians killed. Once people realize that the macroeconomic indicators are going to go south because the military may not have the ability to manage the economy, once people realize that their countries are getting isolated because of poor judgement calls made by military regimes. They’re going to have to think twice about that support.
And that would maybe trigger another phenomenon of counter-coups if the present coup leaders do not expeditiously put in place mechanisms to return thee countries to democratic civilian rule where legitimacy really emanates from the people, demonstrated through meaningful, and credible, and inclusive elections.
FRAZER: Yeah, can I pick up on that, Shannon?
SMITH: Please do.
FRAZER: You know, I think that—I think that the points that Kamissa and Chris made are really on the money. But I do think that there’s—in the past, I think that we looked at coups as an outcome of deteriorating economic conditions, particularly during the times of structural adjustment, et cetera. You know, where people’s incomes were declining significantly, their standard of living—to the degree that they had a decent standard of living, was declining rapidly. But I think this time is different. And I think that it really does get back to the integrity or the legitimacy of the government. And it gets—it gets to this question of elections and what is the form of democracy.
And one of the things that we’ve seen, according to the research that—the Ibrahim Index, I like that—an Afro-barometer, for that matter, as well, which is part of the Ibrahim Index where it puts in perceptions of citizens. Not just, you know, the raw numbers. But the integrity of elections is a key factor in the threat against democracy. When people stop having confidence in their capacity to participate in those elections, when they continue to think that those elections are fraudulent or something, that I think becomes a huge part of the deterioration of the legitimacy of a regime.
And I wonder, Kamissa, I’m not so sure that it is that they don’t think democracy’s important. And I’m not—I’m even not sure that they don’t think elections are an important way to bring in new leadership. I think that they just don’t have confidence that those elections are going to happen, you know? Like, Guinea, they were quite happy when they—you know, when Conde was elected. But then when he changed the constitution to give himself another two terms, people were, like, what’s going on?
And so that faith in, I think, the integrity of the elections is a key component of the threat against democracy, as is—again, I come back to citizens’ participation. When civil society space starts to shrink, that also becomes a very dangerous way in which then the military can rise, right? It’s when you have legal societies, and you have organized civic organizations it’s much more difficult—I think it’s less—it’s a less vulnerable environment, I would put it, for military action against civilian authority.
And so I think that even while we talk about democracy generally, if we can pinpoint specific aspects that have to have attention to be—to be able to shore up these democracies. And I do mean over time, because none of this—very little of this happens within a year. It’s a deterioration over time. And it has to be a buildup of legitimacy as well over time.
SMITH: One of the sort of statistical risk factors—or, sort of that countries confronting violent extremism and insurgency are at higher risk of military takeover. But they’re also a reality that many governments face. Kamissa, could you maybe speak to this question about does insecurity itself erode the legitimacy of governments, or thoughts about how to combat that question?
CAMARA: Mmm hmm. So I—well, the question of security and insecurity in the Sahel region most specifically, so where you have the countries of Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania—the question of security has been central in defining whether countries have been effective as states. And so in most countries of this region, security has really been the defining factor for a regime to say, we’ve fulfilled the contract that we’ve established with the citizens of this region. And so when this contract hasn’t been fulfilled, that’s when you see these attacks that continue happening, the government failing to communicate to its citizens about what is going on, and the means that have been deployed by the government to put an end to the insurgencies and to make sure that the security situation is handled in a long-term basis. I think that contributes to delegitimizing the state.
And, you know, I have obviously the specific example of Mali in mind, but also one thing that we should also be looking at is most of those countries are devoting over 30 percent of their national budgets to defense questions. And so this happens at the expense of health, education—well, basic services, basically. And so they’re under extreme pressure to deliver on the security aspect, without the education, health, and other basic services disappearing. They need—they need attention, they need investment. This is a region that is facing a demographic explosion. We’re not really looking at it in terms of even urban infrastructure that need also attention. But at the same time, you have another fire to put out, which is the question of security or insecurity, I would say.
So to me, it’s almost a Catch-22. I’m not even sure that there is a solution in the long term. The international community, and I like using that expression even though it doesn’t mean much in this context, but international actors in the region have invested quite a lot of money into the stabilization of the region. And I’m thinking about the G5 Sahel, as a homegrown solution to the security situation in the Sahel. That hasn’t really taken off, but when it comes to state legitimacy, I’m not sure that any of the countries I just mentioned, if we were to conduct an Afro-barometer survey, that they would be considered as legitimate actors, mainly because of the insecurity that has been prevailing in the region.
