In the past three years, four countries from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have experienced a military coup and an unlawful change of leadership
Consecutive coups in Niger (July 2023), Mali (August 2020 and May 2021), Guinea (September 2021) and Burkina Faso (January and September 2022) have raised questions about the future of democracy in the region and cast significant doubts on the regional bloc’s ability to fulfil its stated goals.
ECOWAS was established in 1975 through the Treaty of Lagos with the sole mission of achieving economic integration across the region. However, the bloc struggled to advance its agenda due to extreme political volatility and perpetual civil wars crippling many of its members. Acknowledging that true economic integration can only be built upon sustainable peace and political stability, it revised its founding treaty in July 1993 to include a mandate to facilitate peace, security and stability in West Africa.
In December 2001, the bloc went on to adopt the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which states “every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections” and member states must demonstrate a “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”. The protocol – which contains several other provisions on elections, the rule of law and human rights – also established that the “armed forces, the police and other security agencies [in member states] shall be under the authority of legally constituted civilian authorities”.
ECOWAS has notched several noteworthy achievements since it adopted the protocol and made protecting and deepening peace, stability and democracy its priority.
In April 2012, for example, it negotiated the restoration of constitutional rule in Mali after the ousting of President Amadou Toumani Toure in a military coup. Then in September 2015 after a military putsch in Burkina Faso, it facilitated the return of interim President Michel Kafando. In January 2017, it secured a democratic transition of power in The Gambia after longtime leader Yahya Jammeh, who had lost the December 2016 presidential election to current President Adama Barrow, tried to unlawfully remain in office.
For a while, it really seemed like ECOWAS could effectively protect democracy within its region of influence. Admirably, there was not a single undemocratic change of power in West Africa from 2015 to 2020.
Yet during this period of rare stability, the bloc’s failure to introduce strict term limits for its members’ presidents proved disastrous for the region, paving the way for a new wave of political violence and seriously hindering its stated aim of improving stability and economic integration among West African nations.
In May 2015, ECOWAS abandoned a proposal to restrict West African presidents to two terms after opposition from Togo and The Gambia.
To this end, the ouster of Guinea’s first democratically elected president, Alpha Conde, in September 2021 has exemplified the preponderance of leadership failures in the region and ECOWAS’s underwhelming response to repressive rule and highly regressive political developments.
In March 2020, Conde pushed through a new constitution, which allowed him to extend his stay in office beyond two terms despite extensive opposition to the move.
He won a fiercely disputed election in October 2020 that was tainted by electoral irregularities and violence.
Although he began a third term in office in December 2020, senior officers from Guinea’s Special Forces toppled him in September 2021.
The coup sparked wild celebrations in the capital, Conakry, and exposed a litany of systemic failings by ECOWAS.
In months preceding the October 2020 election, it failed to condemn Conde’s nefarious political scheming and the obvious democratic backsliding it enabled in Guinea.
Plus, it didn’t explicitly denounce the violence and human rights abuses unleashed on opposition supporters by the Guinean government or attempt to dissuade Conde from seeking a third term.
In fact, ECOWAS didn’t firmly state that an election held in a climate of fear and extreme repression couldn’t be regarded as “free, fair and transparent” in its books.
That’s because it wouldn’t satisfy the election principles enshrined in the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
Instead, it called for a de-escalation of “tension and violence” and “constructive dialogue between the Government, the opposition and civil society in order to achieve a lasting, consensual and peaceful solution to the current situation”.
That same year, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara also secured a controversial third term in office after he won the October 31 presidential election – which was boycotted by the opposition – with 94 percent of the vote.
Much like Conde’s disputed electoral win, Ouattara’s questionable triumph at the polls was marred by intimidation, violence and electoral transgressions.
Nevertheless, ECOWAS leaders didn’t launch timely and effective interventions to prevent Conde and Ouattara from inflicting untold damage on their countries.
They found it expedient to ignore the political violence and electoral shams that fostered the heavily contested third terms.
Their collective silence and palpable inaction sent a clear message to West Africa’s aspiring coup leaders: The rules don’t matter.
Once it provided a pass each to Conde and Ouattara, ECOWAS willingly ceded its moral authority.
In February 2022, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, who was ECOWAS chairman at the time, said Mali’s August 2020 coup had a “contagious influence” that set a dangerous trend.
However, he didn’t point out that ECOWAS’s failure to reign in Conde and Ouattara had already left it powerless and without any authority when the putschists made their move on the presidency in Mali.
While army officers are certainly the conniving masterminds behind the cataclysmic coup epidemic in West Africa, unscrupulous leaders like Conde and ECOWAS’s limp response to their attacks on democracy have made the region a fertile ground for regime change.
Currently, ECOWAS is seized with its efforts to reverse Niger’s July 26 coup, in which General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the coup leader and former presidential guard chief, has been made the head of state.
ECOWAS has suspended Niger’s membership, imposed sanctions, closed borders, cut off the electricity supply and threatened to use military force if the coup leaders fail to reinstate lawfully elected President Mohamed Bazoum.
As expected, Guinea’s military junta has opposed the trade sanctions and the plans to launch armed intervention. Burkina Faso and Mali, meanwhile, have gone a step further and announced that military intervention against the coup leaders in Niger would be considered a “declaration of war” against their nations.
ECOWAS now stands at a dangerous crossroads.
Armed intervention could trigger a war, if not an outright implosion of the region. If a regional war breaks out, several states will undoubtedly leave the union, leaving it limp and powerless in the face of unprecedented turmoil.
Yet the bloc’s authority and structure could also undergo extensive and irreversible damage if it fails to restore Bazoum to power, either through diplomacy or armed force. After all, the bloc cannot even pretend to be working to deepen democracy, improve stability and lay the foundations of a tight-knit economic union while nearly one-third of its members are led by unelected military juntas uninterested in economic integration.
Indeed, ECOWAS might not survive the Nigerien debacle in its current 15-member format if it stays the course.
A divided ECOWAS, meanwhile, would be disastrous for West Africa.
It would struggle to form a united defence against rebel groups operating in the region and secure peace for its long-suffering citizens.
And it wouldn’t achieve the regional economic integration and growth its leaders envisaged in May 1975.
Nonetheless, ECOWAS can overcome its present tribulations and entrench democracy throughout the region if it consistently enforces its rule book and follows through with implementing new regulation that would help it maintain stability, such as presidential term limits.
Many West African countries have already displayed incredible and commendable commitment to uphold democratic norms.
They includes countries such as Guinea-Bissau and Liberia that were once wreaked by political strife and war. The group’s leading democracies – Ghana and Nigeria, which both experienced decades of military rule – can help steer other nations to improved democratic outcomes and better times. Nigeria’s president and current ECOWAS chair, Bola Tinubu, for example, was once an outspoken pro-democracy advocate and a fervent opponent of military rule in Nigeria.
ECOWAS now has the political will at the highest level to truly promote democracy in West Africa.
This is the perfect time to draw a line in the sand once and for all and make clear the bloc will not tolerate any further violations of either its values or its Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.