Yet another African country has been in the news for the wrong reasons to the delight of many Afro pessimists. The creeping coup in Africa’s largest island country, Madagascar, finally became a comical fait accompli with the ‘resignation’ of the President and the assumption of power by a self-created transitional government of the former DJ and more recently mayor of the capital city, Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina.
There has been a disproportionate focus on his former disc jockey career that merely exposes the snobbery of our public discourse. In an opportunity based society the sky should be the limit for the capacity of all citizens to reach the top of their society, whether in politics or in their chosen professions. There is no particular school (though there is a strong case for one) where politicians are taught how to play politics, therefore it is an every Tom, Dick and Harry occupation across the world. The only restraint is the constitution of the country, its political infrastructure/culture and it’s laid down procedure for accession to office at various levels. That is why the first thing that any coup maker, whether in military uniform or civilian dress, does is to suspend the constitution of the country and all ‘elected’ institutions and associated freedoms and rights. Rajoelina is not the first disco man to become Head of State. Do not forget that there was one Captain Valentine Strasser in Sierra Leone whose qualifications for Head of State among his fellow young officers was the fact that he was the only one with an ‘A level certificate’ and could speak English better than the rest! In the country he was to rule for a few months, his public credentials were based on having won a national disco dancing championship! So Rajoelina is not really that original in his CV. He is also not original in the populist method he used to harangue his political opponent out of office. What may be original in his usurpation of power is that he is a civilian who removed an elected civilian with military backing! However even this may not be as it seems: although he may not have been wearing uniform he does have genetic linkage to the army which makes him ‘acceptable’.
This latest slap in the face of democratic development in Africa further raises a number of issues that we must confront in our uneven struggle for the establishment of a culture of democratic change and peaceful transfer of power. Coming so soon after the military takeover in Guinea Conakry, it is not enough for us to point at the spinelessness of the sub-regional group, SADC and the timidity of the AU reaction. We must ask pertinent questions.
One, how do we judge the unpopularity of a government? Is it because middle class elements, who are usually better organised in the capital and other cities, say so? It is quite obvious that campaigns against the former President were more vociferous in the capital. No one asked if the majority in the rural areas felt the same them and their views may not have counted. How many governments in Africa will be left standing if the accusations of personal rule, clientele cronyism and impoverishment of the citizens levelled against Ravalomanana were applied uniformly?
Two, even if an elected government is universally unpopular, should populist mob action and military coup be the means for removing such a government? If people can vote government in, why can’t the same electorate get rid of an unpopular President?
Three, why would an elected President resign and offer power to the army? Why did he not trust the democratic wishes of the electorate and defend the constitution he swore to protect with their mandate?
Is there no constitutional guidance and procedure on what to do in the event of death, resignation or impeachment of the President?
Four, is there no constitutional guidance and procedure on what to do in the event of death, resignation or impeachment of the President?
Five, if any popular politician can just mobilise and exploit the disgruntlement of the citizens, for whatever reason and undemocratically assume power, what does that say about our democratic institutions? Why should people bother to vote at all if any populist can just reverse their choice.
Neither Ravalomanana nor Rajoelina are democrats; that is why they put their fate in the army and used citizens as a foil for their selfish greed for power. The army itself is not democratic and that is why it could not defend the constitution from populist aggression.
These are questions that beg more questions. The solution to the problems of democracy however is not less but more democracy. We cannot build democracy without democrats and a culture of constitutionalism. If the constitution is wrong we can change it as laid down in the statute. If politicians are betraying their voters the same voters should exercise their sovereignty by voting such politicians out.
This requires that both the rulers and the ruled have faith in the democratic process and are willing to play by the rules. It also requires active citizens and leadership at all levels who are willing to make a sacrifice for what they believe in. Institutions do not run or build themselves; they require individuals with integrity, courage, conviction and total commitment and yes, a willingness to pay the ultimate price for what they believe in.
If Ravalomanana were a true democrat, he would have resigned and handed over power, not to the army, but according to what the constitution says. That he did not do and none of the other elected politicians, whether in the Executive or the Legislature challenged him and defended the constitution, demonstrating that they were not democrats but usurpers who feared another usurper who seemed to have both military support and ‘popularity’, no matter how tenuous. The judiciary also caved in to militarism by giving pseudo-legitimacy to the unconstitutional change.
Yet if the political class of Madagascar failed the citizens, then what about their neighbours? For weeks this coup had been creeping up as orchestrated demonstrations brought the country to a standstill with hundreds of lives lost among the supporters of the protagonists. Neither the SADC, which has an organ on Peace and Security that can intervene, nor the AU whose constitutive act of Union laid down clear conditions under which it could intervene, were able to take any preventive or proactive action. If there was a clear message from the regional hegemonic state (in this case South Africa) that unconstitutionalism will not be tolerated (as Obasanjo/Nigeria did on Togo, Sao Tome and Ivory Coast before) the African reaction would have been more resolute. The living ghost of Mugabe and domestic transition power challenges may be part of the reason why South Africa could not offer leadership, just as the uncertain political legitimacy of the Yar Adua administration prevented it from taking a decisive position on Guinea Conakry delegating mediation to no less a democrat than the person of IBB, the man who annulled Nigeria’s freest democratic election! Botswana remained alone in calling for robust reaction but with neither military nor diplomatic clout to influence the rest of SADC and the AU.
As in Guinea Conakry where both the ECOWAS and the AU just waited for Lansana Conte to die, both the SADC and AU just watched Madagascar burn until one bully pushed out another one.
For those of us who defend the AU against its many critics, one of our biggest propaganda weapon is our hope that unlike the OAU and its debilitating ‘principle of non-interference’ which translated into ‘indifference‘ in practice, the AU has moved away from that to ‘non-indifference’. Cynics are now justified to taunt us saying, “Show us the difference now!” However one must take heart that the AU is still evolving even if at a snail pace. Its only sanction for now is not to recognise an unconstitutional change of government. This represents ‘progress’ from the old collaborative attitude of ‘we recognise countries’ no matter how their government came about. The next stage is to be able to intervene against unconstitutional and undemocratic practices by current governments. Democracy and constitutionalism are not just about how we elect our government but about how we ensure that elected government respect the constitution and the democratic freedoms of their own peoples. Otherwise people will become victims of ‘elected’ dictatorship and if they cannot change it democratically, unconstitutional changes become the only alternative, even if it won’t solve their problems.
It should be part of the proactive evolution of the AU that it does not only have negative sanctions in terms of those who cannot join, but also that it has very high standards for remaining in the Union.
“Forward ever, backward never”…..Kwame Nkrumah (1909 – 1972)