SMITH: And thinking about some of those sort of broader international actors, but also some of the regional institutions, Chris, could you comment maybe on the role of the African Union, or ECOWAS, or other international actors, and both what maybe role they have played but maybe, more importantly, what role you might see them playing in a productive way on this question of helping governments address some of these challenges, or addressing them regionally.
FOMUNYOH: Sure. And maybe before I do that, with your permission, I can just piggyback a little bit on what Kamissa just said. Because she’s so accurate in terms of capturing how the security question has become a defining point or a defining issue for governance in the Sahel. Because, you know, initially, of course, we talk about legitimacy can come about in two ways. It comes from the source of the political power that’s through credible, meaningful, inclusive elections. But it’s also then—it has consolidated, or strengthened, enhanced, or undermined through performance. And I think one of the areas in which governments have stumbled in the Sahel has been in that area of performance and on the security question, as Kamissa just illustrated.
But I think that performance also has to do with the very nature of the security architecture in many of these countries, which is very centralized and having to deal with insecurity that’s coming from within the periphery, where communities exist that already have a very strenuous relationship with the central government. And I think that has added another layer of difficulties for the central governments in these countries to actually go out in the peripheral areas and deal with these issues of security or insecurity. And that has brough to mind, for me, the necessity for real rigorous security sector reform in many of these countries that can empower youth and communities in the rural areas to be able to take responsibility and also have some resources to deal with their own security issues, and then have the central government come in as backup to help them do that.
Unfortunately, these countries are experiencing a crisis. So on the—taking security sector reform right now may be like asking them to fix the plane while they fly. But I think unless that relationship is jigsawed in some fashion that a lot of these countries are going to continue to deal with that. And later in the conversation I hope we can come back to a country like Niger, which for me is a success story that is not really being talked about that much. Because this is the one country in the whole Sahel that was surrounded by all of its neighbors, grappling with serious issues of insecurity, but that has managed somehow to still be standing and to fend off attempts at military incursion in the political process.
And I think the fact that many Nigerans saw the country go through a successful alternation of power through the ballot process, the first time in Niger’s history, has bought some time for the current government of Niger. And I believe that if it stays on the democratic path and enhances its deliverables in terms of democratic governance, that it may provide us some lessons in terms of how to find antidotes to the phenomenon of military coups. That said, I would say that the regional organizations are really underperforming on the continent right now, and that should add to our concerns.
That the African Union, that was so celebrated in 2001-2002 when it came out to replace the African—the Organization of African Unity, with a proclamation that the African Union would really be looking out for the African peoples instead of just looking out for governments. The African Union that adopted a very celebrated charter on democracy, elections, and governance in 2007 is not the African Union that we see today. That it’s really underperforming. And one of the reasons is that it is not meeting its expectations on issues of holding African leaders accountable to their own commitments.
You know, the celebrated NEPAD or the Peer Review Mechanism that we had would allow African leaders to be able to call their peers to better performance and better conduct of themselves. That is all dissipated in thin air right now. And I think if you were to conduct another poll—another scientific poll across the continent, that many Africans wouldn’t feel that the continental body, the African Union, is really representing the interests of the African people and speaking to their desires to be governed differently.
ECOWAS, I think, has struggled because up until 2015 I think that was with the alternation of power in Nigeria, that was a high-water mark for ECOWAS and West Africa as a region. At that time, in 2015, only thirteen of the fifteen leaders in West Africa had—thirteen of the fifteen leaders in West Africa were either in their first or second term of office, and all thirteen were committing to respecting the constitutions of their countries, and there was a lot of hope and enthusiasm that ECOWAS and West Africa would continue to go in the right direction.
The problem that ECOWAS faces today is that when some of the democratically elected presidents were underperforming, then many citizens in those countries didn’t see ECOWAS speak up and try to advise these leaders to govern differently. And now when the military jumped into the political arena and claimed that part of the reasons for the coups was because the leaders—the civilian, democratically elected leaders were underperforming, ECOWAS now found itself in a very awkward position, to have to come back and tell the military to toe the line and respect its protocols. I think that’s the challenge that ECOWAS is facing.
