ECOWAS and The Fear of Regional Disintegration

By Paul Ejime

ECOWAS HAS held countless high-level meetings, including regular and extraordinary summits by regional leaders on peace and security issues since the renewed military incursions in politics in the politically restive West African region in 2020. The Abuja summit on Sunday 7th July is no exception.

On Saturday 6th July, ahead of the ECOWAS summit, the junta chiefs of three military-ruled countries that have threatened to withdraw from the 15-nation regional bloc met at summit level for the first time in the Niger capital, Niamey to formally establish their Alliance of Sahel States, with the French acronym AES.

This could be just a “pre-emptive strike” by the three countries – Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger – suspended and earlier sanctioned along with Guinea, over military takeovers of elected civilian governments.

Having lifted the sanctions and pulled back the threat to use military force to restore constitutional order in Niger, ECOWAS says it is now using diplomacy and negotiating with the junta leaders to return to the fold with reasonable political transition programmes against the long timetables they announced.

There is an urgent need for a critical review and recalibration of ECOWAS responses and conflict management strategies to effectively address the worsening fears of disintegration of the regional bloc, once acclaimed as Africa’s trailblazer Regional Economic Community.

West Africa and the Sahel region are no strangers to military coups and like previous ones, the military putsch led by Col Assimi Goita and his colleagues in Mali in May 2020 and subsequent ones in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger are only symptoms of systemic governance malaise linked to bad governance.

Insecurity, terrorism and separatist or Islamic extremism have root causes and so do socio-economic hardships suffered by the majority of the population.

These are all linked to corruption, nepotism, inequalities and unconstitutional behaviours of political leaders, who engage in or support election rigging, violation of human rights and non-respect of the rule of law, intolerance of alternative views and the stifling of public opinion. Until these causative factors are treated, the ailments will persist or worsen.

The insensitivity of political leaders blinds and numbs them to the pains of the masses. Officials of three arms of government – the executive, legislature and the judiciary – which are supposed to guarantee safety and security and advance the wellbeing of citizens, have instead, conspired and weaponised the system for the oppression and suppression of the people.

Other reasons behind unending instability and political turmoil in the region are the inconsistency, lack of political will for a tough and principled stance; the violation of rules without consequences, or the observance in breach, of instruments and protocols designed to promote regional integration.

For instance, when the Togolese leader Gnassingbe Eyadema died in 2005 the military imposed his son Faure Gnassingbe on the country to succeed his late father.

Following public outcry an election was organised, but not many could vouch for the credibility or transparency of that vote. Faure has since consolidated himself in power, winning re-election under questionable circumstances, sometimes, without the participation of the intimated and petrified opposition.  

After more than half a century of the Eyadema dynastic leadership, the Faure government has unconstitutionally changed Togo’s national constitution, moving the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government without popular participation or consultation in violation of the ECOWAS protocol.

Critics see the constitutional change as a ploy for tenure elongation and ignoring protests from the opposition groups and civil society, the Faure administration organised a parliamentary election that produced mainly MPs from his ruling party.

Having failed to call out President Faure, over violation of the regional Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, ECOWAS may have denied itself the moral or legal justification to condemn a similar violation in future.

ECOWAS has effectively used the same protocol, which is equivocal on “zero tolerance” for unconstitutional change of government and other instruments, to resolve conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire and the Gambia in the past.

But before the development of Togo, then-President Macky Sall, attempted a similar unconstitutional tenure elongation misadventure from 2021-2024, but was stopped in his tracks by a vigilant population and civil society activism.

Also in Guinea Bissau, the government of President Umaro Embalo has dissolved the country’s parliament without any rebuke by ECOWAS.

Given these scenarios what is the guarantee that ECOWAS will effectively deal with the looming danger signs of alleged tenure elongation in such member States as Benin and Cote d’Ivoire and the fragile peace in the Gambia and Sierra Leone?

This brings us to the recent proposal by the ECOWAS’ Chiefs of Defence Staff and regional Ministers of Defence and Finance, “to activate a Regional Standby Force to combat terrorism and Unconstitutional Change of Government.”

Based on the directive of regional Heads of State about US$2.6 billion is to be raised to finance the planned Standby Force with an estimated 5,000 at full strength.

The idea of a Standby Force is not new and cannot be faulted since ECOWAS already has one, and why it is not functioning is another matter. Also, whatever legal measures are required to deal with insecurity, including terrorism as a regional threat is welcome.

However, going by experience and the overbearing attitudes of political leaders toward arbitrariness and authoritarianism, deploying military force or kinetics to fight unconstitutional change of government must be thoroughly interrogated, especially in countries professing to be practising democracy.

Presently, two countries, The Gambia and Guinea Bissau are hosting the ECOWAS military Mission or Stabilisation Force and Sierra Leone, where authorities are battling post-election instability, has also requested a similar force.

Under its regional protocols, the objective of the ECOWAS Military Mission in any Member State is primarily for stabilisation of peace and protection from rebellion, especially externally instigated. The deployment of such a mission should be need-based and in exceptional cases, particularly to fight terrorism and organised threats to the State. 

But there is the danger that if the idea of a Standby Force is to check so-called unconstitutional power, it could be misused by political leaders to prop or maintain their governments if and when they feel threatened. This will not only constitute a serious threat to democracy, where the force is used as a buffer against genuine public protests but could also worsen the security situation in the region.

Furthermore, the unconstitutional change of government is not only through military coups. There is, therefore, a contradiction in frowning against military rule, while using military force or kinetic means to impose or enforce good governance even when civilian leaders are known to be carrying out unconstitutional change of government.

The constitutional function of the military is national defence and protection of the national sovereignty of States, and the lives and property of citizens. It is not to maintain governments in power.

The lasting solution to the insecurity challenges including terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel region is good governance. Political leaders must change their attitudes, stop corruption, vote rigging, constitutional and electoral coups, human rights violations, and respect the rule of law and lead by example.

Finally, beyond the public show of force and popularity by the AES junta chiefs, the security and economic situations of the three landlocked countries have not improved, and neither has the cost of living of the population. The three countries need ECOWAS and ECOWAS needs them

Indeed, ECOWAS leaders and the junta chiefs owe the more than 400 million citizens in the region a moral and constitutional obligation for sustained peace and a conducive and equal opportunity environment to pursue their legitimate businesses for individual and collective prosperity.

Their political ambitions or differences must be subjugated to the overall interests of the majority.

Without prejudice to the right of sovereign states to freedom of association to further their national interests, common sense and conventional wisdom dictate that the 15 ECOWAS member States including the AES, are individually and collectively better off working together in unity instead of in silos.

The recent experience in Kenya is a strong warning to all.

Paul Ejime is an Author, Global Affairs Analyst, and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications

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