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ECOWAS criticized over West African coups

Antonio Cascais
May 5, 2022

The Economic Community of West African States has reacted to putsches in the region with appeals, sanctions or troop deployments. But criticism of the bloc's inconsistent actions is growing.

Burkinabe men holding up pictures
Burkinabe men holding up pictures of two coup leaders in West AfricaImage: OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP

"The West African region is suddenly back in the international headlines for all the wrong regions," Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said at the end of March. He appealed to lawmakers in Accra to support regional bloc ECOWAS' current zero-tolerance approach for military coups.

Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso have all recently experienced coups. Only a coordinated stance by ECOWAS member states could put the coup plotters in their place, President Akufo-Addo said on Twitter.

Historian Arthur Banga from Ivory Coast's Felix Houphouet-Boigny University also argued for a resolute "zero-tolerance policy" towards coup plotters, which must be enforced by ECOWAS.

"We must not accept that the democratic order in our region is repeatedly endangered by coups. West Africa must be able to effectively combat military coups and those responsible," Banga told DW.

"It's necessary to support ECOWAS in enforcing sanctions on coup plotters."

ECOWAS leaders
Leaders of the Economic Community of West African StatesImage: IVORY COAST PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/REUTERS

ECOWAS: Low credibility, low breakthrough power

At the most recent ECOWAS summit in the Ghanaian capital on April 29, 2022, it became clear how little power the West African bloc  actually has in dealing with coup regimes.

The military juntas in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso were once again called upon to return political power to civilian hands as soon as possible.

But the appeals fell on deaf ears: All three juntas signaled that they wanted to hold on to their power for the time being and not accept the deadlines set by ECOWAS for relinquishing power.

"Burkina Faso wished to have more time than the 25 April deadline" set by ECOWAS in March 2022 and Guinea also wished to have more time in relation to the 25 April deadline," an ECOWAS statement said. The bloc's communication said it had had no contact with Mali.

The ECOWAS measures against coup regimes vary from case to case. However, one thing can be observed in all cases: The measures and sanctions adopted are not consistently enforced. So far, the coups have had no significant consequences.

Most observers agree that supranational bodies — which establish, enforce and monitor internationally-binding rules — are needed urgently.

Recently, many things have gone wrong in this respect, and ECOWAS has not been able to step up to the task, as the examples of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso illustrate.

Mali | Colonel Assimi Goita
Assimi GoitaImage: Malik Konate/AFP

Mali: A coup within a coup, ECOWAS sanctions

Bamako, May 24, 2021

The Malian military led by interim vice-president Assimi Goita disempowered interim president Bah N'Daw. At the time, he headed the interim government that had been installed in the wake of the August 2020 coup to prepare for new elections. In Mali, this in a sense, is a "coup within a coup."

ECOWAS reacted decisively, imposing sanctions on members of Mali's junta. It closed its borders with the country, froze its assets at the Central Bank of West African States and imposed a trade embargo on Mali.

But the sanctions affected only a few protagonists of the coup, who also have many ways to circumvent them, according to observers.

Guinea junta leader Mamady Doumbouya
Guinea junta leader Mamady Doumbouya Image: Xinhua/imago images

Guinea: Putschists with an own agenda

Conakry, September 5, 2021

An elite military unit led by Mamady Doumbouya grabbed power. It declared the government of the octogenarian President Alpha Conde dissolved and the constitution suspended. Conde had drawn fierce opposition after pushing through a new constitution in 2020 that allowed him to run for a third presidential term.

Once again, ECOWAS immediately condemned the coup: Guinea must quickly return to "constitutional order," power must be handed over to a civilian government — within six weeks — otherwise sanctions would be imposed on the country and its new leaders.

But the new rulers didn't take the ECOWAS threats seriously and let the six-week deadline lapse. It wasn't not until May 1, 2022 — eight months after the coup — that junta leader Doumbouya held out the prospect of to constitutional order for Guinea, but only "after a 39-month transition period." Once more, it becomes clear that the authority of the West African bloc is practically non-existent. The possibilities to enforce its demands are limited.

Leading junta members have since been sanctioned and banned from traveling within the bloc. But these sanctions are easy for the coup plotters to get over and circumvent, according to observers.

Burkina Faso | Neue Militärjunta
Paul Henri Sandaogo DamibaImage: Sophie Garcia/AP Photo/picture alliance

Burkina Faso: No sanctions for putschists

Ouagadougou, January 24, 2022

In the ECOWAS member state Burkina Faso, Burkina Faso junta leader installed as president after coup junta leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba overthrew President Roch Marc Christian Kabore with the help of a group of officers after two days of mutinies in army barracks. Here, too, ECOWAS condemned the coup.

The new rulers immediately pledged "an early return to democracy". But that's not how it turned out: The military should remain in office for a transitional period of three years, the junta said only a few weeks later. The argument: The bloody uprising by jihadis must first be dealt with.

On this occasion, ECOWAS remained inactive and – unlike with Mali and Guinea – did not impose sanctions on the coup plotters in Burkina Faso.

Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo
President Umaro Sissoco Embalo of Guinea-BissauImage: Pressebüro der Präsidentschaft der Republik Guinea-Bissau/Jakadi

Guinea-Bissau: ECOWAS troops for the president?

Bissau, February 1, 2022

Armed soldiers stormed a government building where the increasingly autocratic president, Umaro Sissoco Embalo, held a government meeting. In battles between the presidential guard and attackers, 11 people were killed.

The reaction of ECOWAS in this case was quite different. On mainly the initiative of Guinea-Bissau's large neighbor Senegal, the bloc decided to send a stabilization contingent of an initial 631 soldiers.

"A special case. A special measure by ECOWAS for a small Portuguese-speaking country located between Senegal and the Republic of Guinea," Fode Mane, a lawyer in Guinea-Bissau, told DW.

Mane stressed that there was as yet no official information from ECOWAS on the exact purpose of this military mission. Unofficially, it is said that the soldiers — mainly from Senegal and Nigeria — are to protect elected members of the government. Senior officials, state buildings and infrastructure are also to be guarded.

Guinea-Bissau opposition leader speaks to DW

Guinea-Bissau already had an ECOWAS stabilization force in the country between 2012 and 2020. Its deployment was decided after a bloody military coup in April 2012.

In the case of other coup states, sanctions remain the economic community's sharpest sword.

Many people who are skeptical about the mission are curious about its differences in approach.

"We from the Bissau-Guinean civil society do not have a good feeling about this mission," said Mane. "No one here believes that this stabilization force will solve our problems."

ECOWAS: Applying double standards?

Fode Mane noted that ECOWAS is highly discredited throughout West Africa, not least because of its lax treatment of the coup plotters in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. He said that no one could understand why the bloc kept applying double standards with regard to individual countries.

That sentiment was echoed by Oulata Gaho, a former colonel in the Ivorian army.

"Since ECOWAS is composed of a majority of Francophone states, the leaders of these countries, which used to be French colonies, give the impression that the Elysee Palace is telling ECOWAS how to solve the region's problems," Gaho told DW.

Gaho's conclusion was that ECOWAS' reputation has declined dramatically in recent years.

"Many people in West Africa have come to believe that in recent times, once they are in power, their leaders completely disengage from them and, together with ECOWAS, row against the interests of their peoples."

That, he said, must change.

This piece was translated from German by Benita van Eyssen

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