Democratic Backsliding, Youth Resistance, and the Case for American Help
On September 5, 2021, a 41-year-old colonel in Guinea’s special forces took to the radio to announce that President Alpha Condé had been arrested and the constitution had been dissolved. The colonel, Mamady Doumbouya, said he and his fellow coup makers were fulfilling their duty to “save the country.” As he spoke, a photo of the disheveled 83-year-old Condé—slouched on a couch, surrounded by his captors—went viral on social media, inspiring a meme as young Guineans humorously reenacted the scene.
Over the last two years, coups themselves seem to have gone viral in West Africa, accelerating an already troubling trend toward authoritarianism. The region has seen four successful coups (one in Burkina Faso and two in Mali, in addition to the one in Guinea) and two unsuccessful coup attempts (in Guinea-Bissau and Niger). Three democratically elected presidents have also defied constitutional term limits to win third terms in office: Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé, Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, and Condé, before his ouster in 2021.
Other West African leaders are using subtler means to erode democracy, weakening checks on their authority and harassing the political opposition. The result has been a steady decline in the health of democratic institutions across the region. But there is good reason to think that West Africans—and the youth, in particular—won’t let their democratic experiment die without a fight. Already, a resistance is emerging that harnesses technology, culture, and popular protests to hold governments to account. Young people leading this charge—not military men like Doumbouya—are the region’s real saviors.
For the first 15 years of this century, West Africa was doing well, democratically speaking. In the 1990s, during the so-called third wave of democratization, many of the region’s countries had embarked on democratic reforms. Following the early example of Benin, most members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the main regional bloc, adopted more or less democratic constitutions, with bills of rights and some separation of powers. They also revived their national legislatures, allowed competitive multiparty elections, reduced state monopolies over mass media and telecommunications, relaxed censorship, and expanded freedom of association, enabling opposition parties and civil society groups to thrive. By 2010, the region had become a trailblazer in African democratic governance, and the ballot box seemed firmly established as the sole legitimate mechanism for choosing political leaders.
Democratization brought peace to some of the region’s trouble spots. West African leaders came together to end long-running civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone and to restore democratic order in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali. ECOWAS adopted and enforced protocols proscribing military coups and other unconstitutional power grabs and came close to making presidential term limits a regional standard in 2015. Stability, peace, and material progress all contributed to the “Africa rising” narrative that took hold during this period.
That optimistic narrative has faltered over the past five years. Not only have military coups returned with a vengeance, but some of West Africa’s star democracies have also begun to trend in a worrying direction. In Benin, President Patrice Talon barred opposition parties from fielding candidates in the 2019 legislative polls and imposed a virtual media blackout during the 2021 presidential election. He has also systematically dismantled institutional checks and balances, prompting Freedom House, which had ranked Benin as “free” since the beginning of its political transition in the early 1990s, to demote the country to “partly free.”
Over the last two years, coups seem to have gone viral in West Africa.
Senegal, too, has regressed under President Macky Sall. He has changed election and defamation laws to stymie the opposition and censor the press. His second term will end in 2024, but he has yet to indicate how he will interpret a 2016 constitutional change that could enable him to run again. Meanwhile, Ghana’s much-heralded reputation for clean elections has been tarnished by increased violence, with eight fatalities during the 2020 presidential polls. Since his reelection that year, President Nana Akufo-Addo has grown increasingly heavy-handed, stifling the media and eroding the accountability of institutions. Members of his administration have also voiced support for a shockingly draconian anti-LGBTQ bill that would criminalize not only homosexuality but also advocacy for LGBTQ rights.
All of West Africa’s governments face challenges that would be daunting for any administration. They are grappling with perennial economic malaise and destabilizing security threats; persistent poverty, joblessness, inequality, and corruption; and wide gaps in the delivery of health care, education, and infrastructure. West Africa has also been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic shocks precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the early effects of climate change. Some countries in the region have sustained and even deepened their democratic traditions in the face of these challenges. In 2021, for instance, Gambia held successful presidential elections, and Niger had its first peaceful transfer of power. But too many countries have regressed down the path to autocracy.
West African leaders have faced few consequences for their turn away from democracy. ECOWAS and the African Union, which have the authority to enforce democratic norms among their members, have declined to punish leaders who defy term limits or commit grave human rights violations. Unlike former Presidents John Kufuor, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who championed democratic governance, the region’s current leaders have reinforced one another’s autocratic impulses. Akufo-Addo, for example, attended the inaugurations of Condé and Ouattara, blessing both with his presence after they won unconstitutional third terms.
