A Region in Uncertainty: 2024 in West Africa
Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu has had to grapple with the purported removal of the costly fuel subsidy, rising inflation and recent insecurity challenges in less than a year in office. But his other major role, as chair of West Africa’s bloc, might cost more sleepless nights for the rest of this term. Just like 2023, the elections scheduled in the region this year will lead to the departure of several leaders and potentially upend dynamics.
Already there are warning signs about the legacies of controversial elections which took place in 2023. Sierra Leone’s government has charged former President Ernest Bai Koroma with treason for his alleged involvement in the attempted coup of November 2023, which followed widely criticised elections in June that saw incumbent President Julius Bio re-elected. The process led to distrust of many government institutions. The opposition party, which Koroma belongs to, declined to take their seats in parliaments for months in protest. Reports have shown that ECOWAS did try to negotiate a landing for Koroma in Abuja before the charges were made, but the concerns will primarily follow if citizens even trust the fairness of the judicial process and if this does not spur another attempt at challenging the government.
These concerns will be on the minds of politicians in the countries going to the polls in 2024. Increasingly unpopular governments in Senegal and Ghana have led to heated clashes between the candidates. Former Ghanaian President John Mahama will seek a return to the job he lost in 2017, but will still face a strong task against Vice-President Mahamadu Bawumia representing the incumbent party. In Senegal, Macky Sall was forced to rule out a third term after protests, but there remains some controversy over attempts to block opposition leader Ousmane Sonko from being on the ballot. Besides the transition to new leaders, and potentially new ruling parties, the year 2024 will also see the departure of seasoned leaders in the region at a time when their experience is sorely needed.
This might be particularly needed in Guinea-Bissau, where opposition victory in June’s parliamentary elections hinted towards a potential defeat for President Umaru Embalo in this year’s elections. However, the tenuous political relationship led to his decision to dissolve parliament following an attempted coup in December, which he has blamed on the opposition and the National Guard. If Guinea-Bissau is to go to the polls this year, it will need to grapple with forces at odds with each other during an already unstable period. Similarly, despite initially scheduled elections, military juntas in Mali have already announced an indeterminable delay for ‘technical reasons’, while Burkina Faso’s aim to provide security before voting is a convenient excuse to delay the vote. The lack of clear processes is likely to lead to another round of negotiations with ECOWAS to ensure a feasible transition timeline to avoid sanctions.
Issues away from the region are also likely to affect ongoing processes. Chad’s military ruler, Mahamat Deby, has sought to stabilise his government, and assuage critics, by naming opposition leader Succes Masra as prime minister. Masra replaces Saleh Kebzabo, himself a former opposition leader who was tapped as part of the ongoing political transition. The changing of the guard follows last month’s referendum, which will lead to elections to confer some democratic legitimacy on Deby’s rule, which followed his father’s death in 2021. While not in the region, Chad borders Niger and will be expected to play a mediating role in balancing the different expectations and positions within the junta. Furthermore, if the elections lead to unrest and disillusionment, it could affect Deby’s position and ability to play the effective interlocutor.
But despite a large number of elections expected in the region, and across the continent with South Africa, Rwanda and Mozambique among others voting leaders, the region is also dealing with different challenges. After July’s coup in Niger established a ‘coup belt’ across the Sahel, insecurity has taken on a different form with non-state actors vying for influence and historical foreign relationships in flux. French troops respected a deadline to withdraw from Niger in December, with a further confirmation that the embassy will not reopen for the foreseeable future. This fading influence has provided an opportunity to other actors, such as the Wagner Group to establish ties with military juntas no longer able to rely or depend on Western financial and military support in managing contentious security challenges. A local branch of Islamic State is likely to remain a thorn in the side of regimes still struggling to provide basic amenities to their citizens. The Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual defence pact between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, has provided these military leaders a space to work away from ECOWAS pressure, but the security concerns remain regional and eventual collaboration will be required to avoid unnecessary clashes.
Coupled with economic challenges and increasing investment in addressing the 130 disease outbreaks that the region was dealing with as at November 2023, the year ahead will be similarly impactful in shaping the fortunes of the region. Tinubu will do well to ensure strong synergy in addressing these issues, between his government and the ECOWAS commission, to avoid misplaced efforts. Nigeria’s size and influence mean that even without the leadership of the bloc, it would need be invested in the different electoral and security outcomes. Lastly, there is need for considerable shuttle diplomacy to pre-empt potential coups from affecting the region in 2024. Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone already recorded attempts towards the end of 2023, with post-election uncertainty a potential concern after Gabon’s coup in August 2023. The growing number of empty seats at ECOWAS meetings should be cause for concern.
The year also starts with a chance for the region to reassert its dominance in the upcoming African Cup of Nations, hosted by Côte d’Ivoire, with Senegal seeking to defend the crown it won in Cameroon in 2021. With a strong delegation of 11 member states out of the 24 qualified, a case could be made for any of them winning the title in February. If the passion and zeal that the players show for their countries are replicated by the leaders, then the year could mark a more hopeful and optimistic turning point for the region.
Afolabi Adekaiyaoja is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development.