Is sovereignty more important than legitimate democracy?


POLITICAL changes in Burkina Faso make a compelling reason to revisit the dynamics involved in international relations and diplomacy.

Perhaps it will save me from the wrath of some sections of the audience to begin by making a humble declaration that I am not writing this article from an entirely omniscient stance.

Rather, this is an honest opinion on an issue that we, as a continent, should not leave dormant or, as agriculturists would say, leave lying fallow.

Blaise Compaoré

In his classic novel, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift exquisitely elucidates how Gulliver’s power was abruptly curtailed by the Lilliputians.

I guess there is some synergy between that storyline and recent political developments in Burkina Faso (Land of the Incorruptible).

Political changes in the West African country make a compelling reason to revisit the dynamics involved in international relations and diplomacy.

In general, two factors continue to make an indelible mark in international politics. First, since World War I, multilateralism remains a pivotal catalyst for the promotion of peace and security among nation states.

Since its inception, through Woodrow Wilson’s inspired League of Nations, multilateralism has since snowballed, resulting in the establishment of myriad multilateral institutions around the globe.

Emanating from a multilateral approach, continental integration in Africa is punted as a visionary and strategic move to promote unity among all African states and their respective nationals.

Intrinsic to continental integration is an amalgam of states acting in unison through credible institutions such as the African Union and related regional bodies such as regional economic communities.

In addition to this noble exercise, continental integration seeks to propel Africa to a level where this resourceful continent reclaims what is its rightful and deserved status in the global political arena.

The might of the African continent is further strengthened by the “birth” of South Sudan, making Africa a massive region with a total of 54 nation states.

Intrinsic to the governance of these states is their sovereign right to decision-making powers; a right that they fervently protect.

The second factor is that one of the fundamental principles governing the existence of states is the sovereign power each state has to determine its internal and, to an extent, external relations with fellow states.

These two factors lead us to the long-standing conundrum of attempting to balance State -sovereignty and the powers of multilateral institutions equitably.

Perhaps we need to revisit the recurring question on sovereignty. Is the notion of sovereignty sacrosanct or can we describe it as fallible?

Whatever response we offer to these questions, we will still be guided by commentators on international relations affairs who persistently caution us that the powers bestowed by the notion of sovereignty on nation states are in some cases mitigated by a multilateral approach on decision-making.

Multilateralism tends to — and I say this cautiously — encroach on the sovereign power of states. One wonders, however, whether multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the AU and so on have been expedient in managing this vexed issue.

There have been persistent stern warnings recently that nation states continue to lose their grip on power owing to the “encroachment” of multilateral regimes on their domestic affairs.

The recent turmoil in some nation states on our continent cannot go unnoticed, nor can these unfortunate incidents be dismissed as acts of power-mongering or hooliganism.

Recent revolts in Burkina Faso led to the demise and tumultuous deposition of Blaise Compaoré who, since the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 1987, ruled Burkina Faso with an iron fist.

Tom Sank, as Sankara was affectionately called, is one of the most revered leaders on the continent.

His immense contribution to the emancipation of the African Voice is recognised around the globe.

Freedom Park has taken a positive step in recognition of Sankara’s good leadership qualities and his legacy of democratic governance by honouring him in our gallery of leaders.

One doubts whether Compaoré’s rule of 27 years suggests that he adhered to democratic principles.

On the contrary, this marathon stay in power is a signal that democracy was circumvented and compromised.

Should we then have nodded to calls by the AU when this despot was deposed that there should be an “immediate return” to a democratic dispensation?

After nearly three decades of despotic rule, which “return to democratic dispensation” are we referring to?

Over the years, when the perverse Compaoré was in power, many Burkinabe sought refuge in neighbouring Ivory Coast.

Working in cocoa plantations under abhorrent conditions, these millions of migrant workers from Burkina Faso endured the status of second-class citizens in their adopted country while Compaoré and those he surrounded himself with continued to amass wealth by dubious means in their motherland.

Again, one is compelled to draw from the wise: in his analogy on the management of individual identity, sociologist Erving Goffman argues that “tact” and “pep talks” are critical properties that, despite the existence of individual identity within groups, help to consolidate group identity.

One wonders whether, for the past 27 years of Compaoré’s despotic rule, the AU engaged in “tact” and “pep talks” with this figure so that he took into account the “significant others” when presiding on critical political processes in Burkina Faso.

This piece is not about Compaoré — the less said about him the better.

Rather, it is an attempt to afford home-grown institutions such as the AU and regional economic communities the opportunity to affirm to the African community that they are still acting within their mandate.

Perhaps we need to examine whether these reputable institutions are doing enough to build sustainable nation states and engender democratic principles in Africa?

Or is it this benign approach to despotic tendencies that will render our beloved continent a perpetual farce? As we say in Xhosa: Sakh’umkhanyo (We wait in anticipation).

Sandile Zeka is a senior researcher at Freedom Park