ECOWAS leaders converge in Abuja, the Nigerian capital on Sunday for their end-of-year ordinary summit with a plethora of unresolved socio-economic, security and governance issues, especially perennial insecurity, and a resurgence of military coups with four members of the 15-nation regional bloc under military dictatorships.
Little or no progress has been reported in regional efforts to restore constitutional order in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where the military has seized power with the last three recently forming a mutual Defence Alliance, against an attack on any of them, short of their withdrawing from ECOWAS.
This was in apparent response to ECOWAS’ failure to make good on its recent widely publicised threat to deploy a military force to restore constitutional order in Niger, after the military coup in July.
Also, following its disputed elections in June, Sierra Leone is under political tension after witnessing two deadly shootings, which the government called coup attempts, with more than 20 persons reported killed and many inmates let out of jails in Freetown, the nation’s capital.
The country’s former President Ernest Bai Koroma was questioned by police this week after the government accused his opposition party of involvement in the alleged coup attempt.
In Guinea Bissau, President Umaro Sissoco Embalo has unconstitutionally dissolved the opposition-controlled parliament after reporting a coup attempt last week, the second within two years in the country.
An uneasy calm equally prevails in Senegal, where President Macky Sall’s government has proscribed an opposition party and sacked members of the national electoral commission with only a few months to the presidential election in February 2024.
The developments in Guinea Bissau and Senegal are nothing short of “political and constitutional coups,” which are potential triggers or drivers of military putsches.
Socio-economic hardships are also biting hard, coupled with sporadic deadly attacks by terrorists, Islamic extremists, or separatist insurgents in the region.
All “coups” constitute a threat to democracy and a endanger to peace and security in the region. But the fact that ECOWAS appears more enthusiastic at condemning only military coups is not lost on critics, who accuse the organisation of inconsistency or hypocrisy.
Another troubling irony is that ECOWAS, which enjoyed international acclaim decades ago for achievements in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, appears to have lost direction, by exhibiting an embarrassing lack of will or inability to rise to its own standards.
Set up in May 1975 to foster regional integration, ECOWAS was considered a trailblazer among Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs).
Indeed, at a stage, all the 15 ECOWAS member States operated one form of democratic system of government or another.
But for keen followers of the regional organisation, “the rain,” like Nigeria’s world-renowned novelist Chinua Achebe said in his iconic Things Fall Apart, “started beating” ECOWAS about a decade ago.
After embracing multiparty democracy in the late 1999s to early 2000s, and doing away with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, the ever-ingenious political class found ways of circumventing the democratic processes and principles.
As with most politicians, their West African counterparts found ways of exploiting loopholes in national constitutions and electoral legal frameworks.
After the initial celebration of a relatively peaceful transfer of political power with examples of ruling parties/governments losing in elections and handing power to the opposition, the refrain changed.
Elections were held regularly but with questionable integrity. Money became the deciding factor in most elections.
Democracy, a process for registered voters to choose their leaders became a personalised, do-or-die affair, in which the powerful and wealthy politicians with deep pockets prevailed.
Election became an investment, for politicians to put in money and recoup abnormal profits, and a source of ill-gotten wealth to be deployed into winning the next election, and the vicious circle continued.
Deploying their large war chest, the rich and powerful rigged elections without consequences.
The line between the three arms of government – the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary – became blurred, with separation of powers thrown out of the window. The result is the effective capture of the State and its institutions.
Having “seized” power in rigged elections, the executive arm of government usually pockets the parliament, to change the national constitution, with the judiciary also compromised to enable the politicians to obtain or retain power through unconstitutional means.
The dysfunctional administrations have weaponized poverty through bad governance and anti-people policies, ensuring that the so-called benefits of democracy accrue only to public officeholders, their family members, and a limited number of others through political patronage.
Political opposition becomes anathema, with opposition figures brutalised, imprisoned, or exiled.
Alternative view is not tolerated, the democratic space shrinks with press freedom and human rights under stricture.
The election management bodies, with independent or autonomous nomenclature, are only so in name, and always under pressure to do the bidding of those in government, who also control the power of coercion, the security ‘apparatchiks.
Civil society is not spared, and neither is the media, and development partners, some of which influence the outcome of elections on behalf of foreign governments under the guise of helping the developing countries.
The cumulative effect is that democracy has been forced into retreat in the ECOWAS region.
While all hope is not lost, the management of the ECOWAS Commission and regional leaders must engage in a serious introspection on how to reposition the regional bloc on the path to the realisation of the dreams of its founding fathers.
Certainly, the Abuja end-of-year summit would not provide all the answers, but it could be the starting point to end the drift and allow ECOWAS to rediscover its glorious past for the benefit of the community’s estimated 400 million citizens, who must be wondering what befell their once admired organisation.
ECOWAS does not lack the instruments or protocols to get back on track once the leadership at the national and regional levels can muster the requisite political will.
Paul Ejime Is A Global Affairs Analyst And Consultant On Peace & Security And Governance Communications