ECOWAS vs coups: How the regional bloc can restore democracy

ECOWAS vs coups: How the regional bloc can restore democracy
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Lynda Chinenye Iroulo, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University in Qatar

In recent years, Africa has been rocked by anti-Western military interventions, leading to numerous coups, particularly in its western region. These events have shaken the foundation of its democracies and sparked global concern.

Last July, Niger experienced a coup, followed by another in Gabon, where the military seized control of the Central African state. Since 2020, there have been eight military coups in West and Central Africa.

DON’T MISS THIS: A timeline of coups in Africa over three years.

The resurgence of this troubling trend raises critical questions about the continent’s stability and the future of its governance.

All efforts, including the imposition of economic sanctions by one of the continent’s regional blocs, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to restore democracy in these countries have proven futile.

The three countries have now exited the regional bloc and opted instead to form their confederation. ECOWAS noted that the exit of these three countries from its community is sure to increase insecurity risks.

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Business Insider Africa caught up with Lynda Chinenye Iroulo, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University in Qatar and an expert in African and global politics, to discuss coup patterns on the continent and the crucial role of ECOWAS in stabilizing the region.

Business Insider Africa: Can you identify any patterns or common factors contributing to the occurrence of coups within ECOWAS member states?

The primary trend observed is the prevalence of francophone West African countries. This alone speaks volumes about their historical background and ongoing ties with France. That is why we see popular support for these coups.

Likewise, people are fed up with the status quo and thirsty for change. Many ousted leaders either overstayed their welcome in power or attempted to extend their term through unconstitutional means. So their legitimacy waned as they lost popular support among the populace.

Also, economic hardship and insecurity in these countries have forced people to lose hope in their leaders and be open to such coups. In terms of a constitutional coup, Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to amend the constitution for a third term exemplifies this trend. His regime’s actions set the stage for the current situation in Burkina Faso and facilitated Toure’s ascent to power. Similarly, the Bongo family’s prolonged rule spanning decades in Gabon echoes the trend.

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Coup in Africa
Coup in Africa

BI: In your view, what are the main challenges ECOWAS faces in promoting economic cooperation among member states?

These challenges can be categorized into two main groups: internal and external. Internally, ECOWAS began as an economic community but has evolved into a security structure as well. It now focuses on ensuring regional security because it recognizes that economic prosperity relies on a stable and conflict-free environment.

However, internal challenges persist, such as ongoing civil conflicts, coups, and other security threats, which hinder efforts to promote economic stability. Moreover, regional initiatives like ECOWAS and ECAAS, which offer a regional passport for borderless travel and facilitate trade, are hindered by structural issues like corruption, bureaucratic delays, and lack of infrastructure to move goods and people from place to place.

The external challenge in the Francophone region is one of the reasons why we see these coups happening. Since gaining independence, France has maintained a strong presence in Africa, with some countries depositing a huge portion of their foreign exchange reserves in the French treasury.

Despite comprising about 12% of the continent’s GDP, Francophone West Africa lacks autonomy in its financial decisions due to this continued relationship and consistent influence from France.

BI: How effective have sanctions been in influencing positive change or deterring coups in countries like Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso?

Sanctions military intervention, and forceful rhetorics are not uncommon methods that regional organisations use in responding to coups. ECOWAS has protocols on government and democracy, and these are stipulated as some of the ways to respond to coups.

However, sanctions often have unintended consequences that affect ordinary citizens rather than the targeted leaders. For instance, when Niger and Nigeria closed borders and cut off electricity, it affected grassroots populations, leading to high inflation, disruptions in healthcare services, and hindered humanitarian aid delivery. This situation illustrates the proverbial phrase: “When two elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

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I find it very unhelpful when trying to achieve the goal of such instruments, which is to convince these leaders to establish a transitional government and transition back to civilian rule.

BI: How can ECOWAS enhance its diplomatic and conflict resolution mechanisms to address political crises more effectively?

One of the major challenges of this instrument or regional organization is the need to address structural issues that often lead to coups. We must delve into the root causes behind the coups seen across Africa. Constitutional coups, in particular, tend to pave the way for military coups. So it is important to examine the factors contributing to constitutional coups and their subsequent implications for political stability.

When civilian leaders manipulate the constitution to remain in power, it agitates people. Even if this manipulation isn’t the direct cause of a military coup, it can serve as a pretext for such actions.

Regional organizations like ECOWAS need to formulate protocols specifically addressing constitutional coups. This entails devising mechanisms to prevent leaders from exploiting loopholes in the constitution to perpetuate their rule.

Another critical aspect contributing to coups in West Africa is the persistent external interference, particularly from countries like France.

There needs to be a dialogue with Francophone African countries on decolonizing state institutions. This involves addressing ties to France, such as foreign exchange control, to break free from colonial legacies. Although dismantling these structures will take time, this is what the current leaders are peddling.

Traore is severing ties with France. Many are discussing changing their national language from French to local languages. So they have started a discourse of trying to decolonize the political structures and the links to France.

I think this conversation should have already occurred within the context of ECOWAS, which has been established since the seventies and has witnessed many countries transition from colonial rule to decolonization. It will take time, but there needs to be discussions on how to address constitutional coups and conversations around decolonization, cutting ties to France if necessary.

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BI: How do you foresee the future of regional integration in Africa given recent political challenges?

I remain hopeful that regional organizations are increasingly relevant in the African context, given the diverse nature of states in the region. Collaborative efforts through these organizations can better address common objectives, which may be more challenging for individual member states to tackle alone.

Although these three member states have expressed their intention to withdraw from the EOA, I remain hopeful that this will not come to pass. Despite their announcement, they have not yet submitted an official document confirming their withdrawal.

In the Ecowas Treaty, there is a section that outlines the process for member states to withdraw from the regional organization. This process typically involves submitting an official document to request withdrawal. Once received, this document is discussed by member states. If the member states seeking withdrawal do not retract their request within a year, the other member states are expected to ratify the instrument. Following this ratification, the withdrawal process can proceed under the established procedures.

Indeed, the withdrawal process stipulated in the Ecowas Treaty spans a year, and as of now, these member states have yet to initiate the initial step of submitting an official withdrawal letter. This delay gives rise to hope that perhaps it serves as a means to prompt reflection within the regional organization.

I am a strong believer that regional organizations are very important and will continue to remain important because of the types of member states that we have on the continent.


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