Deepening and consolidating the democratic transformations taking place in Africa, as well as strengthening regional and global governance arrangements, remain key challenges for African countries. As Caroline Kende-Robb of the Geneva-based Africa Progress Panel notes, two recent developments in West Africa demonstrate why governance is needed. 

The prospect of collapse remains an ever-present threat, even in countries deemed to be role models in the practice of democracy. Some believe that this is consistent with American political scientist Larry Diamond’s thesis that democracy is receding around the world. The recent Senegalese election exemplified the teething pains of even the most long-standing and robust of democracies. Despite repeated efforts by octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade to subvert the Constitution, the voice of the people prevailed and Wade was eventually forced to concede defeat to his opponent, Macky Sall, after a second round run-off. The country has passed what the Brookings Institute Press referred to as a ‘stress test’ for democracy. Senegal had run the risk of losing its reputation as the only persistently democratic country in the West African sub-region, one that had never experienced a military coup, in which multipartyism had reigned supreme for close to 50 years.

Then there is the case of last month’s military coup in Mali. As ECOWAS Chair and Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara noted in a March 28 AP News story, the coup threatens to disrupt over two decades of democratic governance in Mali, a country previously considered as one of the most stable in the region. Occurring just a few weeks before a planned general election after which the incumbent President Amadou Toumani Touré was to have stepped down, the coup is considered a mockery of Mali’s democratic tradition. The rationale for the coup – a protest by junior officers against President Touré’s perceived mismanagement of the fight against Tuareg secessionists in the north of the country – has ironically left Mali in greater danger of being over-run by the rebels, and more vulnerable than ever before to attack from Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) operatives. ECOWAS has issued a 72-hour ultimatum to return Mali to civilian rule or face intervention from a regional force.

As a direct result of the Mali situation, peace and stability in the West African sub-region is under increasing threat. Small arms liberated from the Libyan conflict are circulating freely; AQIM is operating with near-impunity from bases in the Sahelian desert; populations are on the move, displaced by the latest round of conflict; while evidence continues to surface of military and civilian involvement in drug trafficking. All this adds up to what the Citizen newspaper’s David Lewis describes as a “toxic cocktail.”

The coup in Mali calls into question the robustness of existing regional security arrangements and calls for strengthened regional solutions to address such threats. The challenges to security in West Africa are multi-dimensional and have been long in the making, including a succession of some of Africa’s most brutal armed conflicts, and might have been anticipated by the AU and ECOWAS (both of which were convening in Mali at the time of the coup).

Given the proven potential for civil unrest and armed conflict, more needs to be done by regional organizations to identify vulnerabilities in the governance of member states and address them before they escalate into major issues. While ECOWAS and the African Union have been quick in lobbying for the restoration of the constitution in Mali, so far their approach to governance and security issues seems to be guided more by crisis management than crisis prevention. Establishing or strengthening regional mechanisms for enhanced early warning and rapid response to security flashpoints should be an immediate priority; long-term stability and socio-economic progress can only prosper where there is trust in the rule of law.

These above themes are discussed at length in the 2012 Africa Progress Panel Report, which will be launch at the World Economic Forum Addis Ababa in May 2012.

Caroline Kende-Robb is the Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel, a group of distinguished individuals dedicated to encouraging progress in Africa.