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West Africa: Ecowas Unity Put to Test As West African Coup Crisis Deepens

Nairobi — A series of coups in Western Africa is putting the unity and capability of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, to the test as it seeks to restore civilian rule in countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger. These four nations have joined forces to resist economic sanctions and potential military action by the other 11 countries within the bloc.

On July 26, the military junta in Niger placed President Mohamed Bazoum under house arrest, accusing his administration of mismanaging the country’s resources and allowing the security situation to deteriorate.

In response, ECOWAS imposed trade sanctions on Niger and even threatened military intervention.

But the ongoing political and security crises in Niger, as well as in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, are proving to be challenging for the other ECOWAS member countries.

Paul Melly, a consulting fellow of the Africa Program at Chatham House, says the coup leaders are not adhering to the established rules and engagement of the regional bloc.

“This series of coups, if you like, is a really serious blow to what had been ECOWAS’s greatest strength,” he said. “And the fact that the military regimes are defying the long-established ECOWAS tradition of collaboration in setting governance rules and in managing crises is a real threat a real challenge to the region’s unity.”

In 2017, ECOWAS garnered praise for its collective military action against Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, forcing him to step down after he lost an election to the current president, Adama Barrow.

Francis Mangeni, a regional integration expert, notes that the current situation is quite different, with some coups enjoying apparent support from the people.

“Now we’re having situations where it’s not that clear, where you have the people themselves apparently supporting the coups. So this introduces a certain element of complexity. So in other words, the legitimacy of the constitutionally elected government seems to be in question,” Mangeni said. “And this is an interesting thing really to say because if they are constitutional, they are supposed to be legitimate, but apparently the people don’t think so.”

African Union leaders have been slow to condemn heads of state who change constitutions to extend their terms and alter age limits to remain in power.

According to experts, the rise of military takeovers in Africa is due to leaders overstaying power, electoral malpractices, and elected leaders’ failure to work for the betterment of the citizens.

Aware of the challenges, Nigeria’s Senate advised President Bola Tinubu, who also heads ECOWAS, to explore alternative approaches to address the crisis in Niger.

Melly says that the affected coup countries now treat their crises as internal matters.

“The collaborative culture under which essentially all ECOWAS countries accepted that the internal problems of a member state were, in fact, also the business of the whole bloc, that has been seriously eroded, because they are not accepting the concept that ECOWAS as a whole has the right to become involved in managing their crises and moving them back towards constitutional rule. And that’s a very big change,” Melly said.

Mangeni says the region needs the support of other African countries to solve the problems of frequent coups and coup attempts.

“We need action at the AU level by the highest political organs of the AU with input from all stakeholders. We need real action to address this problem,” Mangeni said. “And this action, as I said, should come from a consultative, inclusive process. And then, we need the goodwill of the international community and all partners. Because, as I said, some of these problems are caused by interference by some of our partners who are pursuing their interests.”

The African Union has already suspended six countries where military forces seized power from civilians, including the four ECOWAS countries, plus Gabon and Sudan.

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