West Africa’s recent political and economic frailties

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By Francis Aubee

In the past twenty-four months, there has been a resurgence of coup attempts in the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) region, with three of them (Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso) “successful” — meaning that the governments in place at the time were overthrown. This has meant an erosion of democratic gains made overtime within the region. The risk of further coups or reduction can be viewed from the lens of how strategic and decisive internal and external factors are either addressed or left unchecked. So what are the factors that can trigger public discontent?

First, when governance is deemed to be weak, electoral promises remain unfulfilled and the social contract is largely disregarded, this can easily create schisms, amplify dissatisfaction, and lower public support for the government. Furthermore, perceived marginalization when appointing top government and military officials can prove to be a leader’s undoing.

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Second, endemic corruption is a big economic and social fabric destroyer that only benefits a selected few at the expense of the greater majority. When officials close enough to the seat of power and public finances apportion public funds, spend lavishly and buy properties they otherwise cannot afford, this makes a mockery of hardworking tax paying citizens. More troubling, many go unpunished or remain in office regardless of public outcry.

Third, relative economic deprivation — deliberately widening economic inequality by restricting development funds and initiatives in certain geographic regions while others benefit due to party affiliation, ethnicity and/or religion is a recipe for disaster. Other factors that remain unaddressed include massive youth unemployment, eroding civil liberties and rising food prices which invariably impacts purchasing power and food security. The longer these factors linger, the more likely they could become exploited triggers to spark national dissatisfaction and thus leaves the door open for a “solution” or an “alternative”.

Some of the external factors include the influence of foreign actors on domestic politics due to vested or covert interests. Perceived interference and adhering to direction from foreign actors can prove to be very problematic and thus tied to lackadaisical foreign policy and lack of domestic political will and power to manage affairs of the state. Also, in cases where transnational terror groups are gaining domestic territories and overpowering the military, this dampens the morale of the military, compounded by lack of adequate financing and support.

What is at stake for the economy of ECOWAS member states and what can they do to mitigate political disruptions? A lot is at stake. In recent times, Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy has witnessed growing insecurity from bandits, kidnappers, farmers/herdsmen clashes in addition to Boko Haram’s continued acts of terror against the state. This has sent alarm bells ringing. The growing fears of insecurity have been accompanied by complex macroeconomic challenges, social unrest and political uncertainty with the 2023 elections in sight. A 2021 publication by TheGuardian stated that N1.64 trillion had been pulled out from the Nigerian stock market between 2018 and 2020 due to loss of confidence by foreign investors as a result of growing insecurity. Although foreign inflows within the same time period stood at N1.24 trillion, it inevitably left Nigeria at a net loss. In March 2021, foreign investors and domestic investors withdrew N20.28 billion and N93.31 billion respectively.

Instability in one of Africa’s economic powerhouses is a major cause for concern in the ECOWAS region. To that end, there are no silver bullets, however, relevant actors from Dakar to Niamey should consider the following in a bid to curb the current trajectory:

o          Dividends of democratic governance must be inclusive and widespread to all sectors and regions in each country. This can be aided by efficient social redistribution to the poor, unemployed, elderly and service members. Avoiding sham elections could also be a starting point in a bid to consolidate democratic gains.

o          Foreign investors should work in collaboration with domestic private sector organizations, NGOs and governments to invest in local communities via robust corporate social responsibility initiatives. This would be an avenue for job creation and human capacity development.

o          Security is imperative for a state’s existence, therefore, improving security and ensuring the safety of lives and properties should be non-negotiable and demanded by all relevant veto players.

o          Address internal and external factors that have exacerbated public discontent. Politics and economics are inextricably linked — thus no jobs, no money in people’s pockets, no food and rapid inflation is not an ideal situation for any government.