High-Level Dialogue On West Africa Themed: “Rising To The Challenge Of Consolidating Democratic Governance” On 28/03/2022
KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY HIS EXCELLENCY, PROF. YEMI OSINBAJO, SAN, GCON, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA AT THE HIGH-LEVEL DIALOGUE ON WEST AFRICA THEMED: “RISING TO THE CHALLENGE OF CONSOLIDATING DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE” AT THE OBASANJO PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY IN OGUN STATE ON THE 28TH OF MARCH, 2022
Let me begin by commending the Coalition for Dialogue on Africa for providing a forum for this much needed conversation and for their track record over the years in living up to the refrain that Africans are entirely capable of finding solutions to their problems.
I must also commend the Chair of the Coalition, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, for devoting most of his time, resources and prodigious energy, especially since leaving office to Africa’s most important causes.
I am aware that the coalition is also promoting vaccine manufacturing in Africa, and issues of domestic resource mobilisation among other big causes. We commend you for all of that hard work. The theme of this event – “Rising to the Challenge of Consolidating Democratic Governance” – is wholly appropriate and timely. In any event, the recent spate of extra-constitutional disruptions of democratic governance should urgently focus our minds on this crucial matter.
Twenty-three years ago, we in Nigeria discarded the yoke of dictatorship and took up the reins of democracy. Since then, a generation of Nigerians has come of age that has known only civil rule and assumes as of right the power to choose their leaders.
This is also the longest stretch of democratic governance in our history. We have witnessed a series of peaceful transitions of power, a huge credit to the democratic sensibilities of our people. Along the way, we are learning valuable lessons that can only make us better practitioners of liberal democracy.
We may be in the 23rd unbroken year as a democracy, but in the grand scheme of things, our country, as is the case with several other African countries, is still a young democracy. Many of our institutions are still in their infancy and we must carefully guide them into maturity. The price of liberty, as is said, is eternal vigilance. As one of the oldest democracies in a region that has long been plagued by autocratic and extraconstitutional regimes, democracy itself has now become part of the portfolio of our national exceptionalism.
Our armed forces are subordinated to civilian command and are fully committed to defending our constitutional order against internal and external threats.
When the brave men and women of our armed forces are mobilized for internal missions, they do so under rules of engagement consistent with the principles of military assistance to civil authority and military assistance to civil power. We have a relatively strong civil society that continues to push for greater accountability, transparency and the deepening of democratic practice.
In keeping with our foreign policy tradition, Nigeria has been a clear and strident voice for the promotion of democracy on the continent and have been resolute in condemning extraconstitutional seizures of power.
Historically, we have worked to restore and preserve democracy in places such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and The Gambia in recent history. At the same time, the events now happening beyond our borders impose a burden on us to exemplify the highest manifestation of democracy at home so that we can more credibly promote it abroad.
In 2015, we made history when an opposition party defeated the ruling party in a national election and a peaceful transition of power followed. In so doing, we vaulted over a hurdle that we have fallen at in previous attempts at democratic governance.
Since then, we have seen more and more elections at the subnational level feature transitions between parties. Certainly, we have witnessed electoral contests in which mere membership of the ruling party is not a guarantee of victory. These are undeniable signs of our growth as a democracy. There remains, of course, much room for improvement.
However, free and fair elections by themselves are not enough to secure a democratic culture. We must situate governmental legitimacy within a broader matrix of democratic practice. We must secure active citizen participation in the political process and civic life, somehow the people must believe in and own the credo of democracy.
Second, we must ensure the protection of the human rights of all citizens and groups and in this context, the intentional institution and implementation of protections for minority groups are crucial.
This is a safeguard and an assurance that electoral democracy does not lead practically to ethnic majority tyranny and the marginalization of minorities and ultimately fuel instability and strife. The promise of the creation of States is also to democratise development to the sub-national level. Stronger and more autonomous States will bring us closer to that objective. This is important because one of the reasons why we insisted on the creation of States is because we believe there must be the democratization of development at the sub-national level, and that can only be brought to fruition if we are able to ensure that those States have greater autonomy and are stronger and given more power.
Let me turn briefly to the question of African Democracy and the World Order. The factors and forces that have historically shaped the trajectory of democracy in Africa are not only local, they are external and global. From colonialism and the Cold War to the advent of globalization and the war on terror, Africa has always been a space of significance within the geopolitical order.
In all these contexts, relations with great powers have had a significant impact on the temper of relations between the state and civil society and more broadly on the democratization of the continent. During the Cold War era, authoritarian regimes dominated the political landscape with the rival superpower blocs providing support for their respective client states regardless of their democratic credentials or lack thereof.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the tide turned decisively in favour of democratization. In many African countries, the ballot box became the primary determinant of power allocation but it could be argued that the principal factor that triggered this shift was the geostrategic calculations that had necessitated support for dictatorial regimes by the superpowers, had changed.
To be sure one overall lesson we can draw from recent history is that the great powers have been fitfully selective in their support for democracy and have, for the most part, predicated their support for democratization on the continent on their calculations of their own strategic interests. Democracy is a journey and not a destination, and a transformative journey is necessarily fraught with a significant degree of uncertainty and chaos. The advanced democracies of the world all had similar evolutionary adventures, and we too are currently on our own arc of democratic growth.
The great powers have tended to favour “stability” even if that means supporting authoritarian regimes or despotic military juntas as long as that fulfils their vital interests – whether it is unfettered access to resources or the guarantee of preferential terms of trade. In this sense, the great powers may be justifiably accused of double standards for providing support for some dictatorships while reserving the strictest censure for others. These days, a critique of one of the great powers is that it is insufficiently vested in human rights and other democratic felicities in its dealings with African nations.
