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WADEMOS Annual Convening: Keynote Address by Delivered by Marcella Samba-Sessay

 Distinguished participants, members of Civil Society, in solidarity I bring you warm greetings from CGG and NEW in Sierra Leone.

Let me hasten to express how delighted I am to identify with the WADEMOS network and our shared agenda of democracy promotion and sustenance in our countries and the region.

Since we met at last year’s convening a lot has happened with West Africa’s democracy and the feedback is mixed. There are some disappointing lows and some encouraging highs. However, it is no gainsay that this thing called democracy in the continent is under stress;

 But we will not be despondent in our pursuit to build democratic societies. Today I will entreat you all to celebrate the highs-Liberia comes to mind, reflect on where we had gone wrong, and collectively use the WADEMOS space as an opportunity to push back the wicked problem of democratic decline that is on us.

Unpacking Democratic Backsliding and Civil Society Preparedness

For a moment, I want us to reflect on de-democratization and the level of preparedness of civil society to tackle the problem.

In short, de-democratization is synonymous with democratic retrogression, democratic breakdown, or counterfeit democracy-a democratic subtype with glaring signs of authoritarianism and dictatorship. It lacks democratic progress in every shape and form. Whilst civil society was well capacitated, organized, and positioned as pro-democracy actors promoting democratic principles for progress; we are currently ill-prepared and ill-equipped to confront the challenges of de-democratization or in essence defend democracy.

Arguably, little investment was made in our civil society processes to tackle backsliding, de-democratization, or retrogression. Many of us have been shocked to the teeth, caught unawares, or become victims of circumstances when authoritarians and dictators advance their tactics with renewed vigor, -we have been in shock when constitutions are changed for elongated terms, similar shocking with police highhandedness and repression when ordinary citizens demand their rights- (End Sars) come to mind; or when electoral commissions become enablers of questionable elections. We have been faced with situations where moral guarantors choose diplomacy over constructive reality.

Authoritarians have come to power through façade elections and democracy promoters have faced fierce attacks in their line of duty. The resultant effect is our states in West Africa degenerating into various democratic sub-types.

Now we have counterfeit democracies run by democratic dictators and self-styled leaders attempting to manipulate constitutions and in others the resurgence of military coups.

Colleagues, the future of democracy and by extension development lie in stable and societies in our region. With the current situation unfolding in the region, our future is compromised.

In fact and for the most part, the events and issues unfolding are too complex to decipher denying any form of political analysis, thus leaving civil society in distress. My country in the radar.

 In our perplexed state and like a case of bereavement we have been sending condolence messages in the form of solidarity statements and press releases of condemnation encouraging one another to keep the faith. The reality is that democratic backsliding is on us and taking its toll on the region.

No wonder Samuel P. Huntington (1993), the renowned scholar, described democracy as a wave of progress and reversals that must be tackled. Whilst we were well positioned as civil society to propel democratic progress, our strategies are not sharp enough to tackle the role of illiberal actors exploiting societal vulnerabilities undermining democratic norms, and weakening established institutions. The most worrying aspect is that some of our very own in civil society are now enablers of authoritarianism. 

Civil society at home and in the region lacks a common position on political plurality and upholding the principles of democracy; this must be a concern for WADEMOS over the next two days.

The global picture is not different, global democracy indices show that the world has transitioned into a phase of authoritarianism since 2019. The Freedom House records in 2019  for example show a consistent thirteen years of decline in political rights and liberty.

The content of the authoritarian playbook is therefore real and manifesting in several of the West African contexts.  Sadly a number of our countries are gradually losing their democratic features.

As it is, the political future of our region is currently challenged and it’s happening right in our eyes as civil society. A lot more citizens are losing faith in the democratic process. Democracy must deliver and civil society just like the independent media has a critical role to play. When an extraordinary range of countries transitioned to democracy during the third wave, and subsequently, civil society became a pro-democracy actor supporting multi-party elections, constitutional protection for all especially minority groups, promoting freedom of speech and conscience, and became ambassadors for promoting measures consistent with international human right treaties and covenants. Now, as democracy retrogresses we must organize and not agonize.

