ECOWAS Region: Uneasy Calm Before Preventable Storms

By Paul Ejime*

One of the useful lessons to be drawn from the unfolding political and security crises in Mali is the imperative for proactivity, backchannel diplomacy, and effective use of early warning tools in conflict prevention, management, and resolution.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has an Early Warning Directorate with roots in its 15 Member States working with civil society infrastructures. Their task is to flag crisis hot spots and transmit red alerts to the relevant authorities for necessary action. This architecture covers Mali. So, for the evolution of the Mali crises to have blindsided ECOWAS and the international community with an estimated 15,000-strong United Nations Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, plus another 5,000 of the French Barkhane military Operation, the surveillance by the Sahel G-5 countries, and the African Union’s representation, MISAHEL, could not have been more embarrassing.

Even when the ECOWAS mediation finally kicked in, the train had already left the station, and the strategy also left much to be desired. The hurriedly-assembled mediation team led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan became a “Catch-up Mission.” Five ECOWAS leaders from Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Niger, later undertook what was seen as “solidarity mission” to shore up their embattled colleague, President Ibrahim Keita.

Unsurprisingly, the military struck in Bamako on 18th August, sacking Keita, on the day that Dr Jonathan was briefing Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on the outcome of his unsuccessful mediation.

Mali’s problem is not new to ECOWAS or the international Community. Eight years ago, in 2012, the country had witnessed its third military coup led by a Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who is still undergoing trial for killings related to that putsch. In an ironic but avoidable deja vu, if not for the change of the dramatis personae, 2020 was a repeat of the 2012 episode in Mali.

Capt Sanogo and his group seized power from then-President Amadou Toumani Touré from the Kati cantonment near Bamako, the same military unit from which Col. Assimi Goita and his team hatched their plan and toppled President Keita. Playback to 2012, a transition government was cobbled after the Sanogo coup, followed by a presidential vote which Keita won and re-election in 2018, promising, among other pledges, to end the devastating insurgency and insecurity in Mali.

But like his successor Touré, Keita could not deliver. To compound his situation, Keita was accused of corruption, cronyism even as Mali descended into chaos amid crippling poverty and unemployment. There is a large swathe of the country’s territory, in the North and Central regions brimming with terrorism, insurgency, inter-ethnic conflicts, and separatist rebellion in the north by Arabs and Tuaregs. Meanwhile, Keita also organised a controversial legislative poll in March/April 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and allegedly used the Constitutional Court to corner some parliamentary seats to his political party.

While external military and civilian deployments in Mali cost the International Community about 2.2 billion US dollars annually to maintain, the gold, bauxite, and cotton-rich country with an estimated 19 million people is among the World’s 37 heavily indebted developing nations. Its estimated annual revenue is four billion USD dollars against expenditures of 4.5 billion US dollars and external debt of about three billion dollars.

Terrorist groups operating in northern Mali include Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the AZAWAD Tuareg militant group championing northern Mali’s independence. With the stalling of the 2015 Peace Accord implementation between the Bamako government and the Tuaregs, the terrorist groups have continued with near impunity and exporting their operations to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, killing some 4,000 people in multiple attacks this year alone. Occasionally, UN peacekeepers and French forces have also been targeted.

MINUSMA had replaced an Africa-led Peace Mission in Mali, AFISMA, with heavy ECOWAS involvement in 2013. Dr Jonathan, Nigeria’s President then had co-chaired the regional mediation in Mali until 2016, with now-deposed former Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore.

Mali is back to ground zero, with ECOWAS now negotiating the formation of another Transition government with the Col. Goita-led military junta, similar to what happened in 2012, with the regional body now insisting on a civilian-led 18-month transition government for another presidential election to take place.