We’ve also seen that with SADC. They pulled their feet over Zimbabwe for so many years—well, for decades, and were never able to bring Zimbabwe to undertake political and economic reform. We’ve seen that SADC has also been slow in helping Mozambique respond to the crisis of insecurity in the northern part of Mozambique, to the point that Mozambique had to reach out to Rwanda and ask Kagame to step forward and help with the Rwandese military. So at this point if I were to make a judgement call I would say the regional organizations are struggling and will really need to be bolstered.
SMITH: There’s a lot of terrific points there to unpack on both the regional organizations as well as some of the earlier issues, including the idea of, you know, paying more attention to the positive examples rather than getting caught up in the language of contagion. But I want to take this time to invite members to join our conversation with their questions as well. And we can continue to explore some of these themes, as well as some of the other points y’all have all raised.
Sam, do we have questions?
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Mahesh Kotecha.
Q: Thank you very much. Greetings. I know one of you, at least. Jendayi, how are you?
Q: And Mr. Fomunyoh—
FOMUNYOH: Yeah, Chris is fine.
Q: Chris is fine, thank you. I’m impressed with your impeccable English, as a person who struggled to speak French in your zone, in UEMOA. But let me ask you, the discussion has been rich—as Shannon pointed out. Thank you.
Two issues. One is, on UEMOA, you have three countries that were mentioned, right? You have Mali. You know, you have Niger. You’re going to get four, Burkina Faso. And you’ve got Guinea Bissau, right? Two of them with the coups. And actually, ECOWAS is also mentioned. ECOWAS has got sanctions against Mali and Burkina regarding payment because of the situation there. So I’d like—and there’s also all this—you know, there is Mr. Macron. We didn’t mention Macron. There is this stuff about, hey, you colonialists are still here, OK? So what’s going on? I mean, is some of this related to the coup—related to kind of the anti-colonial feelings?
I mean, just to conclude my question, CFA link with the euro has been one of the most successful in the world. And I’ve told the French treasury that they should go around and tell the world how successful it is, because it has allowed BOAD, which was my client for a dozen years, to achieve investment-grade ratings and borrow billions of dollars for your countries at fine rates. That is a very successful thing that owes, in no small measure, to the CFA link. So what is going on? Is some of the militarism anti-colonial? Or is it just incompetent?
SMITH: Chris, do you want to start that? Maybe Kamissa will join in.
FOMUNYOH: Well, it’s a great question. And I don’t know how the Council is going to handle this, but each one of those questions—or each fraction of that question could be the source of another conversation—full-blown conversation on the CFA frac and the role of UEMOA, which is an economic and financial community of CFA-using countries in West Africa, the role of France, and the anti-French sentiment which has, you know, been fanned in the past few years by some arrogance, one must admit. There’s an arrogance coming out of Paris which really does not have bilateral relations between Paris and a number of West African capitals—or, African capitals, you know, to speak—to even broaden the conversation.
So these are the kinds of issues that have been boiling beneath the surface that many of the civilian democratically elected governments have had a hard time dealing with. But the crises are growing by the day, especially with regards to the CFA franc, that many Africans today cannot understand while their foreign reserves are kept in the French treasury, why the CFA franc is pegged to the French franc, which no longer exists, because even the French dissolved their own currency, the French franc, into the euro. And the sheer weight of the French treasury in determining fiscal policy for African countries—or, for French-speaking African countries.
In West Africa, many West Africans have also been very frustrated that efforts by West African countries within ECOWAS to come up with a common currency seem to have been undermined at some point when the French president went to Abidjan and all of a sudden made a declaration that there was an effort to form a currency, and even name their currency the eco. And so there’s a lot of resentment. And of course, you know, the military is good at tapping into that, but these obviously are issues that are going to have to be resolved.
And I think the French need to come to the realization that the current generations of Africans, they are Africans who didn’t experience the colonial years prior to independence, they are Africans that were not part of the accords, the agreements—the accords, the cooperation agreements that were signed between 1958 and 1960, when de Gaulle used that in a very imbalanced way—you know, holding that over the neck of the colonial—the leaders in the colonies to say: I will facilitate your process of obtaining independence if you sign this cooperation agreement with Paris. You know, the Africans of today can’t relate to any of that. And they’re asking, why is there this pull on their governments and their countries?
And I think that those who really want Africa to grow, and to emerge, and to have the full benefit of its resources be invested in improving the wellbeing of their citizens, cannot shy away from addressing the relationship between most African countries and, especially, Paris, whether it’s on the security and military front, or on the economic and fiscal policy-related issues. Thank you.
