Muhammadu Buhari’s Comments on Third Terms Underline ECOWAS’ Credibility Gap on Democracy

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was in Niamey, Niger on September 7 for an ordinary summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). He made headlines for the following comment:

More of his remarks quoted here:

As leaders of our individual Member-States of ECOWAS, we need to adhere to the constitutional provisions of our countries, particularly on term limits. This is one area that generates crisis and political tension in our sub-region.

Related to this call for restraint is the need to guarantee free, fair and credible elections. This must be the bedrock for democracy to be sustained in our sub-region, just as the need for adherence to the rule of law.

The obvious though unnamed targets of these remarks are Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, both of whom are seeking third terms in elections that fall, respectively, on October 18 and October 31 of this year. One could also, although I’m not sure that this was Buhari’s intention, read his remarks as applying to other leaders in the region who have not sought third terms but who made the electoral playing fields very uneven when running for re-election – I am thinking of Senegal’s Macky Sall and Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, both of whom jailed their main opponents while running for (and winning) second terms. And then there is perhaps the most egregious anti-democratic case in the whole region – Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, who won a fourth term this past February and whose family has been in power since 1967.

Buhari has many faults, but I think he has credibility on this issue of third terms – I do not expect him to seek a third one when his time is up in 2023, and he has repeatedly pledged not to do so. You never know, of course.

The context for Buhari’s remarks about third terms was the ongoing ECOWAS response to the August 18 coup in Mali, which removed second-termer Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. ECOWAS leaders’ domestic efforts to bend and extend rules have implicitly weakened their credibility in negotiating with different actors in Mali – first the anti-Keïta protesters who threw Bamako’s politics into turmoil from June until the eve of the coup, and then more recently with the junta (the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, French acronym CNSP).

Newsworthy though Buhari’s remarks are, I don’t see pressure from him or others resulting in a course change for Condé or Ouattara. Once presidents start down the third term route they are usually (although not always, as the cases of Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo and Mauritania*’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz exemplify) determined to go through with it.

I should probably do a separate post on the ECOWAS summit’s conclusions regarding Mali, but the final communiqué is here (French). The key paragraph on Mali is paragraph 16, page 6, where ECOWAS calls for a 12-month transition back to an elected president, and demands that the CNSP designate an interim president and prime minister, both of them civilians, by September 15. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

*Not an ECOWAS member currently.

After Conde Victory, What Next for Guinea?

On Monday, Guinea’s electoral commission declared opposition leader Alpha Conde the victor of a drawn-out presidential election contest. The win represents an “extraordinary comeback” for Conde, in the words of Michael Tantoh

After winning a dismal 18 percent of votes in the first round of the election – against former prime minister Cellou Dalein Diallo’s 43 percent – Condé’s turnaround strategy saw him beat his rival with 52,52 percent of the vote. Diallo won 47.48 percent.

Conditions changed dramatically in the four months between the first and second rounds, a period during which Condé fought tooth and nail to obtain a more transparent and credible electoral commission.

Radio France Internationale reports that on the political front, he formed alliances with 16 parties which lost in the first round, enabling him to win in three of the four regions in the country and in four of the five communes in the capital, Conakry.

Reuters has more on Conde, including the stories of his previous runs for the presidency. From the little I have read, it sounds like his victory this year was in the works since as long ago as 1993, when he may have won (though not officially) a disputed election.

Conde’s victory is not, however, the end of the story. Dissension, and now violence, have followed the announcement of the provisional results.

First, Diallo has also declared victory.

Second, in a country divided by ethnicity, he is framing his objections to the vote in implicitly ethnic terms:

Diallo’s party, the ethnic-Peul-led Union for the Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG), have alleged voter fraud at several polling stations where voting totals were greater than registered voters. Diallo specifically vowed to contest “the inclusion of any results from Siguiri,” where hundreds of ethnic Peuls were chased from their homes in the lead-up to elections.

Although the displaced Peuls eventually were granted the right to vote in a protocol agreed upon by both parties, Diallo claims his party observers were denied access during voting and could not therefore certify its transparency.

His refusal to recognize the region of Siguiri is of critical importance: either party’s victory hinges on it.

Third, Diallo’s supporters have taken to violence:

In Conakry’s Bambeto suburb, riot police clashed with Diallo supporters, who rushed forward forward in small groups to throw stones before being driven back by tear gas.

At the Donka Hospital, 66 people from the fighting have been admitted since Monday morning. Sixteen are in critical condition and many have gunshot wounds.

Both candidates are calling for victory, but the ethnicization of the dispute continues on both sides: Conde’s supporters from different ethnic groups have also expressed their allegiance to him in ethnic terms.

So, what comes next?

I would bet on Conde retaining his title. International observers considered the vote largely free and fair, and the UN has called on all parties to accept the results.

But the conflicts underlying the presidential race will not be easily settled. It seems Conde will enter office amidst violence and allegations of illegitimacy, potentially undermining his domestic political capital from the start. A conflict-torn country like Guinea would benefit from a sense of national unity, but that will not come overnight.

France24 reports on the situation: