Africa Watch – ECO-was?

7th March 2024

Last week, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lifted some sanctions imposed on Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. The decision to lift the sanctions was reached at the extraordinary summit of the ECOWAS in Abuja. Omar Touray, the ECOWAS president, said while the political and targeted sanctions on Niger remain, the regional bloc lifted some financial and economic sanctions on Guinea-Bissau and Mali. Touray said the decision is based on humanitarian considerations, especially because of the month of Lent and the approaching Ramadan.

In this game of chicken, there is only one clear loser, not the coupists. The timing of the sanctions relief coinciding with former head of state Yakubu Gowon’s call for unity in the community, emphasising forgiveness for erring members, is not merely coincidental. Gowon is the last surviving head member of the club of founders who birthed ECOWAS in 1975. Gowon’s recommendations and ECOWAS’ actions underscore the prioritisation of continuity over democracy, with economic integration taking precedence.

While sanctions were initially imposed in response to military takeovers disrupting civilian rule, doubts arose when the sanctions did not effectively deter further misconduct. Community members largely recognised the necessity of sanctions to prevent bad behaviour, but their effectiveness came into question when they failed to curb unwanted actions. In a stunning reversal of fortunes, member country residents lean towards accepting such undemocratic government changes. ECOWAS may have overestimated its utility in an era of changing politics. Moreover, blame for the handling of the Niger coup crisis has largely fallen on ECOWAS chairman President Bola Tinubu of Nigeria.

His push for military intervention to restore constitutional order led to the formation of an alliance between the Nigerien junta and other “persecuted states” like Mali and Burkina Faso. The lifting of sanctions under Tinubu’s leadership suggests a failure to learn from past mistakes, signalling the end of Nigerian diplomacy’s influence. The lack of training for new diplomats has resulted in thoughtless actions and statements from Abuja, highlighting a fundamental misunderstanding of regional politics and development dynamics. Furthermore, getting nothing in return signals that in the future, sanctions against smaller states who pursue the same path as Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali will be condemned weakly.

There is hardly any way ECOWAS can save face without looking like it is saving face. This is a blight smaller countries will exploit, ultimately returning the region to its primal state in 1975, where many of its heads of state were young men in uniforms. The recent lifting of sanctions by ECOWAS highlights the generally ideal posture governments must operate from while dealing with sensitive matters in the region: uphold open communication and diplomacy, respect sovereignty and prioritise regional stability and adherence to international norms. As the custom is in other areas, the Tinubu administration’s response must catch up to the ideal approach. The effectiveness of ECOWAS hinges on the ability of member states to collaborate and find common ground. If the perception persists that the current administration is not fully committed to these principles, it could hinder the effectiveness of future regional initiatives and work against achieving open communication and cooperation on critical issues related to the overall stability and prosperity of the ECOWAS region.