What can we Do?- Let’s look back- converging in the 90s

Civil society therefore refers to the broad array of formal and informal groups of people and organizations existing in a country but sits outside the government and the private sector. These groups since democratic renewals in the region in the 1990s have been known for promoting democratic values, and human rights, holding the government accountable, and ensuring free and transparent elections among others. Unfortunately, the strength and culture of civil society is quickly eroding as democracy declines. Many had ceased being activists for the people’s interest but for their political causes. Thankfully this group is gathered here today not with this counterfeit agenda but with an ethos to strengthen civil rights and liberty and to ensure democracy survives in the region despite the odds.

The Truth however is Civil Society in its current state and form is ill-prepared for the enormous challenges posed by democratic backsliding. The question now is what can WADEMOS do?- because democratic backsliding must be resisted.

The Anatomy of CS shows a series of deficiencies- foremost is pervasive poverty among our rank and file. As democracy displays varying subtypes, the recent spate of civil society groups. Many can do anything for money.

Populist and authoritarian governments have deployed a political narrative that spurs consistent attacks on civil society. Either we are security threats as dissent is now synonymous with instability, or we are opposition operatives. What can WADEMOS do?

 In some countries there are repressive laws and policies which continue to shrink the civic space. Some activists have been censored, surveillance and arrested. Various forms of repression are deployed on social media to silence known voices and to stifle freedom of speech and Association. What can WADEMOS do?

Attempts to mobilize public opinion to respect democratic norms and values is met with factions among ourselves and against ourselves as civil society. What can WADEMOS do?

Have we ever thought of why democracy is failing in the region? The truth is that elected leaders have failed to deliver. So in between elections; what can WADEMOS do to make good governance, respect for rights, integrity, and ethics the norm?

Today evidence abound where citizens had danced once more in the region to welcome military leaders. When and where did we go wrong? Did we not promise each other that the only way to leadership should be an expressed and transparent will of the people through the ballot?  We have long agreed that power in Africa should never be through the barrels of loaded guns. But this is not the case for 5 countries in West Africa.

Let me restate for the record that irrespective of how benevolent a military dictator is or can be, the expressed will of the great people of West Africa should be through free and credible elections.

Therefore if the setbacks of democratic backsliding must be addressed civil society needs to look inwards, we really and truly need repackaging to assume our frontline and credible role as democracy promoters. Our rank and file must be reconstituted and our ideals made of sterner stuff.

 What can we do as Civil Society Actors in these bleak arrangements?

Good news– amidst the challenges some decency still exists. Last year in this beautiful city of Accra and an auspicious event, we launched a solidarity network- WADEMOS as a response to the signs of democratic backsliding and authoritarianism in West Africa. The aim is to mobilize, coordinate, and leverage the collective power of pro-democracy actors and to also engage regional bodies and instruments to push back democratic erosion and defend and reinvigorate democratic norms. This is exactly what we need a networked society organizing from communities, towns, cities, and across countries.

WADEMOS must therefore be strengthened to a reliable platform for civil society in the region with the legitimacy to push back against democratic decline.

I foresee networked societies and a networked region, where alternative sources of information can be sort with continuous civic education and engagement with national governments and regional actors.   This could be achieved through customized training and accreditation of groups in our various countries.

A network that will institute a peer review mechanism to checkmate the excesses of our accredited members.

Finally, we need to design a strategy for effective partnership with ECOWAS and the African Union to impress on the minds of our collective leadership in our various countries, why adherence to the principles of democracy and the various instruments and covenants signed together with the normative frameworks- such a partnership is not only important but sacrosanct.

Colleagues putting citizens at the center and for respecting our rights is integral to our collective future. Thank you for your kind attention!


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