In the years leading to independence for most African states, there was the geopolitical cleavage having various countries within the radically-minded pan-Africanists dubbed the Casablanca bloc up against the conservative, pro-Western, Monrovia bloc. The 1975 formation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) put paid to that gulf in the West African subregion, when 15 countries sought to forge a common identity around questions of citizenship, governance, regional security and integration, economic issues, the environment, natural resources and development, as well as issues of higher education and employment.
That vision suffered its severest blow yet recently on 25 January when Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger announced their exit from the 15-member bloc “without delay.” They described the action as their “sovereign decision.” This not unexpected declaration by the three Sahelian nations was the denouement of diplomatic stand-offs they had been having with ECOWAS, following a series of coups in the region; in Chad, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger, since 2020.
ECOWAS responded with a slew of sanctions, particularly against Mali and Niger; and a threat of military intervention in the latter, if the overthrown President Mohammed Bazoum was not restored to power within a week. The military juntas came in with the determination to remain in power, and diplomatic efforts to get them to accept short transition programmes following which they would all return to the barracks, have all failed.
The three countries – Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger – terrified at the announcement by ECOWAS that it would intervene militarily in Niger, established the “Alliance of Sahelian States,” as a martial coalition to collectively defend their military regimes. The throwback to the 1955 South African anti-apartheid spirit, that an injury to one is an injury to all, at the launch of the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress (ANC), was symbolic and mnemonic. Obviously, this also echoed the mutual, self-defence obligation clause, famous as Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
For the trio, ECOWAS has drifted from the spirit of Pan-Africanism that informed its formation and failed to stem the tide of insecurity in the region headlined by jihadist insurgency, under whose asphyxiating grip they are, alongside Nigeria. The juntas also accused ECOWAS of being under the influence of “foreign powers” (the West), while it had moved away from the “ideals of its founding fathers and Pan-Africanism,” as mentioned earlier.
Whether it was clear to them or not, the juntas, by their move, have effectively formalised a return to the political and ideological schism of the pre-independence years, with the subregion now separated into two power blocs having hostile ideologies, and allied with foreign backers on reverse sides of the geopolitical divide.
Thus, shortly after Niger’s Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine travelled to Moscow, Tehran, and Istanbul, to discuss military aid, following in lock steps with Chad’s President Mahamat Idriss Déby’s visit to Moscow, and the dramatic arrival of 1,000 Russian troops in Bamako, as well as the arrival of the first 100 Russian troops in Ouagadougou on 25 January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promptly found time late January to also visit the US’ major Atlantic coast partners including Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire. This is evidence, if one was ever needed, that the region is becoming part of a larger geopolitical muscle-flexing.
While Blinken spoke of the values of democracy, human rights and the promise of free enterprise, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi spoke of a common bond between Niger and Iran, both suffering from the cruel sanctions of Western imperialism and the domination system.
With the cost of living crisis rippling through most of the region, and popular discontent boiling over in many of the ill-performing economies, indeed with the memories of France’s callous and continued plunder of its colonies, and the vestiges of COVID still ravaging most of the urban and rural poor, it is not surprising that the clarion call to sovereignty, pan-Africanism, and the rejection of the West, are receiving very huge adoption from broad segments of the Francophone West African population, particularly the youths. To all this, in the instance of the Burkinabe, add the charismatic figure of the well-spruced and arresting 35-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traoré, modelled on the assassinated Burkinabe revolutionary Captain Thomas Sankara!
Nevertheless, rather than taking the self-serving and meaningless rhetoric of the putschists in uniform, who have overrun the constitutional order in their countries at face value, concerning the direction that ECOWAS has taken, there is need to stand firm on the side of moving the region and the rest of Africa towards improving and strengthening the implantation of liberal representative democracy. This is in contradistinction to shortchanging democracy and giving the long-suffering citizens of the region the impression that there is a better alternative to representative governance, including any kind of extra-constitutional rule, especially as conducted by uniformed coupists!
President Bola Tinubu, the current Chairman of the regional bloc, who was elected five weeks after he assumed office on 29 May, has tried to lead the charge of returning the trio to democracy, and emphasising that ECOWAS would not tolerate a contagion of military takeovers in the sub-region. The headwinds are enormous. First, the legitimacy of ECOWAS is speciously located in the authority of the Council of Heads of States, meaning in effect that the president and executives of the body are powerless outside the whims, and predilections of the committee of the heads of states.
Secondly, capacity in diplomacy appears to have thinned badly in the community, as reconciliation efforts by Togo, last November, and by Nigerian Islamic leaders, have neither borne any significant fruit nor brought tangible proposals to the table in a timely manner. Lastly, times are changing and new power actors with outsized ambitions are emerging on Africa’s geopolitical chessboard. The increasingly influential roles of China, Russia, the Emirates, and Turkeye have implications of self-interest that bode no good for the region.
In all, the Euro-American fear is that a destabilised ECOWAS will be disastrous for the African region, with the free flow of the Sahel’s noxious exports of coups, (Russian) mercenaries, insurgent groups, and the growing new populist sentiment birthing disinformation and attacking political participation, all posing severe threats to democratic growth.
Yet, Europe and America seem impervious to the fact that the access to world markets and capital markets that comes with membership of ECOWAS and partnership with multilateral agencies, are in their hands to trigger, in absence of which poor and derelict nations will always gravitate to Russian guns, bombs, drones, mercenaries and nuclear power. And unfortunately, a trailer of what the Sahel can expect can be found by looking at the Central African Republic, since 2017.
Should the managers of ECOWAS now fold their hands and assume it is all over? PREMIUM TIMES challenges the multilateral body to seek points of opportunity in the crisis and explore a combination of multiple bilateral prospects that will demand radical confidence building. In the short run, this may call for smart compromises but, at the end of the day, the value of ECOWAS to the prosperity and security of all the original 15 nations is incredibly enormous, and they are worth preserving in the interest of all.
Democracy is the subject under trial here. ECOWAS may have been derelict in helping to combat terrorism in the Sahel but a good part of that has to do with the very nature of civil-military relations in a continent in which the very modern – not Western – principle of absolute civilian control over the military has never been cultivated, much less respected. Besides, Africa is the only place where the military lose wars they are commissioned to fight and turn around and levy war on their states and we seem to think they have a point.
Therefore, PREMIUM TIMES believes that the message in all of this for ECOWAS is: good governance and an economy that works for all are the guardrails of any democracy. In case there are still doubters around, Nigeria’s Chief of Army Staff, Taoheed Lagbaja, gave all community citizens immense pride when he uttered these words: “The solution to problems with democracy is more democracy.”
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