SMITH: Kamissa, would you like to speak a little bit to the question of the perceptions of France?
CAMARA: Yes. Yes. I wanted to say that—I’ve said it many times—I believe that France and its former African colonies have sort of a schizophrenic relationship. They just hate each other, but they cannot do without each other at the same time. I was, myself, born and raised in France. And yet, I served in the Malian government because I am of Malian origin. I have to say that France’s franc policy in Africa has definitely been perceived as arrogant, disrespectful, and patronizing, especially of the past ten years. In the Sahel specifically, after President Idriss Déby died on the battlefield, President Macron actually traveled to N’Djamena, Chad and sat right next to the son of Déby, who took over after his father, at his father’s funeral.
And I think from—that was a huge diplomatic mistake on the part of France. And that contributed largely to the—France losing its credibility when it comes to giving almost orders to countries of the Sahel. And I believe that the Malian authorities have reacted as such. Saying, well, if you’re going to defend your interests so openly, because Chad is your security partner in the region, well, we’re going to do the same. We don’t want you anymore. And so the French ambassador in Mali was expelled. I’ve never seen that. I don’t know that, Chris, you can—I don’t know if that ever happened in the history of France in Africa.
And so, yes, we’re seeing a new generation that is not going to accept the way France behaves in its former colonies. They want independence—real independence. They want to define their own way forward. And they will do so according to their own agendas. And they are determined in doing so without the help of France.
SMITH: That brings us to the question, perhaps, of other countries who they—Malians or others—may be turning to. But, Sam, let’s go to another question from our members.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Deborah Harding.
Q: Hi. Good morning. Thank you very much. This is a wonderful, wonderful conversation. I want to ask a question, please, to Madam Camara.
I’m wondering if there’s something inherent in the structure of Francophone governments that makes coups so much more likely than in those countries that are structured more along the Anglophone line. And, you know, thinking about to the first, I think, coup, 1963, in Togo, and then a string of them ever since, right up until the present day. So I’d appreciate your thoughts on that, please.
CAMARA: Very quickly, I do believe that, yes, the fact that power in Francophone countries is so centralized around the person of the president makes it more difficult, especially when there are crises around the country. We can more—well, create fertile ground for the military to get into the cracks of governance mistakes or issues that the centralized government has created. I believe—and that’s—may be just an assumption.
And I don’t know what Jendayi thinks or what Chris thinks, but I believe that really the—in French we say—(speaks in French)—everything is around the president. He is almost a king in the country, and so the powers are not so devolved, even to the level of the prime minister. The prime minister has to respond to the—to the president. And even though the prime minister is supposed to coordinate the action of—well, the activities of government members, everything falls back on the president and what he says, and what he thinks, and what he wants. And that, to me, creates a situation where he becomes an easy target and is quite easily removable by a military coup. That’s just my assumption.
SMITH: You have two kinds of countervailing forces there, perhaps. One, the power of the president and the weakness of other institutions. But also, as we’ve talked a bit, the power of the military as opposed to some other civilian institutions sometimes, as reflected in the defense budget but also in other aspects of it. Jendayi, would you want to jump in on this?
FRAZER: Well, yeah, but not specifically. What I would like to say is I think it goes back to the very first question—or, the very first answer that Kamissa gave about homegrown solutions to democracy, right? When she was putting—when she was questioning, you know, how important are elections from the standpoint of the citizens, right? If elections aren’t delivering to them, then how important are they? It comes back—you know, French system, British system—you know, it comes back to this question of how is African institutional democracy evolving, right? And what role do outside forces, whether they’re France, or the U.K., or the United States, or China, or Russia, or whomever—what influence are they having on that process, right?
Because, you know, I think about—and this is going too far afield, so I don’t want to go too far afield—but I think about the United States and our struggles with democracy. And so I say, one thing we have to say is that this threat of—the threat to democracy is not—is a global one. We know that, right? It’s not just—(laughs)—you know, it’s not just Africa. I mean, there’s a wind of authoritarianism, you know, let’s put it that way, that we see globally. But I also—you know, we have, like, regional differences in our polity, right? I mean, the south doesn’t vote the way the—you know, the west does. Or, you know, California is so very different than Florida, or Alabama, or whatever.
