ECOWAS And Perennial Political Crises In West Africa

By Paul Ejime*


All too soon, but as expected, World  attention is shifting from Mali after a frenetic diplomatic fire-fighting following the 18th August 2020 military coup that toppled the government of elected President Ibrahim Keita.

Two contentious elections are due in the ECOWAS region – Guinea on 18th October, where Alpha Conde, 82, is seeking a controversial third term mandate; and on 31st October in Cote d’Ivoire, where President Alassane Ouattara is also pushing for a divisive tenure elongation agenda.

As happened eight years ago, the regional economic bloc has apparently negotiated its way out of the current Mali crisis with a largely face-saving outcome. In 2012, Capt Amadou Sanogo and his colleagues from the Kati military cantonment dethroned President Amadou Toumali Toure. A transition government was put in place with several unimplemented peace agreements signed. A presidential election was held, which Keita won in 2013 but could not serve out his second term before the military struck.

This time, from the same Kati barracks, near Bamako, Colonel Assimi Goita and his comrades toppled Keita after months of street protests, broken up by government forces resulting in a score of deaths. ECOWAS reacted in a predictable manner, by imposing sanctions on Mali, followed by negotiations with the adamant junta, then an endorsement of an 18-month transition government. The sanctions have now been lifted to be followed by another presidential vote to end the transition programme.  If this “musical chair” sounds familiar, then welcome to the ECOWAS region of today!

Meanwhile, jihadists have resumed their activities in Mali killing some 24 people, including 13 Malian soldiers in multiple operations on 13th October in the central region, according to official sources.

The 25-member Transitional cabinet headed by retired army Colonel Bah Ndaw as President, with Col. Goita as his deputy, and former Foreign Minister Moctar Ouane as Prime Minister, now has the Herculean task of patching up the pieces in a chaotic and insecurity-scarred Mali until the conduct of another presidential election.

Meanwhile, the roles of the 15,000-strong United Nations Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, and the French Barkhane Operation of 5,000 forces, remain unclear. Both missions are costing approximately US$2 billion annually to maintain. This is in addition to the G-5 Sahel nations’ initiative and the African Union Representation in Mali, all of which failed to prevent the 18th August military putsch. Then the   nagging questions of terrorism and the rash of insurgency and separatist upheavals in the north and central Mali, with large swathes of the country’s territory outside the control of the Bamako government.

With the militant groups from Mali launching sporadic deadly incursions into Burkina Faso and Niger, the situation in Mali could easily regress with more human and material losses and potential destabilisation of the ECOWAS region to be followed by another reactive fire brigade effort.

For Mali to exit its seemingly intractable crises, ECOWAS and the international community must rejig their intervention strategies, with a more structured, inclusive stakeholder engagements and implementable agreements with guaranteed timelines and benchmarks. There must be clear consequences/punishments for breaches of such accords by the signatory parties.

More importantly, France, the colonial power in Mali, and which commands tremendous political and economic influence on its former colonies in Africa, must demonstrate unmitigated transparency with its interests in these countries. Political independence without economic freedom is meaningless. And after more than 60 years of colonisation, African leaders and their countries must also take their destinies in their own hands.

This same logic applies to Cote d’Ivoire, and to a limited extent Guinea, which unlike other Francophone West African countries with common currency CFA franc, has its own Guinea Franc.

After announcing with fanfare last March that he would not run for a third term, President Ouattara, who assumed power after the 2010 contentious election that resulted in a civil war that killed some 3,000 people, has reversed himself following the sudden death of his party’s anointed candidate.

He is relying on the amended national constitution, which he instigated in 2016 to back his current claim, insisting that his second term, which ends after the 31st October poll, is under the old 2010 Constitution. To further complicate the matter and deepen opposition anger, the country’s Constitutional Court has cleared only four of the 44 candidates for the presidential election, including Ouattara, 78, and former President Henri Konan Bedie, 86.

Main opposition leaders such as former President Larent Gbagbo and former rebel leader and Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, were disqualified, in a move heavily criticised by the opposition coalition against Ouattara’s planned third term presidency.

Bedie has since called for a civil disobedience campaign. He and a fellow opposition canadidate Pascal Affi N’Guessan have also called on their supporters to boycott the 31st October presidential election.  While this could pave the way for Ouattara to accomplish his aim, it is also a recipe for chaos with Cote d’Ivoire on the verge of another spiral of political crises.  Some commentators have called for the postponement of the vote to help ease the rising political tension.

In Guinea, while the world was fighting the raging deadly coronavirus pandemic, President Conde rammed through a national referendum and legislative polls at heavy national costs, including the deaths of the Chair of the country’s Electoral Commission Amadou Salifou Kebe and at least two senior government officials from the virus infections.

Yet, Conde is undeterred, using the outcome of the referendum, which was boycotted by the opposition to run the country, including fixing the presidential poll on 18th October.

By its recent endorsement of Guinea’s electoral list for the poll, ECOWAS would appear to have given tacit approval to the contentious referendum and must be prepared to live with the consequences.

The regional organisation has along with the African Union and the United Nations Office in West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), conducted some preventive diplomacy missions to Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.

But the “expression of concern” and calling for peaceful, free, and fair elections in both countries are not enough to halt the desperate and potentially dangerous third term train.

The ECOWAS leadership must re-discover its political will and relevance in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, which brought international acclaim to the regional grouping.

Apart from the accomplishments of the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) in ending the civil wars and political crises in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, ECOWAS leadership has also used the organisation’s instrumentalities to successfully prevent, stop and manage conflicts in member States.

A typical example was in 2009 when ECOWAS took a principled stance to stop former President Mamadou Tandja of Niger from extending his tenure. Also, in 2011, while the AU, which has the African Commission on Human and Peoples Right based in Banjul, could not call President Yahya Jammeh to order on his chain of human rights violations, ECOWAS made a bold statement by refusing to send an observation Mission to an un-democratic election held in the country that year.

The Abuja-based regional economic bloc also refused to recognize the outcome of that vote. Jammeh remained in the ECOWAS bad books until he held another election in 2016 and refused to concede defeat. This resulted in ECOWAS sending a military mission ECOMIG to the Gambia and easing Jammeh to exile in Equatorial Guinea. His departure could have been hastened if the AU and the rest of the international community had backed the ECOWAS tough stance of 2011.

Elections held under conditions that are not conducive to democratic principles can never lead to a credible, transparent, and democratic outcome, and constitute a wrong route to the consolidation of democracy in the politically restive region.

It is also clear that failure to act proactively and on principle only delays an inevitable doom. Ending the perennial political crises in the ECOWAS region, therefore, requires paying strict attention to governance issues and respecting democratic best practices. It is always more cost-effective to nip potential crises in the bud, hence a stitch in time, they say, saves nine. ECOWAS and the international community must be proactive in their preventive diplomacy and crisis management and resolution interventions.

*Paul Ejime, an author and former war Correspondent, is an International Affairs Expert and Consultant to International Organisations.


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