ECOWAS leaders have resolved to set up a committee of three Heads of State to negotiate a “short” transition programme to democracy with the Niger Junta having failed to carry through with its threat to use military force to restore constitutional order in the country following the 26 July military coup.
In another climb down, the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government directed Member States “to exempt the Transition Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Foreign Ministers of the Member States in Transition (Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso), from the travel ban and other targeted individual sanctions imposed on them.” The three countries and Niger are under military dictatorships.
These were some of the major decisions contained in the Communique of the regional leaders’ one-day Summit held on Sunday, in the Nigerian capital Abuja, which is most eloquent in its equivocation and ambiguity in response to the growing unconstitutional moves by some governments, with potential threats to peace and security in the politically restive region.
The 11-page, 54-point Communique said the Presidents of Togo, Sierra Leone, and Benin should engage with Niger’s National Council for the Safeguard of Homeland, “CNSP (the French acronym) and other stakeholders with a view to agreeing a short transition roadmap, establishing transition organs as well as facilitating the setting up of a transition monitoring and evaluation mechanism towards this speedy restoration of constitutional order.”
“Based on the outcomes of the engagement by the committee of Heads of State with the CNSP, the (ECOWAS) Authority will progressively ease the sanctions imposed on Niger,” it said, adding: “In the event of failure by the CNSP to comply with the outcomes of the engagement with the Committee, ECOWAS shall maintain all sanctions, including the use of force, and shall request the African Union and all other partners to enforce the targeted sanctions on members of the CNSP and their associates.
“The Authority further deplores the lack of commitment on the part of the CNSP to restore constitutional order. Consequently, the Authority calls on the CNSP to release (ousted) President Mohammed Bazoum, his family, and associates immediately and without precondition,” the Communique affirmed.
The Summit also directed the ECOWAS Commission “to embark on deep reflection and explore the possibility of convening (an) Extraordinary Summit on unconstitutional changes of government aimed at promoting peace, security, and democracy in the region.”
Many had expected the Abuja Summit to come down hard on the unconstitutional decisions by some regional leaders.
For instance, in utter violation of Article 64 of Guinea Bissau’s Constitution, President Umaro Sissoco Embalo has dissolved the opposition-controlled parliament, following clashes between the National Guard members and the nation’s armed forces, which the government called a coup attempt.
The Summit only expressed “deep preoccupation with the recent developments in Guinea-Bissau and the threats they pose to constitutional order” and “therefore calls for the full respect of the national constitution and a transparent investigation into the various events in accordance with the law and, with a view to ensuring the quick restoration of all national institutions.”
The Authority also decided “to extend the mandate of the ECOWAS Stabilisation Support Mission in Guinea Bissau (SSMGB) for one year,” in what many observers consider as a “reward for authoritarianism.”
Regarding Senegal, where President Macky Sall recently proscribed an opposition party and sacked members of the national electoral Commission with a few months to a crucial presidential election, the Communique said: “The Authority takes note of preparations towards the 25th of February 2024 presidential election and urges the Government and stakeholders in the electoral process to continue to prioritize inclusivity and transparency towards the conduct of the poll.”
Sierra Leone is another Member State under palpable political tension following the government’s two reported coup attempts within the past three months in the aftermath of the disputed June presidential election amid allegations by the government linking the opposition APC and figures to the coup.
The Elections Commission for Sierra Leone declared President Julius Maada Bio re-elected with 56% of the vote, but his rival Dr Samura Kamara and his opposition party have vehemently rejected the results claiming that the election was marred by fraud.
By the weekend of the Abuja Summit, Sierra Leone’s former President Ernest Bai Koroma, an opposition leader, was reportedly put under “house arrest,” after security agencies interrogation him for several hours over the reported coup that killed more than 20 people. Many arrests have been made and more than a dozen inmates reportedly escaped from prison in the nation’s capital, Freetown.
President Bio of Sierra Leone is now named on the Committee of three Heads of State to negotiate the restoration of constitutional order in Niger, and perhaps, to prop his government, ECOWAS leaders at the Abuja summit “directed the Commission to continue supporting Sierra Leone and facilitate the deployment of an ECOWAS Standby security Mission for stabilization.”
Similarly, on The Gambia, while urging “the Government and stakeholders to expedite the adoption of a new Constitution, ahead of the 2026 general elections, as well as the implementation of the White Paper on the recommendations of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission,” the Summit “decides to extend the mandate of the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG) for one year, and instructs the Mission to continue to support The Gambia in the implementation of the White Paper and needed Defence and Security Sector Reforms.”
With four of 15 ECOWAS member States under military rule, and the governments of three other member States being propped up by military forces, it is an understatement that democratic governance is on an accelerated decline in the region.
Experience has shown that some leaders of beneficiary governments of regional military forces, tend to use/misuse the forces to further their selfish political interests and ambitions.
Analysts have continuously pointed out that bad governance, corruption and “political, unconstitutional and ballot box coups,” by the political class are mainly responsible for the resurgence of military coups in West Africa. But while ECOWAS is quick to condemn the former, it either ignores or romanticises the latter, hence the growing criticisms of the regional bloc for inconsistency and poor leadership.
Meanwhile, the regional leaders at the Abuja Summit also reiterated their commitment to the “eradication of terrorism and other threats to peace, security, and stability in the region,” and therefore resolved “to urgently review efforts to activate a standby force for counterterrorism operations in areas infested by terrorist groups.”
“The Authority takes note of the commencement of assignment by the (ECOWAS) Special Envoy on Counterterrorism, Ambassador Baba Kamara, and directs the Commission to facilitate his mission.
“The Authority directs the Commission to intensify collaboration with sub-regional counterterrorism initiatives such as the Accra initiative and MTJN and urges member states to increase funding for joint maritime operations and exercises in the region and to improve coordination and collaboration among various ministries, departments, and agencies responsible for maritime security,” said the Communique.
Dr Omar Alieu Touray, President of the ECOWAS Commission, read the Communique of the summit, which was attended by seven Heads of State of the 15-nation Organization, while others were represented, except Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso, which are suspended.
Prime Minister Ouhoumoudou Mahamadou, in President Bazoum’s toppled administration, represented Niger.
Presided over by Nigeria’s President Bola Tinubu, the current Charman of the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government, who called for engagement with the military juntas for the peaceful restoration of constitutional order and good governance, the Summit was also attended by the African Union and UN representatives.
The fact that ECOWAS, once acclaimed as a forward-looking Regional Economic Community with a good track record in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, now appears to be foundering beggars belief.
Granted that the global socio-economic and political environment has evolved; unless there is a drastic change in the dispositions of leaders at national, institutional, and regional levels, the perennial security and governance challenges facing the ECOWAS region will likely worsen with dire consequences on the regional integration agenda set by the organisation’s founding fathers.
Most of the achievements chalked by ECOWAS in the past were traced to the independent-mindedness and supranational orientation of the Commission, which is charged with the coordination and implementation of critical and strategic programmes and policies that will deepen cohesion and progressively eliminate identified barriers to full integration.
For instance, in 2009, the ECOWAS Commission was able to make former President Mohamadou Tandja’s to reverse his unconstitutional dissolution of Niger’s parliament.
Also, the Commission based on a damning report by its fact-finding Mission refused to send an election Observation Mission to the 2011 election in The Gambia and subsequently withheld recognition of the results of that election, in which then authoritarian President Yahya Jammeh claimed victory.
ECOWAS requires an urgent change of tact guided by principled stance and tough decisions against undemocratic behaviours to restore its past glory and save its waning reputation.
Paul Ejime Is A Global Affairs Analyst And Consultant On Peace & Security And Governance Communications