But when we talk about African democracy, we don’t want it to be based on regionalism or ethnicity, right? We were, like, well, that’s the wrong basis on which you are trying to mobilize support for yourself. You’ve got to have more broader themes. And my question is, if those are some fundamental dynamics, how do you—how does Africa come to grips with that, without trying to just deny it and act like it’s not there, right? Because it’s there. That’s—every society has its fault lines, it has its basis for mobilization, its basis for community. And I think that the—you know, that part of the challenge that we have, and that Africa has, is that the world has solutions for it. Where is the space for that agency to actually evolve institutions in a way that fits better with society, recognizing these things are quite dynamic?
So I think that that’s one of the issues that are—that’s really deep and fundamental, that’ll answer all of these questions that—you know, and all of these challenges that we’ve posed right now, is that you’ve got to get that organic, institutional development that fits with society to be able to build that legitimacy that will sustain a country against these types of coups and, you know, conflict as well—violent conflict.
SMITH: So all politics is local, and so is governance.
FRAZER: It’s more that—it’s more—it’s not all politics is local, because I’m saying that the international community has a huge impact on—I think about coups, and I think about what as a foreign policy specialist and as a U.S. diplomat would I be doing right now to try to address these coups. And what we do is we incentivize the coup leaders, right? We’re trying to incentivize them out of power, which is exactly the opposite of holding them accountable for having coups. (Laughs.) You know? And so in some ways the international community is a contributor, right, because of the ways in which we’ve tried to get them out. Whereas, if you had these—you know, people matter.
If you had these regional organizations like ECOWAS doing their job, which they have done in the past—look at what they did in Gambia and, you know, in Liberia, and other places. If they were doing their jobs, then the international community could link with them, support them, come behind them, instead of being in the forefront. You know, I think it’s ironic that, you know—you know, France put all these forces on the ground, tried to help save the Malian government against, you know, this threat of extremists.
And yet, now is tremendously unpopular, right? And people are like, well, they’re taking rare earth metals out, they’re just—it’s all their economic interests, et cetera, when they put in—they devoted so much effort to actually trying to shore up, right? And so I think that whenever the international community tries to act very directly, it often can go in the wrong direction. It has to be behind the regional institutions, regional leadership, to be able to, I think, be constructive and sustainable.
SMITH: Great points. Sam, do you have another question for us?
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Lucy Dunderdale Cate.
Q: Hi. I’m Lucy Dunderdale Cate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I wanted to just ask about—you brought up, kind of as Dr. Frazer was saying, kind of the skepticism about the place of elections and democracy in Africa. And I wanted to hear from you just systems or ideas that you see as possible alternatives. I know you’ve talked about the importance of homegrown solutions, and how international actors can support those. But I wanted to hear if you had examples of those types of homegrown solutions or systems that you think would be important.
FRAZER: Is that to me?
Q: To all three of you.
FRAZER: Oh, good. Chris, you go first.
FOMUNYOH: Oh, OK. I’ll defer. (Laughs.) When the assistant secretary says go first, I can only but defer. Thank you, Jendayi.
That’s an excellent question, Lucy. And I would say that in the past three decades, since we began to see the wave of democratization—the third wave, as—(inaudible)—and others kind of characterized it and everybody embraced it, this conversation has been quite persistent in terms of other—you know, other homegrown options that should be integrated into how you put in place these institutions. There’s even the slogan: African solutions to African problems. Which I think misses the point to some degree.
But people are grappling with this. And you would see, for example, that in the three countries that have had recent coups—Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea—there’s a recognition that the institutions haven’t worked, or that what was inherited at independence hasn’t worked, and the model that was inherited—you know, Kamissa made the point about the centralization of power. The constitutions of all of these Francophone countries was really tailored after the 1958 French constitution of the Fifth Republic, which gave almost all the powers to de Gaulle. And so that’s still the frame of reference that many of the leaders had, and that the younger generation grew up with that in mind.
But you’re how hearing in many of the—in these three countries a lot of talk about reconfiguring the state—la reformulation de l’état, as they say; we want to reorganize the state. And that’s why they’re not giving any timeframe. And so you wonder whether they’re using that rhetoric because they really believe that the state needs to be restructured and reorganized, and all of those institutions need to be reconfigured. And maybe with the decentralization of power, or whether they’re using it because they realize that it’s a rhetoric that will buy them some support, because people definitely are coming to the conclusion that the process isn’t working for them.
On matters of elections, for example, the first past the post is turning out to be a system that’s not really adapted to the context of many of these countries, where political access to political power also then determines access to economic power, and access to benefits of development. And where, with the first past the post, it’s happening in a number of countries that someone gets 50.1 percent of the vote, and then they get everything.
