The 51st Summit of Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has brought on board Faure Gnassingbè, President of the Republic of Togo, as the new Chairperson. He is succeeding President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who presided as the first female chairperson for the past year.
President Gnassingbè’s ascendancy comes at a time when the regional body is striving towards establishing democratic governance, peace and stability, economic viability and investment in young people through education and employment. With a goal of establishing democratic governance, ECOWAS under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf used diplomatic and military interventions to oust Yahya Jammeh of The Gambia when he refused to peacefully hand over state power to the winner of the presidential elections, Adama Barrow. ECOWAS moved into Mali in 2013 with the same aim of restoring the democratically elected president of that country following an assassination attempt on his life. Under the same principle, ECOWAS is making frantic efforts to restore peace in fragile Guinea Bissau.
ECOWAS nowadays pays keen attention to electoral processes in all fifteen member countries, with the hope that leaders will not tamper with results and will peacefully transfer power to their successors. This is where the outgoing chairperson, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, has taken ECOWAS, and has boldly stated among West African Heads of State that she will be turning power over to her successor in 2018 following the impending October election. She is not the only regional president to have set this record. Nigeria and Ghana did just that. Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat following the election that led President Muhammadu Buhari to power; likewise Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, who recently turned power over to President-Elect Nana Akufo Addo.
Amid these developments, we are especially concerned if Faure Gnassingbè will be able to manage ECOWAS, as record of governance in his own country is questionable. His father, Gnassingbè Eyadèma, who took office on April 14, 1967, remained in power up to his death in 2005. During Eyadèma’s regime, the governance system was dominated by one party, Rally for the Togolese People. In the 1990’s the international community pressurized Eyadèma to democratize the governance system, something he strongly resisted. Like Yahya Jammeh’s regime in The Gambia, Eyadèma’s regime in Togo sent many pro-democracy activists to their graves.
Upon Eyadèma’s death in 2005, Faure Gnassingbè was named by Army Chief Aakari Nandja as President, a situation that made the presidency of Togo to be viewed as the hegemony of the Eyadèma’s family. Gnassingbè’s first election in 2005 was triggered by security crackdown on civilians, and about 500 people were killed. The 2010 election, though described as “calm,” was held in the presence of heavily armed security personnel.
Now that he has been elected ECOWAS chairman, can the Togolese President perform like his predecessor, or even better? We are not underestimating the potential of the Togolese leader. However, in the midst of the political turmoil and dictatorial leadership that had characterized the governance system of Togo, anyone can wonder if he will live by newly established ECOWAS goals and procedures when his time comes. Will he, when his term expires, be able to organize free, fair and transparent elections? Will he be able to relinquish power peacefully if defeated in an election? Can he create a free space for competition in elections?
Now that all eyes are on you, Chariamn-President Gnassingbè, the time has come for you to build trust in members of the regional body, ECOWAS, Africa and the world at large by upholding and maintaining the successful democratic trends ECOWAS has set. We also hope that you will be able to clean your own house to lay the basis for confidence and respect, as you sit at the helm of ECOWAS – to move it forward in the coming year.