Political Reforms And Democratic Inertia in West Africa: Context, Implications and the Way Forward

With the restoration of democratic order in The Gambia in early 2017, the West Africa region gained the attention of the world as a site of democratic consolidation in Africa. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) vehement rejection of the undemocratic retention of power by former President Yahya Jammeh and its threat to apply force, coupled with Gambians’ resistance, resulted in a peaceful, democratic handover of power. In addition, many West African states have gone through more than one electoral cycle without serious menace or military interregnum. This would suggest that principle of accessing political power through credible elections under the watch of civil society and international actors is gradually taking root across the region. However, despite these democratisations, the region has witnessed setbacks in the face of emerging political developments.


According to the ‘Freedom in the World Report, 2021’, five of the 12 countries with the most significant decline in democracy year-on-year were in West Africa. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index for 20202 showed that only Ghana and Cabo Verde still qualify as fully-fledged democracies in the region. This democratic backsliding portends political instability and its attendant economic consequences for the ECOWAS region are worrying. Central to the discouraging democratic trend are concerns about political reforms that have undermined electoral integrity, inclusiveness and legitimacy. The application of these reforms has fuelled crises and led to the resurgence of coup d’états in the region. Progressive political reforms are critical for the thriving of democracy and inclusive socio-economic development. But in the recent past, a number of problematic political reforms have been introduced which have favoured unconstitutional retention of power or sought to exclude or disqualify political opponents. The changing and/or modification of constitution as it relates to eligibility for political leadership and term limits has taken place in Togo, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin and Guinea in the last decade.


These constitutional reforms, which largely followed contentious processes, supported incumbents to extend their time in power. In Togo for instance, after changing the constitution through a controversial legislative process, President Faure Gnassingbé, who had already spent 14 years in office, contested and won another five-year term 2019, amid sustained protests that saw at least 16 people killed. ECOWAS, and other international actors, have called into question these political reforms that have impacted governance dynamics and the sustainability of social, economic and political processes in the region. This is in line with their commitment to the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance that was adopted over two decades ago to provide a concerted regional response

to structural conflicts and instability in the region. The protocol prohibits the modification of the constitution or the electoral codes six months to the election unless such amendments have the blessings of the majority of the political actors. However, its limitation to a six-month timeframe and equivocation of concessions by the majority of the political actors have proven ineffective safeguards for constitutional democracy.


This article will, therefore, ask whether ECOWAS is well-equipped to prevent or manage tenure elongation orchestrated through constitutional and electoral reforms in member states. To do this it will analyse the context of recent political reforms in West Africa, including political reforms induced by ECOWAS; examine implications of recent political reforms to democracy and stability; and suggest policy directions through which ECOWAS and member states can prevent and manage undemocratic retention of power.

We use cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to visit this page, you accept our use of cookies.