How Do You Solve A Problem Called ECOWAS?

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), also known as CEDEAO in French and Portuguese, is a regional political and economic union of fifteen countries located in West Africa. As one of the regional blocks of the continent-wide African economic community, the stated goal of ECOWAS is to achieve “collective self-sufficiency” by creating a single large trade bloc with full economic and trading union. One of its aims is to raise “living standards and promote economic development. Since the establishment of ECOWAS on 28th May 1975 with the signing of the Treaty of Lagos, ECOWAS has prided itself on the principles of equity, inter-dependence, solidarity, cooperation, non-aggression, regional peace, promotion of human rights, economic and social justice. Notable among its protocols and plans are the ECOWAS Free Movement of Persons, Residences and Establishment Protocol and Ecotour Action Plan 2019-2029. (Wikipedia). 

On paper, one cannot question the well-meaning intentions of the regional block. If one were to assess the outcome of its aims and objectives, what would have been its performance rating? Sierra Leoneans should eternally remain indebted to ECOWAS, thanks to ECOMOG, for saving our country from the jaws of self-annihilation in the 90s. Notwithstanding the collateral damages incurred during the fight against the rebel insurgency, the intervention of ECOMOG in Sierra Leone was and would remain one of the finest examples of why the regional block was formed in the first place. There is no doubt that the bloc has had many successes that do not make the headlines in the media. We saw ECOWAS intervened after former President Yahyah Jammeh of Gambia attempted a U turn in conceding defeat to President Adama Barrow in 2016. ECOWAS defended the power of the ballot without a single bullet. Instead, it used “soft power”, the ability to co-opt rather than coerce, using appeal and attraction.

Sadly, the recent headlines making the rounds about ECOWAS has not been friendly, as the bloc has found itself wedged between diplomatic friendly fires. Thanks to anti-French sentiments, there have been six coup d’états in francophone West Africa since 2020. By any standards, that is a lot for any regional bloc to preside over. It was not surprising, then, that attempts by ECOWAS to navigate the diplomatic courses around these political infernos that were rapidly engulfing the Sahel might have caught them off guard. The rapid manner and success rate of the coup d’etats in Mali (2), Burkina Faso (2), Guinea (1) and Niger (1) over a thirty-six-month period proved too difficult for political or diplomatic gymnastics. Meanwhile the bloc selectively provided lip service and masqueraded as the oath keepers and High Priest of democracy and constitutional governance in the region. ECOWAS apparently only recovered from its political slumber and diplomatic inertia when Niger joined its band of brothers. 

While these francophone countries were busy changing the rules of engagement with their common colonial master, ECOWAS’s attempt at megaphone diplomacy failed spectacularly. In what looked like a fit of anger, ECOWAS threatened military intervention. It goes without saying that the military threat remains a threat, as ECOWAS tumbled over its own bluff. ECOWAS’ stance against unconstitutional governance is widely approved by the majority of Africa’s citizenry. The majority of Africa sees the best military rule as tantamount to the worst civilian government. Despite its professed aims and objectives, it is the manner in which ECOWAS executes them that has drawn so much criticism. 

When Colonel Mamady Doumbouya of Guinea seized power on 5th September 2021, ECOWAS imposed sanctions on Guinea’s junta leaders but not on the wider economy. This was after Colonel Mamady announced a 39- month transition period. 

When Assimi Goita took power for the second time on 24th May 2021, ECOWAS imposed sanctions on the country after its military leaders proposed holding onto power until 2025. The bloc turned off Mali’s tap from regional and financial markets, and gave a 12-16 month timeline to arrange democratic elections. The Burkinabe people witnessed two coups in under a nine-month period between January and September 2022. When Ibrahim Traore, the youngest leader in the world announced a three -year transition to civilian rule, ECOWAS called for “a more acceptable timeline”, but stopped short of imposing sanctions on the impoverished country. Good move. Sanctions don’t work. They just exercabate the suffering of the masses and downtrodden.

When Abdourahmane Tchiani ousted President Mohamed Bazoum on 26 July 2023, ECOWAS instantly cut ties with Niger and authorised the use of force if Mohamed Bazoum, the democratically elected president, was not released and reinstated within a week. The ultimatum and threat of military intervention, which was backed by France and other western countries turned out to be one of the bloc’s most infamous diplomatic faux pas. France, the colonial master’s threat to unleash an “immediate and stringent reaction” if any attacks on its citizens or interests was met with instant pro-junta and pro-Russian protests. The UK’s press release that it “condemns in the strongest possible terms to undermine democracy, peace and stability in Niger”, and that the UK will “continue to stand by ECOWAS and their efforts to ensure a return to democracy in Niger”, did very little to change the tide of times in the junta’s favour.