But it is not just African governments and regional organizations that are to blame. Western countries have also scaled back their promotion of democratization in favor of other priorities, such as countering China, fighting violent extremism, stemming migration, and securing access to African markets. At the same time, China, Russia, Turkey, and other authoritarian powers have grown more active in West Africa, happily supporting autocratic leaders with investments in critical infrastructure in exchange for natural resources, market access, and regional influence. This combination of factors has allowed West African leaders to grab ever more power for themselves.
A RESISTANCE IS BORN
West Africa’s slide toward authoritarianism can be stopped. Popular support for democracy remains strong in the region despite the decline in the quality of governance. Public opinion surveys show that strong majorities express a preference for core democratic norms and institutions and demand human rights. Across the 14 West African countries covered in the most recent Afrobarometer survey, which was carried out between 2019 and 2021, three-quarters of respondents preferred democracy over any other form of government, and even larger majorities rejected authoritarian alternatives such as one-man rule (86 percent) and one-party rule (84 percent). More remarkable for a region with huge gaps in government services, a clear majority agreed with the proposition that it is more important for a government to be accountable to the people than to “get things done.” In the 13 West African countries surveyed regularly over the past decade, popular demand for accountable governance (rather than governance that is effective but unaccountable) has increased by 11 percentage points.
As West African leaders have strayed from these popular preferences, citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Activists, journalists, opposition politicians, ordinary citizens, and even some state officials have forged a kind of resistance movement to demand accountability across the region. The most formidable foot soldiers include the new generation of creative young people, who are using a mix of new technology and old-school protest tactics to challenge corrupt officials and agitate for better governance. Notable examples include Ibrahim Ceesay, a filmmaker and human rights defender who helped mobilize young people and civil society to push for the restoration of democracy in Gambia in 2016, and Abigail Freeman, a leading advocate for women’s rights in Liberia.
There is good reason to think that West Africans won’t let their democratic experiment die without a fight.
The resistance also includes some state officials, including Lara Taylor-Pearce, who was extrajudicially suspended from her position as auditor general of Sierra Leone in November 2021, just weeks before she was due to present an audit of the nation’s public finances. (Taylor-Pearce has challenged her removal in the country’s highest court.) To be sure, these pro-democracy forces have sometimes faltered. In 2014, a popular uprising prevented Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaoré, from abolishing term limits, but in the years since, the country has reverted to a military dictatorship. And in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo, pro-democracy movements have been met with brutal crackdowns, leaving incumbent presidents free to secure third terms.
There have also been remarkable successes, however. For two weeks in October 2020, thousands of Nigerians held round-the-clock protests in Lagos against the police force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which was established in 1992 to combat armed robbery but had since become something akin to a criminal organization, victimizing and extorting citizens. For years, Nigerian authorities had ignored calls to hold SARS to account. But a viral video that appeared to show SARS agents shooting a man and stealing his car triggered a protest movement that became known as #EndSARS, one of the biggest such movements in Nigeria’s history. Led by activists and young people, including the musician Obianuju Catherine Udeh and university student Rinu Oduala, #EndSARS eventually forced the government to abolish the rogue unit.
OFFENSE AND DEFENSE
Those seeking to reverse West Africa’s slide toward authoritarianism must play both offense and defense: supporting this emerging democratic resistance while checking leaders’ undemocratic behavior. In the long term, that will mean pushing for constitutional reforms to enhance checks and balances and promote accountability among different branches of government. It will also mean promoting the enactment and enforcement of laws to enable better regulation of political party financing, especially campaign financing. Supporters of democracy, including Western governments, international organizations, and regional bodies, should strengthen and empower think tanks, university research institutes, and organizations devoted to democracy and human rights so that they can support this reform process. Regional, pan-African, and international organizations such as ECOWAS and the African Union could also play a more active role in defending democratic governance in West Africa.
In the short term, however, defenders of democracy must focus on building defenses to protect civil society and the press against predatory state and political actors. These defenses should include sanctions against leaders who suppress civil society, a legal defense fund, and asylum for activists when necessary. The United States and other Western democracies have a great deal of leverage on these issues thanks to the economic and security assistance they provide to most of the region’s governments. They should use that leverage to push for accountable governance, cooperation in the fight against corruption, and more inclusive development, especially in regions where extremists have found fertile ground.
The last five years, and especially the last two, have seen a dangerous turn toward authoritarianism in West Africa, one that is threatening to unwind the hard-won democratic gains of the last two decades. But it is too early to write the region off. A fierce resistance is taking shape, led by young people whose material expectations and aspirations for democracy have, for too long, gone unmet. Bold and tech savvy, these activists are reinvigorating the fight against corruption and poor governance and the crusade for human rights. To win, however, they need international support.