Guinea’s military junta said its transition back to civilian rule will probably take more than three years, a proposal likely to upset West Africa’s political bloc that has called for a swift return to constitutional order. Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, the head of the junta that took power in a coup last September, told state television on Saturday that after political consultations he was considering a transition of 39 months – the first time he has proposed a timeline.
Military leaders have snatched power in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea over the last two years, raising concerns of a backslide in democracy in West Africa that over the past decade had begun to shed its reputation as a “coup belt”. The coups have put the countries at odds with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is trying to put power back in civilians’ hands.
ECOWAS has already imposed sanctions on Mali after military leaders proposed holding onto power until 2025, hammering its economy by shutting it off from regional trade and financial markets. A coalition of political parties and civil society organisations condemned the plan. It was not clear when the 39 month period would start.
It should be noted that the military’s continued dominance in West African countries is a blight on the region’s democratic ideal championed by ECOWAS which initially saw life as an economic community but over the past decades has transformed into a quasi-political union.
Having said that, a lot of the blame for coup fever in West Africa has been blamed on ECOWAS and for good reason. The community’s response to the coups in the three countries–Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso–has noticeably lacked uniformity. While it clamped down heavily on Mali, it took a different approach to the other two and is seen to be even softer on Burkina Faso.
It appears that ECOWAS is more amenable to undefined “acceptable timelines” of transmission which are vague in interpretation. This loophole is currently being exploited by coupists, especially the Guinean military which presented the 39-month window as a sort of middle ground. The thinking here is that it would be enough time to ward off international pressure, but we must not rule it out as a ruse for covert power consolidation that may see the junta perpetuate itself through the existing structure or behind the scenes if democracy is restored.
Much of the problem lies within the ECOWAS charter, hardly updated since the Treaty of Lagos was signed in 1976, a period in the region’s history when every leader who signed the treaty, bar the Côte d’Ivoire’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Liberia’s William Tolbert, and Senegal’s Leopold Senghor, was unelected, and even the three of them had, at the time, been in power for far longer than initially expected via strongman means.
The text of the treaty means that ECOWAS is by nature too reactionary and narrow-minded to prevent hostile takeovers. To remedy the coup situation, it must borrow a leaf from the European Union which has never failed to call out anti-democratic behaviours from some of its member states, most recently Hungary and Poland. ECOWAS’s decision to wait to pick up the pieces of a political crisis following coups has, and will continue to reduce its credibility in the eyes of community members.