The military junta would appear to have side-lined the main opposition coalition June 5 Movement, or M5-RFP led by Saudi-trained cleric Imam Mahmoud Dicko, which spare-headed the national protests against the Keita government. The opposition group had wanted a civilian leadership for the transition government, but ECOWAS and the junta have settled for retired Col. Bah Ndaw as President, Col Goita as vice President and former Foreign Minister Moctar Ouane as the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, some officials of the deposed Keita government remain in military detention, while veteran opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, who ran against Keita in 2018, is still missing following his abduction in March on a northern Mali campaign tour.

It remains to be seen what will come out of the ECOWAS mediation in Mali. But the fundamental question that must be answered is about the role of former colonial power France in Mali and, by extension, in its former African colonies, where anti-French sentiments appear to be growing. For instance, the government in Bamako does not have free access to northern Mali, where French forces are based, with illegal mining and exploitation of Mali’s mineral resources continuing there even under the prevailing chaos.

Sustainable peace cannot be achieved in Mali and these other African countries without economic independence despite more than six decades of political or “flag independence.”

In a related development, while ECOWAS and the international community appear lethargic, potential fires are simmering in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire over the infamous third term presidential mandate.

In Guinea, 82-year-old Alpha Condé rammed through a controversially costly national referendum and legislative elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, which his opponents claim were part of his third term agenda. In that move of political desperation, the Chair of Guinea’s National Electoral Commission Amadou Salifou Kébé, and at least two senior government officials died from COVID-19 infections.

Presidential and parliamentary elections have now been fixed in Guinea for the 18th October, 2020, with no apparent pre-emptive efforts to address the third term mandate-related discontent and disaffection. The situation in Guinea could escalate into a major conflagration with Mali still unsettled.

Elections or their outcomes are major sources of political conflicts in West Africa. Apart from Guinea, crucial polls are also due in Cote d’Ivoire – 31st October, Burkina Faso – 22nd November, Ghana – 7th December and Niger – 27th December.

In Cote d’Ivoire, President Alassane Ouattara has stoked tension by insisting on a third term mandate. From a field of 44 presidential candidates, the Ivorian Constitutional Court has approved only four, including Ouattara and his key rival, former President Henri Konan Bédié, 86. Among those disqualified is former President Laurent Gbagbo, whom Ouattara defeated in a disputed poll in 2010 that resulted in a civil war in the country. Also disqualified is Guallime Soro, a former rebel leader, and Prime Minister. Gbagbo is in Belgium after his trial and conditional release by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, while Soro is in France, after his trial and conviction in absentia for alleged bank robbery in Cote d’Ivoire.

The three opposition leaders, who command reasonable support in Cote d’Ivoire, have rejected the Constitutional Court’s verdict, with Bédié calling for national civil disobedience campaign by his supporters. The Ivorian government has also rejected a ruling by the African Court on Human and Peoples Rights that both men be allowed to contest.

Another country to watch in West Africa is The Gambia, where ECOWAS has a military Mission, ECOMIG, since 2017, following the political debacle from the December 2016 presidential election. After 22 years of dictatorship, President Yahya Jammeh had refused to accept defeat in the 2016 vote, until the International Community, with the leadership of ECOWAS, managed to shepherd him into exile in Equatorial Guinea. His successor, President Adama Barrow, who benefitted from that international intervention, would appear to have forgotten too soon that he was inaugurated in neighbouring Senegal because of insecurity in the Gambia.

Barrow, who only became a substitute presidential candidate after Jammeh threw the main opposition leader Ousainou Darboe into jail on the eve of that presidential vote, has since formed his political party, abandoning the one that sponsored his presidency and aligning with the Jammeh party. He has also been accused of instigating a wholesale rejection by the National Assembly of a draft Constitution upon which most Gambians had pinned their hopes for peace-building and national reconciliation after the iniquities of the Jammeh years.

His grouse seems to be that the draft document does not support his tenure elongation plan.

Conventional wisdom dictates that these “loaded guns” should be prevented from an explosion. ECOWAS and the International Community must wake up to their responsibilities. A stitch in time, they say, saves nine!

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

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