It is an open secret that the bloc’s threat of military intervention in Niger came to pass like the Harmattan wind. It is plausible to conclude that many saw ECOWAS as an echo chamber that carried out the bidding of Western countries to protect their interests in the region. When juxtaposed with the leaders’ professed reasons for the coup d’états, including the desire to take back control of their respective countries’ natural resources for the benefit of their citizens, it became glaringly clear that the citizens of those countries saw ECOWAS and an enemy of their states. It goes without saying that the bloc’s credibility was under scrutiny and reasonable doubt.  

So, why is ECOWAS failing?

There are many reasons why ECOWAS might be failing in its perceived vision and objectives for West Africa. Some people see the catalogue of different languages across its member states as a major language barrier. The bloc is saddled with ideological differences, which owe their political origins to their different colonial masters. The francophone countries were breastfed on the system of assimilation while their Anglophone counterparts were earlier weaned off the divide-and-rule menu. ECOWAS’ approach and response to the various coups has been criticised for selective amnesia. Its response to Guinea and Niger are completely different. This has left many thinking whether ECOWAS’ response is determined by Western paymasters. Some believe that the responses are titrated by the level of risks posed to foreign interests in these countries.

Interestingly, the Sahel countries currently share among other DNAs the presence jihadists and other forms of military insurrections in their respective countries. Ironically, many wonder why the security of those countries were sublet to foreign troops from France and Russia (Wagner Group). Where was ECOMOG? Is it any wonder that the Sahel countries came to the conclusion that it was in the interest of these foreign “helpers” to prolong the wars; hence their uprising to kick them out? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more effective for joint military operations involving regional states than lobbying for such operations with the West? The West could have provided the logistics and let ECOMOG do the heavy lifting.

Since foreign and local interests remain oil and water, it is plausible to conclude that ECOWAS has found itself wedged at a dangerous crossroads in its attempts to serve as conductor between two inextricably different cultural, political, and diplomatic interests. Is it any wonder that many see ECOWAS as the diplomatic errand boy and echo chamber of the West? What does that do for the credibility of ECOWAS? The perceived ineffectiveness of ECOWAS has become “contagious” by unconsciously showing other militaries in the sub-region that they could capture power and hold on to it. Is ECOWAS slowly but surely becoming a dog that barks but does not bite or just another body of diplomatic windbags?

The recent coup in Sierra Leone has drawn ECOWAS into another diplomatic tongue wag. The former President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma has been implicated and charged with treason for the November 26th coup. If the reports are anything to go by, ECOWAS sent a letter to the Sierra Leone government, reportedly asking for the repatriation of EBK to Nigeria. Critics say that the request was reportedly made even before a charge against EBK was read out in court. The court case in ongoing, and it is not for me to express an opinion on the veracity, the wisdom or appropriateness of the “reported” request. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the criticisms against ECOWAS continue to mount. Some even question whether Sierra Leone has become a vassal state for ECOWAS.

What kind of world are we living in today?

Law and order is the midwife of justice, and if he who breaks the law is not punished, he who obeys it will feel cheated. Peace on earth has been glued by law and order. The world order has always run on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was in pursuit of this declaration that many organisations, unions, societies, and groups were formed. The United Nations provided Peacekeeping missions all over the world. The aim was to restore, provide and maintain peace across nations around the world. In those days, it was unthinkable to touch a United Nations peacekeeping personnel, even in the heat of conflict. Journalists who reported on the stories, medical staff who tended to the sick and injured, pilots who evacuated the refugees, and many others were “protected species” then. These volunteers have become the price catch, trophies, bargaining chips, and pawns in ongoing wars.  

Since George Bush and the UK decided to defy the UN and invade Iraq, it set the tone for the gradual erosion of the authority of the UN and similar regional bodies. Recent events show a gradual disintegration of law and order as nations and individuals resort to taking the law into their own hands. When Donald Trump failed to secure a second term in office, he initiated an insurrection. The UN was founded in 1945 as a successor to the failed League of Nations. Guess What? It marked the end of World War two, a war that is best remembered for the holocaust that saw 6 million Jews perished in unforgivable circumstances. Among other objectives, the UN was formed to ensure a “never again” occurrence. Now, guess which country has defied the UN’s General Assembly’s resolutions the most?

Is the world moving into jungle mode?

Events around the world show that the social fabric that once held the world together is coming under duress, thanks to scarce resources, inequality, polarisation and environmental upsets. The world has always faced these difficulties, and the world has always navigated itself out of and around these tough times with the rule of law at hand. The rule of law has always provided built-in mechanisms in the face of human progress by mediating conflicts around the world through open and inclusive debates where all voices are heard, treated equally and seen as fair and reasonable. The rule of law has served as our only redeeming feature from plunging our societies, communities, countries and the world at large into chaos. The rule of law has been the thread that has knitted societies into a social fabric as a whole. As constraints on government powers loosen, fundamental rights decline and corruption increases correspondingly, the lack of accountable governance and the erosion of citizens’ trust in their leaders is declining at an alarming rate. Is it the lack of such trust that is pushing the world to the edges of jungle mode?

Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.

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