By Owei Lakemfa
I will be surprised if truthfully, the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, is surprised by the exit of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger Republic from the organisation.
The countries had in a joint statement on Sunday, January 29, 2024 announced on their state television stations, an immediate withdrawal, alleging that ECOWAS had “moved away from the ideals of its founding fathers and pan-Africanism.”
In an obvious reference to an initial threat by ECOWAS to militarily invade Niger and restore civilian rule, the troika claimed: “Furthermore, ECOWAS, under the influence of foreign powers, betraying its founding principles, has become a threat to its member states and its populations whose happiness it is supposed to ensure.”
They claimed that while pursuing punitive sanctions against them, ECOWAS “… notably failed to assist these states in their existential fight against terrorism and insecurity.”
The Commission’s unserious response was that it is “… yet to receive any direct formal notification from the three member states about their intention to withdraw from the Community.”
The withdrawal is not an “intention” as ECOWAS claims, but a done deal as the three countries made public and formal statements withdrawing from ECOWAS. It is another matter if they decide not to bother sending a formal withdrawal notification to ECOWAS. I am not sure there is any court or power that can force the countries to give the mandatory one year notice of withdrawal.
Also, ECOWAS seeks to give the impression that it was caught off guard by the decision of the troika. This is not good for the image of the Commission because the three countries had in the past four months clearly shown by their deeds and utterances, that they are leaving ECOWAS.
For instance, on September 16, 2023, they announced the formation of what was essentially a parallel commission called the Alliance of Sahel States, ASS (French: l’Alliance des États du Sahel, AES).
The announced objectives of the ASS include mutual defense, economic and monetary union and a common currency called Sahel. These three objectives are in fact, more concrete than those of ECOWAS which after 49 years of existence, has no defence pact, is still far from being an effective economic union, and whose common currency, the ECO, is virtually stillbirth. So, with the ASS in place, how can ECOWAS be surprised by the formal exit of those countries?
Three days before the announced withdrawal, an ECOWAS Ministerial Mission to Niamey, Niger Republic, to discuss the future of the country with the ruling junta did not show up. ECOWAS blamed this on technical issues with the aircraft it had chartered. It speaks volumes about the competence of ECOWAS that there was no alternative arrangement for such an important delegation after the Ministers might have flown to Abuja from their various countries.
The withdrawal of the three countries, whose size constitutes 54 per cent of the total ECOWAS landmass, should call for a state of emergency, including an Extraordinary Summit of the Heads of State.
So, even if the reasons the countries have given for the withdrawal are self-serving, ECOWAS ought to look into them, respond accordingly and take immediate steps to mend the cracks. The Commission folding its hands, waiting for the mandatory one-year withdrawal notice, is not a viable option. This is more so, when there is a high probability of Guinea, another member country under military rule, joining the new alliance.
If the ASS thrives, the possibility of more countries in the region joining it is high. If that were to be the case, ECOWAS would split into two and some countries may have one leg each in the two regional bodies.
In truth, ECOWAS suffers from lack of focus, vision and strategic thinking. In 2017, it bogged itself down with the completely unnecessary intrigues of whether or not Morocco, a country in North Africa, should be admitted into its fold.
ECOWAS sanctions against regimes ought to be handled in such a way that it would not adversely affect the collective fight against terrorism which envelops countries like Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad. Simply shutting in Niger, isolating it, imposing punitive sanctions, including food and electricity, and wanting to invade it, was not a wise decision.
Also, ECOWAS has failed to even discuss, not to talk of addressing the fundamental issues of France imposing its will on French-speaking ECOWAS countries, nakedly exploiting them, compelling them to under- sell their commodities, and forcing a currency regime on them.
Again ECOWAS seems to have a very narrow view of democracy as an electoral process to the exclusion of good governance and service delivery, as well as the welfare and security of the people.
Even its view of constitutional rule is parochial, as it does not take on board elected political leaders who rape the constitution. For instance, Cote d’Ivoire President, Alassane Ouattara, is on an illegal third term in office. His fellow pro-France friend, President Macky Sall of Senegal, tried to run for an unconstitutional third term which threw the country into chaos. Only an uprising stopped Blaise Campore from a third term in Burkina Faso, while the Guinean President Alpha Conde was ousted from office in September 2021, after he forced an unconstitutional third term on the populace.
Today, there are protests in Guinea Bissau against the government shutting down the National Peoples Assembly. As usual, ECOWAS has turned a blind eye, would not discuss such unconstitutional steps, and is unlikely to call the government to order.
So, there is an urgent need for ECOWAS to look inwards, refocus, rebuild and set goals, including greater trade amongst members, monetary and economic integration, common currency, and a defence pact. It also needs to aggregate the interests of the region and defend them against external interests. Most importantly, it needs to move from the Assembly of Heads of State with a tokenistic parliament and a court whose decisions are hardly respected to a union of peoples with sovereignty over all powers in the region.
Nigeria, whose population constitutes about half the 420 million people in West Africa and accounts for 77 per cent of its trade, is best placed to lead the ECOWAS reforms. However, it must first think clearly beyond its illusory beliefs in so-called market forces, make governance people-driven than elite-centred, and be governed by monetary politics. It also needs to be independent of all countries no matter how powerful, rich or seemingly benevolent.
If Nigeria gets it right, West Africa is likely to get it right; if Nigeria is not shamed, ECOWAS will not be shamed. The cracks in ECOWAS need to be mended, not widened.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.