A historical center of global trade, culture, and learning, West Africa is now the world epicenter of military coup d’etats. Over the last seven decades, the region has seen 69 attempted coups. In just the last 18 months alone, there have been four successful coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea as well as an additional failed coup in Guinea Bissau. One of the main organizations with the jurisdiction to stem this tide of military coups is the principal regional body of West Africa: the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Founded in 1975, ECOWAS’s primary purpose is facilitating economic integration of the region’s fifteen member states, but the organization also deals in issues of culture, public health, security, and the promotion of democracy. This last issue is of particular importance to ECOWAS, being reaffirmed as a priority for the organization multiple times including in the Declaration of Political Principles adopted in July of 1991 and the 2001 ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. This democratic organization unfortunately finds itself operating in an extremely hostile region. The western Sahel is plagued by various armed groups including jihadist and criminal organizations. This strenuous security situation undermines democratic institutions of member states and has been a key catalyst for the military coups as both soldiers and civilians have become impatient with the inability of local civilian governments to end the violence. ECOWAS has already issued various measures in response to these recent coups. For Mali, which has seen two military coups over the last 18 months, ECOWAS has suspended that country’s membership in the organization, issued a trade embargo on the land-locked country, closed its borders, and freezed the country’s assets in the Central Bank of West African States. These measures, especially those of economic nature, have failed to deter the military government. Instead, they have hurt ordinary Malians, exacerbating an already dire food insecurity crisis and thus threatening the survival of Mali’s most vulnerable citizens. This in turn has catalyzed nationalist sentiment and allowed the government to secure its base as well as turn the local population against ECOWAS. Guinea, which experienced a military coup in September of 2021, also saw its ECOWAS membership suspended and experienced targeted sanctions against leaders of its military junta and their families. The third country to experience a successful military coup in the last 18 months, Burkina Faso, has likewise seen its membership suspended but thus far has avoided sanctions due to its military government conveying seemingly genuine interest in restoring civilian rule as quickly as possible. Indeed, a major trend of the last two years has been ECOWAS’ use of extensive sanctions as a means of punishing military governments for failing to stick to deadlines to transition to democracy rather than a punishment for the coup itself.
Many have argued that sanctions and suspensions do not go far enough, and ECOWAS needs to do more to not only react to military coups but to stop them before juntas can take power. The clearest next step in escalation of measures already taken would be military intervention. ECOWAS has conducted such operations in the past with mixed success. One major success story was the 2017 intervention in The Gambia which ousted longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh. However, there have also been major failures such as the peacekeeping action in Liberia in the early 1990s which saw the organization’s peacekeepers incapable of containing violence in the country. Thus the question arises: should West African leaders seriously consider military interventions in countries like Mali that have recently emerged military juntas? If the purpose of these interventions is to return these states to democracy, the chances of these missions working are slim since they will likely be incapable of obtaining critical support from the local civilian population. Even success stories such as the 2017 intervention in The Gambia saw major civilian protests against peacekeeping forces and even violence from some citizens against peacekeepers. The fact that Mali has already seen widespread popular protests against ECOWAS for its sanctions regime shows that it is highly unlikely a military intervention in Mali will be met with open arms. Interventions in Guinea and Burkina Faso would likely also see public antagonism. Even if ECOWAS peacekeeping forces succeeded in restoring democratic government, the new leadership would be handed a devastated security apparatus with which it would be tasked with bringing an end to violence that the previous democratic government failed to stop and for its failure was overthrown. Thus, military intervention at this time seems a misguided idea that would potentially exacerbate the destabilization in the area.
Despite this, critics are correct in pointing out that ECOWAS has to do more. Not only to fulfill its mission of promoting democratic values, but in order to be able to continue to function as an organization. The 2001 ECOWAS Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance specifies that the organization must suspend any member state that abandons democracy. Thus, if military coups continue to spread throughout the region, the organization’s membership will quickly dwindle. Even if the organization does decide to abandon the protocol and re-admit states with military governments, the functionality of ECOWAS will be extremely hindered. Research done by Freie Universitat Berlin found that ECOWAS countries with authoritarian governments were less committed to ECOWAS than their democratic counterparts were, as measured by the time it took dictatorial regimes to ratify ECOWAS agreements compared to democracies. This conclusion has seen itself manifest in the real world in recent years. For instance, when ECOWAS implemented a trade embargo and border closure for Mali, the military government in neighboring Guinea refused to close its border, which has given Mali critical access to maritime trade. Thus, the rise of military juntas poses an existential threat to the continued function of ECOWAS, However, drastic action such as military intervention would likely result in failure. Thus, the statesmen of ECOWAS find themselves in the unenviable position of having to solve this terrible crisis with no clear solution at hand. However, if they prove successful, the torch of democracy will not be snuffed out in West Africa.
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