In coordination with national, regional and international actors, UNOWAS works to ensure that elections are peaceful and credible.
For the first time since the creation of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) in 1975, there is no sitting West African Head of State who came to power through a coup d’état. They all came to power through due processes of democratic elections. The electoral defeat of the former President of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, in December 2016 was significant also for the fact that the people in the region, as in other part of the world, they don’t want to have self-appointed leadership and gun-governments. This has established in West Africa a beacon of democratic dispensation in which the ballot has gained roots and has overpowered the bullet to become the maker and keeper of democracy.
Many years ago, the phenomenon of governments which initially came to power through coup d’état existed in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Guinea Bissau. The insensitivity of bellicose power seekers coupled with the heavy destruction of lives and property, and the tension and violence that, in some instances, characterized elections, undermine confidence in the democratic system. They allowed rabble rousers and relativists to insinuate that democratic practice and its institutions are ill-suited to the reality of the African situation.
National actors, regional organizations, various UN actors and UNOWAS identified the root causes of electoral challenges and determined how to address them in order to uplift the importance of democratic process and fight the scourge of election-related violence.
In conformity with UN General Assembly Resolution 62/150, UNOWAS liaises with the appropriate stakeholders to harmonize their efforts in issues including how best to establish early warning mechanisms to monitor the situation before, during, and after the elections. This also requires the effective mainstreaming of conflict prevention into electoral preparations, especially regarding the role of the media, the youth, and civil society and women’s groups.
UNOWAS considers these efforts important because it believes that in the wider regional context, the conduct of successful elections attenuate the threats to peace and security in a sub-region grappling with terrorism and trans-national organized crime, illicit drug trafficking, challenges related to security sector reform, as well as the proliferation of arms and ammunitions. For this reason, UNOWAS always appeals to stakeholders and candidates to approach elections with the same spirit of tolerance and urges Electoral Commissions to ensure impartiality, transparency and fairness, through inclusivity in order to guarantee the legitimacy and consensual acceptance of the outcome of the electoral process. In doing this it has always refereed to the statutes of the ECOWAS, the UN as well as the 2007 African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the ten presidential elections held in the West African region in 2015 and 2016 were largely peaceful. A significant aspect of the success is that in six of these elections power changed hands from the ruling to the opposition parties. They are Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Benin, and Cape Verde. Where there were disputes, they were settled through legal means and not by violence.
Despite these successes, there is still the risk of new possibilities of instability as one can see in the current political situation in the Republic of Togo in recent months. Needless to say that the region needs to receive ample support from the United Nations and the wider international community especially for the promotion of human rights and good governance in order to reinforce the efforts towards good governance and transparent, fair and credible elections.
As we are aware, the region narrowly escaped a peace and security crisis of regional dimensions with the situation in The Gambia at the beginning of 2017. UNOWAS continues to collaborate with stakeholders, both local and international, to support initiatives aimed at consolidating democratic gains by measures including addressing cross-cutting and cross-border challenges which can exacerbate the security situation when combined with electoral malpractices and election-related violence.
Consolidating the gains practice
As an example, in The Gambia, UNOWAS’ involvement in the 2016 elections spans from efforts which indirectly affected the electoral process to meetings with representatives of the government, opposition parties, civil society and women and youth organizations. Thus, prior to the 2016 elections in The Gambia, UNOWAS undertook three different missions to consult with various UN Agencies with the view to assessing the situation and evaluation appropriate measures to ensure that the impending election are held in conditions that will ensure a peaceful outcome. In close collaboration with the UN Country Team and the UNDP, the Head of UNOWAS urged stakeholders to eschew the resort to violence and seek redress through peaceful means.
The way forward to consolidating the gains of peaceful electoral practice and its concomitant democratic advances is essentially one of sustained commitment and capacity building for the mainstreaming of conflict prevention and development into democratic process. It will best be achieved through a collaborative effort of stakeholders enjoying the support of the UNOWAS and the assistance of the ECOWAS and African Union in the observance of the relevant national codes and instruments as well as the respect of the statutes of international organization, and the vigilance of civil society and the private sector. The primacy of early warning and prevention should equally be stressed to underline national leadership and ownership, partnership and international collaboration as essential elements of conflict prevention. This will ensure a healthy functioning of the peace and development nexus in a region with causal linkages between a multiplicity of threats to peace and security need to be addressed holistically.