Should ECOWAS Rethink its Approach to Coups?
On January 9, the West African bloc ECOWAS and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (also known under the French acronym, UEMOA) imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions against Mali. The sanctions imposed on the Malian authorities include freezing Malian assets within ECOWAS commercial banks, the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), and the central banks of ECOWAS member countries. They also plan to cut off financial aid to Mali, close the borders between Mali and ECOWAS member states, suspend transactions with Mali, and withdraw ambassadors from all member countries within Mali.
These sanctions were brought against the military junta for its decision to prolong its rule and postpone presidential elections. These sanctions were not unanimous within the African sub-region or the UN Security Council. The adoption of a text, proposed by France, to show a united front was blocked by China and Russia. Even though ECOWAS’ decision was needed to prevent the military from lingering in power, the sanctions will disproportionately impact Malians more than the military. However, by not implementing more targeted sanctions, ECOWAS might lose its legitimacy in the eyes of Malians, the very same people ECOWAS is supposed to represent and protect.
The sanctions enforced by the 15-member ECOWAS have provoked mixed reactions. While France, the U.S., and the European Union support ECOWAS’ approach, these sanctions were denounced by the Malian regime, the majority of Malians, many political actors in the sub-region, and neighboring Guinea’s ruling junta. The spokesperson for the ruling junta stated, “The National Rally Committee for Development (CNRD) wishes to inform national and international opinion that the Republic of Guinea has therefore in no way been associated with the decision of [ECOWAS].” The spokesperson added, “Consequently, the CNRD reaffirms that the air, land, and sea borders of the Republic of Guinea always remain open to all brotherly countries in accordance with its Pan-Africanist vision.” ECOWAS suspended Guinea following the September coup led by Col. Mamady Doumbouya.
These sanctions will lead to the economic asphyxiation of Mali. If the real purpose of these sanctions was to destabilize the Malian regime, they failed. In mid-January, thousands of Malians took to the streets and protested in several cities against ECOWAS. The protesters, which also included many citizens of neighboring countries, reiterated their support for the junta.
ECOWAS has a long history of opposing coups in West Africa and promoting democracy by putting in place mechanisms to sanction coup leaders and their allies. However, these mechanisms should not be used without considering the unique situation associated with each country and each coup. The Malian case is a clear example. The majority of Malians appear to agree with the junta’s decision to postpone elections. Elections wildly rushed after coups have rarely led to strong democratic societies in Africa. And elections on the continent are not often an instrument for measuring the degree of democratization in countries, especially in West Africa.
In 2020, the Democracy Index of the fifteen ECOWAS countries showed that only Ghana appears to be considered a “flawed democracy.” The rest are what are called “hybrid” or authoritarian regimes. Even if the pandemic has negatively impacted democratic freedoms, the authoritarian regimes within ECOWAS predate the pandemic. The increasing rate of coups in Africa cannot be solved by only taking measures against coup leaders.
Preventing military coups by censuring the instigators, suspending their country, or imposing economic sanctions should go along with the absolute desire of ECOWAS to make the region a real democratic haven for its citizens. In that vein, sanctions should also be taken against any president who changes their country’s constitution to stay in power. Democracy cannot emerge in Africa if some presidents can change their country’s constitution to remain in power without any real consequences from the African Union or ECOWAS.
A problem is solved by addressing its causes, not by managing its consequences. The recent military takeover in Burkina Faso and its celebration by many people in the country demonstrates that the institution does not understand the needs of its population, and any sanctions will not dissuade the military from mounting coups. It is not only about Russian, French, or American pressure. ECOWAS needs to review its policies on coups.
ECOWAS, through its sanctions, might discredit itself by putting its principles above the will of Malians. Any coup must be condemned, but solutions must be proportionate to the specifics of each situation. All putschists who organize coups do not believe that they can get away with it. Those who mount coups are not all greedy or reckless. Some know that they can be killed or jailed if the coup fails. They might do it to stop a situation they find detrimental to their country. For that reason, the African Union and ECOWAS should put into place concrete measures for preventing coups. They must choose reality over ideology.
Mali belongs to Malians, and they are the only ones who can decide the best destiny for their country. They need support, not sanctions. They need peace, not censure. Democracy is the result of a process. It cannot be imposed through elections. By choosing to impose sanctions against Malians instead of listening to the desires of the Malian population, ECOWAS is taking the risk of being seen as an illegitimate entity that might lose its credibility among West Africans.