Safeguarding Democratic Governance in West Africa: Why ECOWAS Should Not Back Down to Military Juntas

Introduction

The transition of many countries in West Africa to democratic rule in the early 1990s not only brought an end to several years of military rule in the region, but the political reforms also introduced hope to the region’s democratic future. Countries such as Ghana, Mali, and Benin were considered as the model democracies of the era. As rightly noted by renowned political scientist, Gyimah-Boadi (1), the pro-democracy movement of the 1990s started in Benin, where popular protests forced President Mathieu Kérékou to initiate democratic reforms through what has become known as the “sovereign national conference.” (2) Similar conferences were held in Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Togo (3) between 1990 and 1993. Ghana, under Jerry Rawlings, (4) also experienced a similar political reform in the early 1990s.

While countries such as Ghana and many others, appear to be making great progress in promoting democratic governance in the past three decades (5), the rise in coups in West Africa (6) and the recent decision by military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to leave the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (7) present new security and governance challenges for the region. This article provides a critical overview of the ongoing situation with a focus on the decision by the three military regimes to leave ECOWAS, and the likely impact of their decision on the region. The article concludes by making a strong case why ECOWAS should not back down to these juntas in the broader interest of safeguarding the region’s democracies.

Explaining Recent Coups in West Africa

In their piece on the rise of coups in West Africa, these experts (8) argue that the democratic euphoria that swept across Africa following the demise of the Cold War did not last long as expected. While there has been a decline in military coups (9) in the 2000s, the recent surge in coups in West Africa is raising serious concern among experts of the region. In the past few years, for example, West Africa has experienced a significant increase in coups (10) in countries such as Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Niger (11). Gabon is the latest case where the military seized power (12) on August 30, 2023. President Ali Bongo was ousted from power as General Brice Oligui Nguema (13) became the military leader of the country.

The democratic backsliding (14) in West Africa appears to be getting out of control as experts (15) have observed (16). It is also astonishing that a region that has been progressing well in promoting democratic values in the first two decades of the post-Cold War era is going through another period of political turmoil with the rise in coups. For some, the surge in these coups and the growing popular support for them raises further questions on the region’s complex difficulties and democratic future. Some of the explanations for these coups might be worth reiterating at this point of our discussion.

First, to some experts (17), the rise in coups has to do with poor governance, weak institutions, and high levels of public corruption in the region. Second, the rising cost of living, severe economic difficulties, and the inability of political leaders to deliver public goods for the people (18). Third, the political indifference about military coups from China and Russia (19), the two powerful countries with growing influences on the African continent could also explain the “incentives” for these coups (20).

ECOWAS’s Response to the Military Coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger

While the 15-nation ECOWAS, which was founded in 1975, has condemned the recent coups, as the case with past coups, ECOWAS took a rather different approach regarding the July 26th coup in Niger. The regional bloc went beyond condemnation to threaten the use of force if the detained President (21) of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, was not reinstated within a week (22). The newly elected President of Nigeria, Bola Tinubu, and Chair of ECOWAS, was emphatic on the need to protect democratic governance in the region (23).

Sanctions were imposed on Niger by late July 2023, but to the astonishment of many, the juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali warned ECOWAS of their readiness to defend Niger in the face of any military action. In other words, as stated by these military leaders, any use of force against Niger would be “tantamount to a declaration of war against Burkina Faso and Mali” (24). The counter-threat from the juntas appears like a coordinated effort to “create” what could be described as a “security alliance” to weaken or fragment ECOWAS.

ECOWAS’ use of force (25) in the Gambia in 2017 is a reminder of its determination to defend democracy in the region. At the same time, some observers have raised issues with the inconsistencies with ECOWAS’ decision-making regarding coups in other countries. For these critiques, ECOWAS seems to prioritize military action against Niger as against the suspensions (26) it has placed on Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea for their coups. If ECOWAS is unable to intervene and restore democracy in Niger, as some have suggested, it is likely that the region might see an escalation of coups.

For others, President Tinubu’s hawkish stand on the military action against Niger could be explained from two standpoints. First, it was a strategy to not only assert or better put, reclaim Nigeria’s role (27) as a leading regional power, but to also demonstrate his political legitimacy (28) after winning a fiercely contested election. Second, Nigeria’s interest in making sure its northern neighbor (29) (Niger), which it shares long borders with, is stable and democratic, given how political instability can spillover quickly to the northern part of the country that is already facing serious security challenges (30).

Why ECOWAS Should Not Backdown

The diplomatic efforts to address the issue, especially the restoration of President Bazoum to office has not been successful. Moreover, the recent announcement by the juntas in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso to withdraw from ECOWAS (31) has taken the regional crises to a new level. These countries accused the regional bloc of imposing sanctions they have described as “inhumane” and a violation of the founding principles of ECOWAS (32). As reported, ECOWAS closed land and air borders and imposed a no-fly zone for commercial flights on these countries. Financial transactions were suspended and the assets of the three countries held in ECOWAS central banks were also frozen (33).

One can understand the desperation of these military leaders to consolidate their powers, but their collective decision to leave ECOWAS was ill-advised. It is obvious that the sanctions are hurting these regimes as domestic pressure increases on them to deliver public goods. It is unfortunate that the ordinary people in these countries are the ones who are suffering a lot from the sanctions (34). This might explain why these regimes are pushing the “external threat” idea, in this case, ECOWAS, to rally the people against the “perceived enemy.” It is a political strategy often employed by repressive regimes to shift attention from their domestic problems. ECOWAS should not backdown to these juntas, let alone think about lifting the sanctions until these regimes demonstrate genuine commitment to return their countries to a constitutional rule or order. The region cannot afford to descend into another abyss of repressive military regimes. These juntas have no credibility and cannot deliver for the people. They are nothing but a part of what I will describe as a new “axis of democratic disruptors” in West Africa.

Conclusion

It is fair to argue that West Africa is once again at the crossroads (35) as we are witnessing the decay of democracies while military coups are on the rise. There is no question that the withdrawal of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger from ECOWAS will not only impact the region, but the situation is likely to pose further security risks across the region. For example, the risk of potential hostility to migrants (36) from the three nations, the blockage of free movement of goods, services, and people and trade disruptions are cases in point.

Others also fear that the region might plunge into further political instability given the existence of fragile democracies in countries such as Cameroon, Togo, and Sierra Leone. The emerging political turmoil in Senegal after the scheduled February 25, 2024, election was delayed is another source of concern for observers. Notwithstanding, it is important to keep defending democratic and governance (37) practices in the region. ECOWAS should not back down to these juntas. While all options should still be on the table, including diplomatic efforts, safeguarding West Africa’s democracies must be the paramount goal for ECOWAS.

Dr. Felix Kumah-Abiwu
Dr. Felix Kumah-Abiwu
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Dr. Felix Kumah-Abiwu is a Non-Resident Fellow (Governance & Democracy Division) at Nkafu Policy Institute (Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation)

Associate Professor/Director, Center for African Studies Kent State University, Kent, Ohio (USA)

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