Political Instability, Good Governance, and the Greater Worry of its Effects in African States

There are diverse reasons for the global resentment towards coups. Amongst others, they are indicative of a non-functioning democracy which in today’s world is considered a hallmark of civilization. More importantly, they could potentially mark the start of a cycle of ‘retaliation’ which in various instances might have overarching effects on innocent citizens. Between the start of August 2020 to January 2022, the continent of Africa has experienced a record breaking six coups in five countries. According to a report produced by Powell and Thyne, of the 486 attempted or successful coups around the world since 1950, Africa has experienced 214, with 106 of them successful – the most of any region. 

These events pose a threat to Africa’s aspirations of effective regional integration on account of two primary reasons. The first is that; regional integration is primarily an act of ‘sacrifice/surrender’ of a nation’s sovereignty for the realization of a common regional goal. The second is founded on the premise that coups are ‘anti-democratic’ and without an effective democracy or the presence of some of its elements, the prospects of effective regional integration is also dampened. This piece takes a holistic approach by recognizing and approaching the issue from the viewpoint of democracy and good governance in Africa. It will also look into the measures taken by the regional communities of these countries in the hope of finding a solution and then conclude with recommendations. 

The state of democracy and good governance in Africa

Overtime, there have been various takes on the constituents of good governance and they all make the argument that effective governance is a broad concept that takes and burrows from numerous principles. According to the World Bank, some central tenants include open policy, predictability, separation of powers, a strong civil society, and the rule of law.

African nations have historically had a poor record of practicing democracy and good governance. The outcome of the Arusha Conference held in 1990 perfectly summarizes this stance as it was argued that the absence of democracy was the major cause of the chronic underdevelopment in Africa. In 2007, The AU adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance which for all intents and purposes is directed at ensuring that states adhere and respect the principles of democracy and the supremacy of the constitution in their various political arrangements. A recent report produced by Our World Data shows that the vast majority of African countries are currently dabbling between a ‘closed autocracy’ and an ‘electoral autocracy’ with just eleven countries practicing ‘electoral democracy’ and Lesotho — the only country with a ‘liberal democracy’.

In addition, the 2020 Freedom Report gives us a feel and to an extent corroborates the belief that democracy and good governance still remain abstractions in Africa. The report was founded on the tenets of the UDHR and applies metrics such as; electoral processes, political pluralism and participation, a functioning government, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy/individual rights in classifying nations. Accordingly, a country that fully meets these requirements is considered ‘free’, countries that partially meet these requirements are classed as ‘partly free’ and countries that do not show any adherence to these metrics are considered ‘not free’. Of the 54 Countries in the continent, 10 were considered free, 22 were considered partly-free, and 20 not free. 

How have the regional economic communities approached this issue?

This section specifically considers the mode of operation of West and Central Africa’s regional economic communities in the (ECOWAS and ECCAS) in ascertaining how they have approached issues of political instability.

West Africa

West Africa’s history of coups as they relate to political instability has put it at the forefront of the attempts to salvage and manage its violent conflicts. Interestingly, the ECOWAS which is a regional economic bloc of 15 member states in West Africa, focused on promoting economic integration and development, seems to deviate from the standard norm adopted by other sub- regions within the continent. Aggad and Miyandazi describe it as a ‘gradualist approach’. This approach entails developing instruments and protocols as certain events unfold. In comparison, other subregions have opted to make known their aspirations regarding the subject from the outset. This approach by the ECOWAS has also seen it formulate numerous agreements over the years – from the Declaration of Political Principles in 1991 to the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework of 2008. Its implementation strategy is also quite similar to its agreement creating strategy. For the most part, the ECOWAS employs a fusion of military intervention, sanctions, election observation and legal proceedings to enforce the principles in the agreement. In The Gambia for instance, the ECOWAS intervened with an estimate of 7000 ECOMIG troops to force Yahya Jammeh out of power following the 2017 elections. 

Central Africa

ECOWAS provides some glimmer of hope when assessing the state of affairs of democracy and good governance in Africa. Of all the regions in the continent, the situation is most-dire in Central Africa. It is also not surprising that all the nations in the region have been considered ‘not free’ (i.e they show little or no adherence to – standard electoral processes, political pluralism and participation, an effective functioning government, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy/individual rights.) The region has been fraught with episodes of military take-overs and one issue that mostly arises whenever these events occur is how and when a transition government will be fully actualized. A recent case in point would be Chad’s call on the international community to enable a complete transition. Unlike the ECOWAS that has developed treaties to address this issue. There is no specific treaty on democracy and good governance in Central Africa. Rather, the region is forced to rely on the African Union’s ‘African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance’ which has been ratified by a mere five of its eleven member states. This implies that the ECCAS is yet to prioritize matters relating to political instability. More significantly, an over reliance on the AU’s charter may not specifically capture the realities and peculiarities of the Central African region as opposed to a regionally created agreement. 

The Way Forward

Certain truths are vital for a turnaround of the general state of affairs. Firstly, it is imperative that African nations display and maintain a strong ‘political will’ towards the efforts that have been made to salvage this situation. RECs in the continent currently suffer from commitment concerns and that can be said of the African Charter on Democracy, Election and Governance. Of the 55 countries in the continent, 46 have signed the agreement and only 34 nations have ratified it. This does not only bode well for the continent from a ‘commitment’ standpoint but it shows that addressing this issue is not a priority. 

Secondly, the approach employed by some of the RECs ought to be modified. ECOWAS needs to be more proactive and less reactionary in solving matters of political instability, and this stems from deviating from its ‘gradualist approach’ of creating instruments to ensure that elections are extensively observed in nations with high risk of conflict. 

Thirdly, as observed by Aggad and Miyandazi, the ECOWAS seems to be limited by the scope of the Supplementary Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy. Whereas ECOWAS generally has the power to intervene in the territory of its member states in matters of crisis, it is however constrained should the matter be one of constitutional nature. Article 2 provides that ‘substantial laws shall not be made to the electoral laws except with the consent of the majority of political actors’. The concern with this provision is that should modifications be made to the constitution, the ECOWAS at the very least cannot engage in dialogue with the state as the situation will be considered ‘domestic’. Hence it is recommended that amendments be made to this provision. 

Finally, other RECs, particularly the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) would need to up its commitment and demonstrate that the process of democratization is prioritized, from a ratification standpoint down to their court systems.


This piece has highlighted the need for a joint and committed resolve from African countries in approaching matters of political instability. As seen from the events between August 2020 and January 2022, coups which are strong indicators of political instability affect African nations in more ways than one. However, RECs which largely serve as the building blocks of regional prosperity have the power to effect the desired change. Desired change in this context would involve – more signatures and ratification of the AU’s African Charter on Democracy and Good Governance, a deviation from the ‘reactionary’ approach adopted by the ECOWAS, amendments to Article 2 of the ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy and more adoption of democratic principles from Central African states. 

Onyekachi C. Okorie is a student at the Nigerian Law School. Prior to that, he obtained an LLB from The University of The Gambia. In 2021, he graduated with an LLM in Trade and Investment Law in Africa from The University of Pretoria. His areas of interest include: Trade, Investment, Environmental Law, IP and Regional Integration.  

Image: Organisation for World Peace and Bloomberg (modified).

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