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ECOWAS, Africa at crossroads: which way forward?

The old adage goes like this: “history repeats itself because no one learns from it.”

Africa needs to seriously reflect on its past, analyse its current realities and importantly, boldly carve a brighter vision for its citizens that would realise its developmental aspirations, change the gloomy outlook and become a respected member of the global community.

Again, they say “time and tide waits for no man,” therefore Africa needs to decide its future course now, else forever remain at the bottom of the pile of every conceivable matrix. A careful analysis shows that visionary leadership and political unity remain the viable options for Africa to rise above the grinding poverty, instability, the continuing threats and spread of terrorism, and the strangle-hold of foreign actors on Africa’s resources and its justifiable sustainable development.

The time for bold visionary leadership and action is now. The question is will African leaders rise up to the occasion?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” William Butler Yeats Irish Poet & Writer (1865–1939) – “The Second Coming Poem.”

Introduction

Looking at what is happening in the Sahelian and West African sub regions – the continuing threats and spread of terrorism, the incessant banditry, killing and wanton destruction of life and property, extortion of illegal taxes from farmers to access their farms, hunger and looting of food, the rampant kidnapping of innocent people, particularly, abductions of young students for ransom in Nigeria, the failed military coup attempts (in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau) and the many successful unconstitutional removal of elected leaders in Gabon, Niger, Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali (twice in 13 months).

An analysis of the raging internal and neighbour states wars, disunity among leaders, and lack of visionary foresight, one can surmise that the forefathers of African unity and prosperity would be turning in their graves with utter disappointment that their toils for African emancipation had been in vain.

Prevalence of Insecurity 

Many countries in Africa have suffered and seen dramatic increases in terrorism over the past 15 years with the Sahel region now reported as the epicentre of global terrorism ahead of the Middle East (IEP, 2024).

Sadly, Burkina Faso, Ghana’s close and northern neighbour has become the most impacted country globally by terrorism deaths. It has experienced 68% increase in deaths to 1,907. This figure accounts for a quarter of all global terrorism deaths. Kidnappings and lootings are becoming the norm of daily life in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy.

The inability of the civilian governments to deal with these insecurities and the associated problems are the reasons cited for the spate of military overthrows in the West and Central African regions.

Going beyond these subregions, the toppling of the Libyan (by the West) and the Sudanese governments plunged these countries into protracted civil war leading to malnutrition, hunger and many deaths, particularly of innocent children, who have been robbed of their future.

This is not to mention, the incalculable destruction of vital infrastructure. Similarly, the ongoing insurgencies in Eastern DRC and tensions between DRC and Rwanda; Ethiopia and Somalia are of deep concern for the peaceful development of Africa.

The dire consequences of these insecurities can be summed up in a recent cry made by a Sudanese refugee in a South Sudan refugee camp: “We have run from war, but we would be killed here by hunger.”

Impacts of Insecurity

Sadly, these situations are exacerbated when African leaders attempt to hold on to power against their constitutional mandates as seen in Gabon, and recently, Equatorial Guinea and Senegal. Indeed, the venerable and distinguished Father of African literature, the poet and writer, Chinua Achebe was right in titling his epic book, Things Fall Apart, highlighting the challenges of governance in Africa during colonisation. Poor governance in Africa leads to insecurity and unrest, which in turn causes poverty and hunger even though Africa is no longer under direct colonial rule.

Since the 1950s, global statistics reveal that our world has experienced 492 attempted or successful coups. Out of these, Africa has witnessed the most (220) with 109 of these attempts being successful (Duzor & Wiliamson, 2023) .

The troubling questions that all concerned thinkers and well-wishers of Africa need to consider are: Why is Africa, particularly, sub-Sahara and West Africa so much prone to unconstitutional coup d’états?

And importantly, what should the continental and subregional bodies, specifically the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) do to build peace and security on the continent and make military overthrows unthinkable?

Regrettably, records show that an estimated 82 per cent of the 149 million Africans facing acute food insecurity are in conflict-affected countries. This underscores the fact that conflict continues to be the primary driver of food crisis in Africa (Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, 2023). A review by Shemyakina (2022) strikingly showed how increasing rate of all forms of armed conflicts have risen above strategic development efforts in Africa.

A study of 45 sub-Saharan countries showed that on average, annual growth in intense conflict countries was about 2.5% points lower, and that the cumulative impact on per capita GDP increases over time (Fang et. al., 2020).

In severe conflict situations, GDP declined by 4.75% in the first year and as much as 6.5% in the subsequent four years. In Sudan, over 25 million people have been displaced, many women raped and increasing number of children are suffering from malnutrition.

Reasons for coups

The precursors to military coups are complex and difficult to explain. They could be due to a mix of historical, economic, political, military, personal, social, ethnic and cultural reasons (Johnson, Slater & McGowan, 1984).