And even in countries where the electoral laws are very poorly written, that do not allow for runoff elections, a president can get elected because he—unfortunately, right now it’s still mostly the hes—he was the top candidate on a list of twelve or fifteen candidates, and he had 25 percent or 30 percent of the votes in the first round. And he’s declared the winner and is given the mandate to rule for five or seven years in some countries. And he governs as if he had 100 percent of the vote, because he takes everything to the exclusion of everyone else and fails to realize that 70 percent of the population didn’t vote for him in that first round poll.
So I think there needs to be a lot of effort towards electoral reform to make sure that the electoral laws, for example, can take into consideration the diversity that many of these countries represent or capture within their populations, in a way that makes people feel like they can identify with the outcome of an electoral process. If we just adopt some of these systems from the outside and, you know, have these countries embrace them wholesale, invariably in the implementation they’re going to realize that it’s not very adapted for their circumstances and it’s not working for them. And that may lead to more disaffection and rejection of what comes out of the ballot box and the electoral process. Thank you.
SMITH: And Kamissa and Jendayi, I’ll turn to you for a last lightning response on this.
CAMARA: Yes. Quickly, I wanted to say, in most countries where we’ve had military coups recently, coup leaders have organized national consultations. They call them—(speaks in French)—or—well, they have different names, but very fancy names to express the fact that they are consulting the people, even at the grassroots level, and that they are—they want them to tell them, as the new leaders, what they want to see within the next five, ten, even twenty-five years, I’ve heard, in some of those national consultations.
And so electoral reforms have come back quite often. In Francophone countries, usually you have the ministry of interior that organizes elections. But you also have these electoral commissions that are set up three months before the elections. They’re dismantled right after. They’re not very effective. And so sometimes the fact that they are not effective does affect the outcome of the election. And so there have been talks about conducting electoral reforms before organizing presidential elections that are supposed to put an end to the unconstitutional change of government or the political transitions that are ongoing.
But also, one thing that has come back quite often is people asking—and I’m cautious when I’m saying this—but people are supposedly asking for longer presidential terms. Meaning that they want presidents to stay in power for a longer period of time so that they can be—they can have more time to implement those reforms that have been asked for by the people. I’m not sure whether it’s the military in power that are asking—that are tampering with the conclusions of some of those consultations in order to, you know, legitimize the fact that they want to stay longer. But if that were true, I think that most citizens are conscious of the fact that rebuilding a state from scratch takes a lot of time. Creating a new model takes even longer. And whether that is—time is the only thing that is needed is a question that we can ask ourselves in another discussion, right?
SMITH: Yeah, Jendayi, you get the last word, but only in the last minute.
FRAZER: Yeah, one minute. I would say—point to some examples. Look at the Gacaca courts of Rwanda. They just came out of the twenty-eight commemoration of the genocide there. And they had to deal with a huge problem of justice. And the United States and other Western countries were trying to push them to deal with justice the way we do, through our court systems, et cetera. They didn’t have the capability or capacity to do that. They went to their own societal norms and history, and they developed the Gacaca courts for different categories there. So that’s an example, for example, of trying to find something that is more organic and homegrown. So what I’m really talking about is a government relationship with its own civil society, with its own population, with its own citizens. And so it’s not something that comes from people writing papers. It has to come through a process of engagement with society to build those institutions.
Another very quick example is Kenya, which keeps every other election—they’re trying to redo their entire constitution, right, to try to get it right this time. Which you could say that’s very negative, because you can’t keep undoing your constitution. But it also is very much a sloppy process of building democracy where, you know, some of these constitutions have been rejected by the population through referendums. Others have been rejected by the supreme court, saying, you know, that they’re not—that it’s not constitutional. But to me, that is, again, an organic process of trying to build a democracy. Even if their politicians are using it to try to exclude others, it’s still part of that organic tradition of building your own democracy. And so I think we just have to recognize that it’s messy and it’s long, but it’s absolutely necessary.
SMITH: All right. Well, I wish we had more time to explore the long road, but I want to thank all of you, our panelists, for joining us today, and all of the members who’ve attended this virtual meeting. The video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR website. Thanks to Sam for handling the questions, and our organizers. And everyone, I wish you the best. Take care.
FRAZER: Thank you.
FOMUNYOH: Thank you.
CAMARA: Thank you.