It is criticized for its uncritical embrace of despotic governments as client States. However, this very criticism can be levelled against all great powers that have engaged with Africa in the past. It is clear is that the interests of the great powers are rarely consistent with the democratic yearnings of the African publics generally.
We have seen in recent times, that in the countries in which democratically elected governments have been toppled such as Mali and Burkina Faso, a wave of nationalistic sentiment has been rippling through State and civil society. Indeed, an element of the rhetorical justification for the recent coups has been the portrayal of the ousted governments as proxies of colonial powers.
While we recognize that for reasons of strategic expediency and sovereign agency, countries are entitled to pivot to whichever nations align with their interests, care in this instance must be taken to ensure that we do not end up in the tragically paradoxical position of having replaced one type of colonialism with another. We must not allow our continent to become as it was in the Cold War era, a theatre of proxy wars and great power conflicts. We know from experience that this would result in a deepening of the recession of democratic values in Africa.
The militarization of civil society whether by local military regimes or rival foreign military-industrial complexes can only set us back by several decades. Our commitment to democratization must be predicated on the aspirations of our people and not the whims of foreign powers.
Let me also briefly return to the question of the apparent turning back of the democratic clock in parts of our continent. The recent spate of military coups across our continent not only portends the risk of a damaging democratic recession but also takes us back to the cycles of extra-constitutional disruptions that plagued us decades ago and which we assumed to be part of a closed chapter of our journey. Since 2017, there have been 12 military coups in Africa and half of them have occurred since 2020.
Two months ago, the democratically elected government of Burkina Faso was overthrown, while only in early February there was an attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau, that was thankfully repelled. This much is clear, we know that we cannot secure the Africa we want by turning back the hands of the democratic clock. We have walked these thorny roads before. We have many decades worth of bitter experience and the unimpeachable lesson of our history is that despotism cannot guarantee security and prosperity for our people. The investment of faith and hope in dictatorial regimes during the 1970s and the 1980s clearly did not lead to El Dorado.
Our countries were trapped in cycles of constant upheaval, oscillating between coups and counter-coups, insurrections and civil wars. No matter how dire our circumstances, we now have concrete proof that resorting to extraconstitutional regimes is not the way forward. However, for those of us that bear the mantle of democratic leadership today, these attacks on constitutional governance should be the subject of deeper reflection.
People vote because their votes are the instruments with which they can alter their material circumstances for the better. It is this sense of hope and possibility that will sustain our democracies and it must be kept alive by delivering on our end of the social contract. In so doing, we must address the pervasive sense of frustration and concern in the continent that democratically elected governments have yet to deliver on the huge promise of democratization.
Beyond this, in many instances in our region and on the continent at large, what is at stake is not merely the viability of democracy as a model of governance; it is the legitimacy of the state itself. The preamble to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights affirms that “it is henceforth essential to pay particular attention to the right to development and that civil and political rights cannot be dissociated from economic, social and cultural rights in their conception as well as universality and that the satisfaction of economic, social and cultural rights is a guarantee for the enjoyment of civil and political rights.”
It is my conviction that the practical fulfilment of the rights that are enshrined in this charter is the only objective meaning that democracy can have for our people. And the Charter itself offers us a tool for imagining the Africa we want. The progress of our democracies on this continent must therefore be pursued in terms of the struggle to address the basic problems of ill-health, malnutrition, illiteracy, and famine which daily affect our people.
Where social and economic rights are unsecured, people are unable to fully maximize their civil and political rights. For instance, access to qualitative education enhances and enriches the freedoms of expression, thought and conscience.
Conversely, pervasive illiteracy can nullify the freedom of expression itself. In any event, the very right to life must depend on the fulfilment of social-economic rights. In the progressive vision, political rights and socio-economic rights are mutually reinforcing. In any event, the fulfilment of the social contract is the enduring value proposition of democracy.
Let me conclude by noting that it is a testament to our democratic commitment in Africa that we have been united in condemning the toppling of elected governments in the region.
The immediate imposition of sanctions on extra-constitutional regimes by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the concurrence of the AU not only demonstrates our unity of purpose on this issue; it is an unequivocal affirmation of a pan-African consensus on democratic norms. Yet we must also acknowledge a criticism that has been levelled against our responses thus far. This is one highlighting a mismatch between our immediate and uncompromising condemnations of military regimes and our relatively lukewarm reproaches to elected governments that fail to act in ways consistent with democratic values.
In other words, we have developed a fairly robust language of censure and a sophisticated punitive framework for responding to extraconstitutional political interventions, but we have not yet been able to formulate a similarly sophisticated framework for addressing the infractions of elected governments that fall short of democratic best practices or break faith with their citizens.
If this concern is left unaddressed, it will deepen the perception of regional groupings such as ECOWAS as being no more than elite transnational clubs of powerful leaders who are only interested in maintaining their privileges. This will ultimately lead to an erosion of the legitimacy of the pan-African institutions that our nations have laboured hard to build for many decades.
To fill this vacuum, and in order to prevent it from being hijacked by extraconstitutional interlopers and adventurists, I believe that we must revitalize institutions such as the African Peer Review Mechanism to promote transnational collaborative learning and leadership on democratization and good governance on the continent.
The ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance which is currently being reviewed with this issue in mind is another tool that we can deploy in enhancing democratic governance in the region.
This is a moment of peril for democracy in our region because we are navigating a perfect storm of adverse circumstances – a world economy reeling from the recessionary shocks of the COVID-19 Pandemic, price and supply disruptions from the war in Ukraine, the emergence of armed non-state actors and all the challenges associated with catering for the youngest populations in the world.
But this is also a moment of opportunity – one in which we can reflect on our democratic progress, strengthen our institutions, deliver on socio-economic development and deepen our commitment to building successful democratic States.
I wish you all today very fruitful deliberations.