Monday, March 30, 2009

Regional Crises, Regional Solutions

Regional Crises, Regional Solutions
By E.K.Bensah

In 2008, West Africa had the distinction of being the only sub-region to have experienced two coups within months of each other.

On 6 August 2008, Mauritanian troops overthrew the country’s first elected leader that had been freely-elected, adding that they had formed a state council to rule the country. Four months later in December, the death of Guinea’s Lansana Conte would prompt young, military officers to storm the country’s radio and TV station announcing the seizure of power.

If it is arguable that these two incidences have reared the spectre of coup d’états in the ECOWAS region, especially noteworthy is how they have accentuated the efficacity of the mechanisms within the regional economic communities – including the African Union.

The hurried announcing and swearing in of Kenya’s Kibaki by the Kenyan Electoral Commission (KEC) after the country’s presidential elections in December 2007 would trigger several weeks of chaos, where the so-called tribal hatred with a thousand-plus senseless killings would play out to the world’s media.

By March 2008, the crisis was all over—thanks to the AU-sponsored intervention of former UN secretary-General Kofi Annan. His several weeks in Kenya deep in discussion both with opposition party Orange Democratic Movement (ODM)’s Odinga, and then-incumbent Kibaki would prove to set the precedent of “power-sharing.”

In Zimbabwe, when after presidential elections of March 2008, Mugabe increased intimidation of political opponent Morgan Tzvangarai in order for him to concede defeat against the face of a second round, rumours abounded that the country should go the “Kenyan way”, triggering what would now be called the craze of “power-sharing.” Several regional attempts by the fourteen-member SADC would prove futile, leaving observers and commentators to finger-point a suspected pusillanimity of veteran freedom-fighter Mugabe as the root cause for the non-condemnation of his antics.

Tale of Two Outcomes
Elsewhere on the continent, the coups of Mauritania and Guinea elicited interest, with attempts by regional organizations of the African Union(AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) respectively proving to yield altogether-different outcomes.

Days after news of the coup broke in Mauritania, the African Union was quick to condemn it, demanding a return to constitutional rule. It further added that it was sending an envoy to the nation’s capital Nouakchott immediately. Apart from the usual Western condemnations associated with the EU and the US, AU heavyweights Nigeria and South Africa were equally quick to voice their concern for the coup. Days after, the AU suspended Mauritania.

Shortly after the December coup in Guinea, the exhortations by coup-leader Army Captain Moussa Camara did little to assuage the fear of AU diplomats that they were going to revert to constitutional rule; neither did promises by the junta that none of them would run for public office. Camara had promised elections within two years—to which top AU diplomat Jean Ping would consider insufficient towards civilian rule.

Even Camara’s promise that he would reinstate Guinea’s previous constitutional limit of two , five-year presidential terms, repealing the seven-year, unlimited terms imposed by the late President Conte would wash little with AU officials, who promptly suspended the country mid-January. ECOWAS followed suit on 12 January, by suspending Guinea from the fifteen-member sub-regional group.

It must be said that these outcomes have not just shown how far mechanisms have come, but brought into sharp relief the ever-evolving and dynamic nature of the AU in the resolution of electoral conflicts. Furthermore, it has highlighted a symbolic departure from erstwhile ad-hoc solutions between 1963 and 2003 that amounted to nothing more than non-interference in the affairs of then-OAU countries.

In fact, it could be argued that the transformation of the OAU into the AU in 2003 has led to a kind of Zeitgeist where African countries, keen to march on with their democratic dispensation, have largely developed coup d’état-fatigue. That said, these latter-day coups have enabled regional economic communities (RECs) not just gain needed experience on how to better develop the paradigm of conflict prevention—both electoral and otherwise—, but also pointed the way on how to consolidate and strengthen the regional mechanisms at both the sub-regional and continental level.

REC’s Reaction
In the case of Mauritania, the mechanism found expression in a non-tolerance by the AU of the country’s coup as well as deadlines and proposition of steps to revert to constitutional rule; these steps have certainly helped the West African country get serious on holding elections—as exemplified by the January 23 announcement by Mauritanian State Council President General Mohamed Ould Abdela Aziz of elections on June 6 2009.

Six days later, the Council approved the formation of an independent national electoral commission. It is fair to say that had the AU adopted a lackadaisical approach to the follow-up of the coup, such measures—despite a 10-point communiqué issued by the AU’s Peace and Security Council (that gave a strong deadline that failure to move ahead on constitutional rule by 5 February would elicit significant sanctions, including “travel restrictions and freezing of assets”) – would not necessarily have come to pass so soon after the August 2008 unconstitutional ousting of President Abdallahi.