Therefore, in attempting to answer these complex questions, a rush to condemn all military interventions in Africa must be avoided, as soldiers are also bona fide citizens of their countries, who are interested in the national dignity, territorial integrity, safety, prosperity and effective running of their nations.

Political scholars have offered several reasons behind unconstitutional military coups in Africa. These include weak governance, deteriorating domestic living conditions, the ever-present historical colonial influence, the large multinational corporations’ interests in the economic and resource sectors of Africa, and the consequent meddling by these state and non-state actors in political governance, coupled with the cancerous political and administrative corruption (Saeed, 2023).

At CALE, we emphasise the corrosive and destabilising impact of incumbents, who change their national constitutions to entrench themselves in power. Also, the failure of elected governments in dealing with instability, and their ineffective policies that bring hardships, social unrest and upheavals in communities. Finally, we highlight the unjust widening of the wealth gap between the rich and poor. These factors worsen insecurity and threaten national cohesion.

Existing solutions

Several efforts including 38 African-led peace operations have been authorised and deployed to 25 countries on the continent to address insecurity with global and external Western support (Allen, 2023).

According to the author, some of these deployments have achieved notable successes including rapid deployment to restore constitutional order, doctrinal flexibility and improved coordination in addressing cross border security challenges.

However, these Africa-led peace operations have suffered from operational capabilities and lack of professionalism, such that the proposed African Standby Force has not become fully operational due to insufficient funds raised for the Africa Peace Fund. There is also poor alignment with civilian-led efforts to manage local conflicts.

Secondly, in 2003, the AU established the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) as a voluntary arrangement among African states to systematically peer assess and review governance at Head of State level to promote political stability, accelerate sub-regional and continental economic integration, economic growth and sustainable development.

Unfortunately, being a voluntary mechanism and therefore unenforceable, the APRM has remained ineffective in modulating leaders’ behaviour and has not achieved its laudable goals.

Leaders in many countries across Africa remain largely unaccountable to their populace. The only legitimacy some of these leaders enjoy comes from questionable elections, which are rigged and fraught with unequal playing fields for their challengers.

According to Sá & Sanches (2021), powerful “father-like” leaders on the continent such as President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea use co-optation (via patronage and cabinet appointments), restrictive institutional rules that protect the regime’s interests and make participation in political opposition difficult.

They use selective and diffuse repression that shields their regime and chokes off challengers. They project manipulated international linkages for pseudo-credibility that offset any pressure for change. Sadly, Africa has the largest number of longest-serving leaders with over three decades in power in the world.

Thirdly, in 2018 the AU launched “Silencing the Gun” strategy, a plan to end all wars, civil conflicts, gender-based violence, violent conflicts and prevent genocide on the continent by 2020. Unfortunately, five years have passed, and instead, the guns continue to blaze even louder in many parts of Africa.

The traditional solutions offered by political scientists and analysts in their attempts to stop coup d’états in Africa focus on achieving economic stability, imposing hardline sanctions as deterrence by regional, continental, and international bodies with the intent to force countries to uphold democratic governance.

Although these punitive sanctions have been rolled out time after time, they have failed to stop unconstitutional overthrows in Africa. This is because these bodies fail to understand and address the underlying factors that precipitate these coup d’états.

Principally, these are poor governance, underdevelopment, structural weaknesses, poverty, inequalities, endemic corruption, and lack of adequate resources for building strong territorial armies. The recent string of military coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso are cases in point.

Failed sanctions

Following the Western playbook, ECOWAS was quick to impose sanctions even though it had failed to provide these member states any tangible support in their well-known struggles against terrorism and insurgencies. Likewise, the ECOWAS leaders knew the governance problems in these member states and no serious attempts were made to resolve them.

Like the AU, ECOWAS lacks the tangible political integration necessary to actualise its aims of “promoting cooperation and integration, leading to the establishment of an economic union in West Africa in order to raise the living standards of its people, and to maintain and enhance economic stability, foster relations-among Member States and contribute to the progress and development of the African continent” (ECOWAS Revised Treaty, 1993).

It is regrettable that instead of “fostering relationships” some leaders act in ways that undermine the same and are tantamount to betraying fellow member states.

Also, ECOWAS leaders have shown inconsistencies in how they handled these cascading coups in the three member states. They failed to take decisive actions against Mali and Burkina Faso but threatened Niger with military intervention to restore the ousted civilian government that never materialised.

They took different negotiating approaches, closed borders, imposed economic sanctions and suspended the countries from the bloc. These actions hurt the ordinary citizens, who popularly supported the regime changes. However, instead of capitulating, the military leaders defiantly agreed to exit the bloc and formed their own alliance.

This turn of affairs has caused turmoil in the subregion and forced ECOWAS to retract the imposed sanctions on the pretext of humanitarian reasons and called for the reopening of dialogue.

This embarrassing loss of credibility could have been avoided, if serious political integration, joint military force, accountability, and implementation of mandatory peer reviewed governance mechanisms that pursue early interventions had been developed.

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