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    ECOWAS is still fighting fires in the region

    October 4, 2021

    ECOWAS leaders meeting on coup in Guinea: is the region’s Early Warning and Response Mechanism up to the job of pre-empting conflicts?
    Image: ECOWAS

    SPEAKING in New York at the UN General Assembly at the end of September, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo made a strong case for respect for democracy, constitutional rule and human rights by members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

    His call came in the midst of another challenge to governance in the region following the coup in Guinea that usurped power from President Alpha Conde on September 5.

    In response, the 15-member regional body imposed sanctions on the military regime, the National Committee for Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), and called on the soldiers to unconditionally release Conde and warned them that they were “individually and collectively responsible for [his] physical safety”.

    As usual, members of the military junta justified their actions by citing the time-honoured reasons given by soldiers for intervening in politics in Africa: corruption, bad governance, economic mismanagement and the need to change the country’s direction.

    Since Akufo-Addo became Chairman of ECOWAS in 2020, there have been four military interventions in West Africa – Mali (twice), Chad and Guinea – raising the spectre of a return to the “coup culture” that was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s.

    Indeed, reaction to the coup in Guinea among Africa’s chattering classes has been divided.

    Some argued that it was necessary because Conde had contrived to have Guinea’s Constitution changed to become president for a third time, contrary to the two-term presidential limit that is now prevalent across Africa.

    Others felt that coups were not the answer to improving governance and socio-economic development on the continent.

    Right at the centre of the debate are political leaders who are blamed for failing their citizens and, thus, giving restive soldiers an excuse for them to upset the status quo.

    That was what came up when yet another coup attempt was foiled in Sudan in September: the soldiers blamed the politicians for their attempt to take over the government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

    But Akufo-Addo thinks otherwise, telling the UN General Assembly that ECOWAS “is unreservedly committed to maintaining democratic governance in the Community”.

    What does this all portend for ECOWAS and its stance on military intervention in the region?

    More than 30 years after the West African grouping first diverted its focus on economic integration to resolving wars and political discontent in the region, it continues to expend a lot of time and energy on putting out fires.

    This is because since 1990, it has been involved in halting armed conflicts in a number of member states such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Cote d’Ivoire.

    However, the primary aim of ECOWAS, when it was formed in 1975, was to fully integrate the region economically.

    But, today, even with moves to create a single currency, which have stalled, many West Africans could be forgiven if they thought ECOWAS was, primarily, a peacekeeping body rather than an economic grouping.

    It would seem that the ECOWAS Early Warning and Response Mechanism is not up to the job of pre-empting conflicts even though these systems exist in members states including Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone.

    Civil society organisations in the region do keep an eye on events in member countries and do come up, from time to time, with insightful analysis that should ring alarm bells at ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja.

    During the meeting of heads of state on the Guinea coup in Accra in September, the Liberian President, George Weah, urged ECOWAS to take a stronger line on constitutional term limits to avoid further military takeovers.

    He said: “While we are condemning these military coups, we must also muster the courage to look into what is triggering these unconstitutional takeovers.

    “Could it be that we are not honouring our political commitments to respect the term limits of our various constitutions?”

    Ironically, Liberia was the country that initially got ECOWAS deviated from its economic path in 1990 when it had to intervene after an armed conflict erupted to oust the repressive regime of Samuel Doe.

    Now, a Liberian non-governmental organisation, Naymote Partners for Democratic Development, is warning of stirrings of discontent in Liberian society.

    Days before the coup in Guinea, it released the results of its Governance Perception Survey Report 2021.

    This seventh survey, conducted between July 13 and August 31 this year, focused on service delivery, the economy, accountability, democracy, and security.

    The report revealed several challenges that confront the quality of governance in the country, urging the government to be more transparent about its activities and make important choices that are reflective of the needs and priorities of the people.

    It stated: “Findings from this survey show a negative trajectory of citizens’ views and perception of the quality of governance in Liberia.

    “If not overturned, this negative trend has the potential to further deepen the level of state fragility in Liberia.”

    Noting that the government was failing to deliver for the people, the report pointed out that “the quality of social services including health and education that are provided by the government is poor”, while “generally, citizens are not happy with the state of the economy”. The Survey added: “This is unhealthy for a fragile state like Liberia because a weak economy is a sign of vulnerability, and with a huge unemployed and youthful population, the potential for instability and violent tendency can be high.

    “Without addressing the issues described in this report, forms of inequalities, particularly in access to quality services, are likely to be reinforced and heightened.

    “Inequalities contribute to polarisation of society and are triggers of conflict and deeply rooted grievances; and where they are not addressed appropriately, they could be exploited negatively by would-be ‘spoilers’.”

    The Survey paints the picture of an opportunity for those who are going to challenge the president in 2023 to position themselves to make a significant change in the country.

    As the Naymote survey found, Liberians want a leader that can contribute to political accountability and strengthen the governance system.

    Naymote said that Liberians were also looking for a leader to develop fiscal and monetary policies to address the negative trends of the economy: the crisis of mass youth unemployment, controlling inflation and stabilising prices of basic commodities especially in rural communities.

    All of this makes the run-up to the 2023 elections a crucial period in Liberia, the country which derailed the ECOWAS project in the first place.

    ECOWAS needs to heed the warnings from Liberia and elsewhere in the region or else it will continue fire-fighting.   

    As Akufo-Addo said in New York, “we must defend democracy, constitutional rule and human rights in the world”.

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