In Guinea, the regional mechanism through ECOWAS has been more elaborate. Like Mauritania, Guinea was ready to bluff and bluster: after having proposed a six-month deadline to conduct elections to return the country to civil rule, it suddenly reneged, setting a new deadline of December 2010. ECOWAS acted quickly to prevent any further tergiversation by Guinea; it insisted that the junta has just 2009 to return the country to civilian rule in the election process.

Calling for an early ratification and implementation of the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance and the 2007 AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance at the December 2008 ECOWAS Ordinary Summit, the regional bloc went further to secure the suspension of Guinea from all meetings of ECOWAS Heads of State and ministerial levels, until civilian rule had taken root.

At the Abuja summit earlier in January, ECOWAS set the record straight on what it felt about the Guinean situation. Nigeria’s foreign minister for foreign affairs, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, chairing the meeting would say “there is no patriotic coup as distinct from unpatriotic coup. The ECOWAS protocols we are all parties to, leave no room for those distinctions…”

To this end, ECOWAS leaders agreed on a comprehensive set of measures for the restoration of Guinea back to the ECOWAS fold. These included the leaders resolving to push for the inclusion of Guinea on the agenda of the UN Peace Building Commission; the launching of a comprehensive security sector reform; the maintenance of a permanent and constructive dialogue with the CNDD party; the completion of voter registration exercise and the provision of voter identification cards to facilitate the holding of elections this year; as well as the authorization of ECOWAS President Ibn Chambas to submit regular reports on the situation in Guinea to the Chairman of the AU Commission as well as to the AU Peace and Security Council for information and appropriate action.

SADC’s Stagger
It was an altogether different affair with SADC over Zimbabwe, for despite the announcement three months earlier for Tzvangarai and Mugabe to power-share, it would only be in late January this year for any agreement to finally be agreed at. This delay had been fuelled by the sharpened divisions and mistrust that prevailed. SADC’s prevarication can arguably be construed as a reflection of its relative inexperience as a mechanism for the resolution of a conflict that potentially had ramifications for the region.

In Kenya, it would yet again be the African Union—not the East African Community--that would help resolve the crisis. Lack of movement and the near-silence by the EAC (save for the Central bank governors of the East African Community (EAC) who called for a quick and effective resolution of the political crisis in Kenya, saying the impasse has negatively impacted on the region’s economy) reflects—as in the case of SADC—a possible inexperience on bringing pressure to bear for a regional solution.

Conversely, the six-member IGAD played a more significant role. With a delegation comprising Ethiopian, Ugandan, and Somalian foreign ministers, they met with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who was leading the mediation talks. Despite the fact that Odinga claimed that Kibaki was not the legitimate head of state, they pressed on with the talks to the extent of eventually backing the Annan-sponsored discussions.

This desire to play a proactive regional role was predicated on two reasons. First, Kenya happened to hold the rotating chairmanship of IGAD and had built up “goodwill” in the bloc for its regional peace efforts; and secondly, as Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin indicated just a few days before the a breakthrough in the talks, IGAD’s experience in Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia meant that its imperative for conflict resolution was very important in bringing to bear a solution that at least had the backing of the regional leaders.

The same imperative for conflict resolution could be attributed to the ECOWAS countries. The turbulence of ECOWAS countries Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire in the 1990s has lent the West African REC an ineluctable imperative to resolve the recent Guinean crisis that it has acted as what consultant for election assistance and organizational development Tim Bilfiger has called a dual role of mediator and election observer.

The future of regional mechanisms
Bilfiger believes that if ECOWAS is to move forward on election monitoring, it must reconcile these two roles. His proposition for an Election unit has already become reality: Ghana’s Daily Graphic newspaper of 31 January reports that a regional network of electoral commissions has been established in the West African sub-region to harmonise election standards among ECOWAS countries.

As the RECs continue to standardize and harmonise as part of their democratic dispensation, election-monitoring –as exemplified by the roles played by the Pan-African Parliament and ECOWAS in Ghana’s December elections – will become more relevant. If Guinea, Mauritania, and Zimbabwe are any indicator, we see that there remain significant regional mechanisms that are as robust as they are sound and credible. Strengthened election-monitoring will only serve to complement the already-existing ones. That the ECOWAS Network of Electoral Commission has finally been established can only go to offer one a glimmer of hope that the facilitation of a development of a healthy and democratic sub-region is possible.


This article appeared in an edited form for Third World Networks' African Agenda, Edition 12.1 (January 2009)

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