In June, a Sierra Leonean lawmaker laid bare the reality of the West Africa regional bloc Ecowas, by calling it out for the political upheaval being witnessed recently.
It was the first session of the long overdue Ecowas parliament. Ecowas Commission president Jean-Claude Kassi Brou had just concluded his keynote address on the state of the Community, and as expected of the 15-member states bloc, the report was dominated by political issues, from the disputed presidential elections in Benin and Niger, fraught with grievances from the losing sides, to Mali, which was reeling from the aftermath of a coup by a military that acted as saviours by putting an end to weeks of mass protests against a civilian regime that appeared to have all but lost legitimacy.
Chernor Ramadan Maju Bah, the head of the Sierra Leonean delegation, said Ecowas needed to be more proactive rather than reactive to issues plaguing the sub-region. The minority leader in the Sierra Leone parliament was referring to the tensions in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, where the leaders had defied public opposition and changed their constitutions to run for third terms.
But Mr Bah had enough examples from the home front to put his point across.
“We have raised instances in Sierra Leone where the current government has been taking actions that undermine the peace and democracy in the region. We saw the imposition of a speaker of parliament on the majority of MPs. We saw the removal of 10 elected MPs. We saw the government pushing for a midterm census that has no legal basis. We also saw an opposition operative jailed for criticising the current government. All of these, like in Mali, are undermining democracy, but the Commission is doing nothing despite the numerous letters we have written and sent for your attention,” he said.
Mr Bah went on to suggest that the bloc “rearranged” itself to set up robust mechanisms to address cases that had the tendency to undermine peace and democracy in the region rather than wait for “total breakdown” before acting.
That sums up the general view among West Africans about Ecowas, a body initially founded with the goal of facilitating regional integration through trade and economic co-operation, but which has since inculcated good governance as an uncompromising tenet of its membership.
Yet it always invokes the excuse of sovereignty when called out for its apparent inability to act against the undemocratic tendencies of member states. And this, say political analysts, has contributed to the loss of faith in democracy among West Africans, which has made military coups seem to be the only option.
Sierra Leonean political and social commentator, Alhaji Umar N'jai, said the Guinea coup represents a “perfect” example.
“When our democratic institutions fail to produce desired improvements in quality of life, and instead become corrupt and divisive, the alternatives like military coups or others become attractive,” he wrote in reaction to the September 5, coup. The Guinea coup has sparked a major debate across the sub-region, with opinions sharply divided about the role of Ecowas in it. Throughout the turmoil triggered by Alpha Condé’s decision to change his country’s constitution, Ecowas remained silent, just as it did in the case of Cote d’Ivoire, where longtime leader Alassane Ouattara did same. In both countries hundreds paid with their freedom and lives for daring to resist. None of that solicited any action from Ecowas, which seems to be more concerned with respecting sovereignty of its member states.
About seven months before Mr Bah’s thought-provoking statement, a delegation of the Ecowas parliament spent one week in Guinea in an effort to pacify tension ahead of legislative elections following the disputed presidential poll. And at the head of that delegation was another Sierra Leonean lawmaker, Sidie Mohamed Tunis, who is the Speaker of the Ecowas parliament. Mr Tunis was majority leader and head of government business in the Sierra Leone parliament when two of the incidents Mr Bah highlighted happened.
In an address to the Guinean parliament, Mr Tunis stressed the need for “frank dialogue” to address differences of opinion, something his government was accused of denying the opposition.
The Ecowas bases its non-tolerance of coups on its “Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance,” which professes “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means…” The idea behind this is to promote the creation of strong institutions. But experts say if these institutions are to function accordingly, they must take into consideration the social, economic, and political issues, which coup leaders usually cite for their decisions to usurp power, yet that doesn’t count for the bloc. From Mali to Guinea to Chad, the three countries currently under military rule in West Africa, this situation is true one way or the other.
Military coups went out of fashion in Africa in the early 1990s, partly due to some level of democratisation, particularly with the introduction of presidential term limits.
Prolonged stay in power created room for corruption and nepotism. And given the dominant trend of regional and ethnic politics, there is always a large section of the population that feels left out, hence the tendency for agitation.
Ecowas has turned a blind eye as its members seek to reverse this gain with moves to discard term limits.
According to a study by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, since 2015, heads of state in 15 African nations successfully evaded, weakened or eliminated presidential term limits. Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire are the latest entrants on the list of 16 countries which either modified term limits or eliminated it altogether. Also on that list from West Africa are Chad and Togo. The study linked the erosion of term limits to declines in security, good governance and development. The lack of effective term limits, it says, has resulted in Africa having 10 leaders who have ruled for over 20 years and two family dynasties that have been in power for more than 50 years, noting that nine of the 10 nations facing civil conflicts on the continent are those without term limits.
The top three on this list are in the western part of Africa, although only one is an Ecowas member — the Bongo dynasty of Gabon, in power for 53 years; the Gnassingbe dynasty in Togo, in power for 53 years; and the Obiang dynasty in Equatorial Guinea, in power for 41 years.
While Mali has a presidential term limit, none of its presidents has exhausted the limit, with the exception of its first democratically elected leader, Alpha Oumar Konare in 2002. The latest coup in Mali which ousted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was easily predictable. His regime was characterised by bad governance, with reports of disregard for the rule of law, corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement of state resources.