Unconstitutionally extending presidential terms is a common practice in African politics. Between 1995 and 2015, twenty-three heads of states reached their term limits and left office, while thirteen extended them. Last year’s round of presidential elections in West Africa followed the same pattern: presidents from Togo, Ivory Coast, and Guinea all sought re-election despite their candidacies breaching constitutional law. These events open the debate on how to remediate this unending political dilemma.
Although the problem is rooted in the domestic political dynamics of African countries, opposition parties are calling for more involvement from the international community. The African Union, as the prominent regional political organization, has prioritised the development of democratic governance on the continent in its 2063 Agenda. Moreover, the European Union (EU) has established a global EU- African cooperation, aiming to ‘promote and uphold human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy, the rule of law and good governance’.
Yet this partnership is rife with hypocrisy. Notably, EU member states still cooperate with authoritarian regimes despite escalations of violence, breaches of human rights, and an appalling trend in undemocratic elections. In particular, former colonial powers with interests in their ex-colonies often ignore the foundational values of the EU, namely the promotion of democracy and the rule of law. French support to the Ivorian President Ouattara before and after his re-election exemplifies how the promotion of democratic values is not a strategic priority in the EU-Africa partnership. Due to its significant regional influence, the EU’s actions are decisive in West Africa. De facto, the Union is the first market for West-African products and raw materials. EU- West Africa trade covers a high share of those countries’ GDP and income. Moreover, the region is the leading destination of EU investments in Africa. Thus, through economic sanctions and democracy as a central component for development aid, the EU could develop good governance compliance in West Africa.
The dynamic between France and Ivory Coast showcases the controversial bilateral relationship between EU member states and African states. France has been highly criticized for its meddling in its former colonies’ politics throughout the years. From its extensive military missions in the Sahel to its large military bases, to the political involvement in Francophone Africa, France’s role in the region has been described as the continuation of France-Afrique, that is, the continuation of Paris’s paternalistic approach toward its former colonies. The Franc of the Financial Community of Africa (FCFA) remains the currency of several former French colonies in Equatorial Africa, damning evidence of this approach. This currency is highly dependent upon the euro, with 50% of its foreign exchange reserves kept in the French central bank.
Generally, Western democracies support democratic transitions and institutions in the region. Hence, on March 5, 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron officially expressed his admiration for Ouattara’s decision not to run for a third term. According to Macron, this decision would set a democratic example in Africa, as it would have represented the first democratic transition after the country’s civil war ten years earlier. Immediately after his election in 2017, Macron had reiterated France’s intentions to strengthen its African partnerships. In the Ouagadougou speech on November 17, 2017, he highlighted French support for Africa as a partner of collective security. This issue remains essential considering that the spill-overs of African crises might create national security concerns in Europe.
Surprisingly enough, the Elysée continued its endorsement of the Ivorian regime, when in a sudden U-turn during the traditional presidential speech on Ivory-Coast Independence Day, Ouattara officially announced his candidature in the coming elections. In later interviews, the head of state argued that ‘he [did] not see another alternative’ since his political party’s official candidate had died from a heart attack just eight days before the official opening of the candidature’s submissions. The communiqué sparked internal conflicts and led to violence. According to the National Council of Human Rights, between October 31 and November 10, 2020, during the protests, 55 people died and 282 were injured. After the announcement, opposition leaders questioned the legal grounds of the decision. The party in power used a familiar political strategy— thereby changing the constitutional provisions to reset the numbers of mandates as an answer.
Additionally, out of the forty-four candidatures in the presidential elections, only five were retained by the Constitutional Court, sparking outrage among the opposition as the regime strengthened its authoritarian grip on power. Two excluded candidates with significant popular support, Laurent Gbagbo and Soro Kigbafori, referred this issue to the African Court of Human Rights. The Court issued a decision calling for the Ivorian government to suspend the charges against the plaintiffs and allow them to be candidates. Still, the government disregarded the decision, and the candidates remained excluded from the electoral list. As a sign of solidarity, two of the four official candidates called for the elections’ boycott—a call soon imitated by the entire opposition.
Despite the tensions in the country, the national authorities held the elections. On November 3, 2020, the independent electoral commission declared Ouattara the winner by a majority of 94.27%, a victory that was later confirmed by the Constitutional Council. The opposition, meanwhile, discharged the results as unconstitutional.
Furthermore, after Ouattara was declared President on November 3, 2020, the government carried out a vast campaign of arrests. Several leaders of the opposition were incarcerated or put under house arrest. Only at that point, the President opened a discussion forum with the opposition parties. Nonetheless, the dialogue’s opening was surrounded by fear since dozens of members of the opposition were still in prison.
All things considered, French actions did not match the lofty speeches on the importance of democratic transitions and human rights. On the contrary, French tactics supported the authoritarian regime, with Macron congratulating Ouattara for his re-election confirmation by the Constitutional Council, notwithstanding the situation of crisis that the country had plunged into.
Macron’s interpretation of Ouattara’s candidacy is one of understanding; he understood the decision because no viable alternative existed. The opposition swiftly reacted, accusing the French President of creating a double standard of democratic values and norms. It seems that for France, the region’s stability guaranteed by an ally such as Ouattara overrides the democratic progression of Africa into fair and democratic elections. Indeed, President Ouattara sustains the second-largest French military base on the continent with 900 soldiers, thus facilitating the French military operations in the Sahel.
Yet, the French Foreign Minister’s attendance at Ouattara’s presidential inauguration in Abidjan most significantly signals Macron’s support for the Ivorian government. Consequently, an authoritarian regime that incarcerated several political and human rights activists gained European legitimacy. That of Pulchérie Edith Gbalet, an activist and president of an Ivorian civil society organization, is sadly only one story among many. On August 10, 2020, she called for peaceful demonstrations against Ouattara’s candidacy. She was arrested on August 15 and has been arbitrarily detained ever since.
Ironically, the negative repercussions of Africa’s political instability on EU security gradually come to the fore with increasing migration flows towards Europe through the central Mediterranean route. On the Italian coast, for instance, the increase of Ivorians migrants was quantified in 2016 at approximately 230% from the previous year. In 2019, they represented the second-highest African asylum seeker group in France after Guineans. This fact surprises international observers, considering Ivory Coast’s rank as a stable political country with an emerging economy.
For Ivorian nationals, however, it is less shocking. The reality on the ground is that of identity politics, tribalism, nepotism, corruption, human rights violations, abuses of power, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. In this desolating context, the country’s youth sees no alternative to migrating towards Europe in search of a better future.
As the EU’s African policy shows, a bottom-up approach is needed to resolve the continent’s political instability. Therefore, a call for implementing a system to alternate political power and a more representative democracy that includes opposition parties should be encouraged by EU member states instead of France’s convenient double standard observed in its cooperation with its former colonies.
Moreover, international collective action is necessary to improve the region’s stability and reduce the negative spill- overs that affect Africa and Europe. For instance, enforcing international sanctions such as an economic embargo could address African leaders’ undemocratic practices. Indeed, these strict measures could potentially pressure and leave the rulers with no other option than implementing democratic values. Furthermore, France should stop its endorsement of francophone authoritarian regimes for its national interests.
Without question, changing constitutions for political ends undermine Africa’s democratic values, and authoritarian leaders are ultimately responsible for such autocratic amendments and decisions. However, continued support of authoritarianism from the international, such as France’s gap between words and actions, further the sentiment that democracy in Africa is not a priority. As long as African authoritarian governments appeal to Western interests, this convenient double standard will persist.
Edited by Gabriele Melindo; Photo credit: Avel Chuklanov, Unsplash