Not too long ago, West Africa – from regional behemoth Nigeria to smaller states like Liberia and Sierra Leone – was bedeviled by coups and civil wars. Now, there is not a major civil war in the region and it has been a very long time since there was a coup.
A sign of the times was the recent, and peaceful, elections in once war-torn Liberia. There have, however, been agitations in Togo and Guinea, with leaders and families staying in power too long. It used to be the case that longtime leaders provided an air of stability. Entrenched over time, the price of this seeming peace has been the commonwealth, with their countries’ resources concentrated in the hands of ruling family members and their cronies.
Things are beginning to change though. In January last year, Gambians kicked longtime leader, Yahya Jammeh, out of power. A peaceful resolution to what could have been a major crisis was aided by the deft handling of leaders in the region under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Now, West African leaders know that if they want to rule, the only route is via the ballot box. The situation in Côte d’Ivoire, where a heated succession battle is ongoing, needs to be closely monitored, but peace is unlikely to be disturbed.
Months ago, Togolese, perhaps taking a cue from Gambians, took to the streets to stop an attempt by their second generation president from the Gnassingbé family to extend his rule. In 2005, Faure Gnassingbé succeeded his father, Eyadéma Gnassingbé, who had been in power since 1967 until his death. The protests were effective. In September, the Togolese parliament adopted proposals that would limit the number of terms any individual can serve as president to two five-year terms; albeit a boycott by opposition MPs meant a referendum would be needed to change the constitution, since the parliamentary vote fell short of the four-fifths majority needed.
The opposition’s gripe is that President Gnassingbé would still be able to contest and stay in power for an additional 10 years, after already serving three terms. Should that be the case, his family would have ruled Togo for at least 60 years.
Further west, Guineans also took to the streets over fears that President Alpha Condé might change the constitution to allow him to contest for a third term in 2020, after already serving consecutive five-year terms. They were also venting over economic difficulties amid vast mineral wealth – a third of the world’s aluminium ore bauxite reserves are in Guinea.
Ordinarily, these are populations that tend to be reserved; in part due to their culture, but also because of a history of crackdowns by security agencies. That they are now finding their voice is a positive. It speaks to a desire for a better life, rule of law and a greater say in how their countries are run. There is clearly a democratic wave moving across the region.
Incidentally, Togo was recently feted by the Americans, who held the 16th forum of their African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade policy in Lome. Togo was granted a so-called textile passport that would allow it enjoy preferential treatment under AGOA for the export of textile and apparel products to the United States.
Foreign investors would do well to pay heed to the smaller West African countries. Their relative stability and eager governments could prove to be profitable for investors looking to set up bases in low cost environments with the ability to serve the entire region. – Written by Rafiq Raji