Recent upheavals turning West Africa’s political landscape on its head pose a direct challenge on the credibility of Ecowas, a bloc which many say is just good at sabre-rattling and pontificating on threats of sanctions and nothing more.
In the space of a few months, the Economic Community of West African States has been forced to bare its teeth on three of its member states where disgruntled armies have made unwanted political interventions by way of coups which saw a reversal of their democratic fortunes.
The first offender was Mali in 2020, Guinea in September 2021 and most recently Burkina Faso where civilian presidents have been pushed to one side and military strongmen installed, leaving the 15-member regional grouping scrambling for the right and not necessarily consistent responses.
The juntas in the three countries face sanctions by Ecowas for overturning democratically elected governments in their prime.
But these coups have vindicated the darkest suspicion by political pundits about how unconsolidated democracy was in the region and setting off alarm bells ringing to the effect that the threat on it was actually more real than many had imagined.
Naturally Ecowas with 15 countries under its wing has been keen to be seen as a robust regional bloc with teeth ready to sink them with poise and purpose on the flesh of democratic transgressors in the region.
It has since taken to the scene with sanctions against the new military rulers who have in varying degrees called its bluff by unleashing punitive measures of their own against the bloc, leaving observers wondering whether Ecowas really packs any real punch to deal with this new onslaught on democracy in West Africa.
After Ecowas announced sanctions on the new strongmen in Bamako for aiming to unnecessarily drag what should be a short political transition to five years, the military regime not only condemned the policy as short-sighted and retrogressive but responded with its own sanctions, closing its borders to other members of the bloc.
This is an open test and a direct challenge to the authority of the West African regional grouping which perhaps surprised by Mali’s recalcitrance momentarily contemplated a climb-down from its no-nonsense yet toothless policy if the account by some insiders at the organisation is anything credible to explain this apparent change of heart.
Many say an Ecowas divided and inherently undermined by disparate geopolitical interests fronted by its members cannot provide sanctions as a serious even credible means of bringing its transgressors to heel without risking further divisions to their ranks.
For example, while democratic fledglings in smaller member countries like The Gambia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau back sanctions for obvious reasons aimed at deterring coups in their own backyards, the military regimes in Guinea and neighbouring Mali are finding solidarity and solace on each other’s shoulders.
As a matter of exigency, these two neighbours see themselves as each other’s keeper against a regional organisation from which they are feeling increasingly isolated and detached.
This solidarity of the like-minded between Guinea’s Colonel Mamady Doumbouya and Mali’s Assimi Goita can only extend to Lt.-Col. Paul-Henri Damiba of Burkina Faso who won the right to their exclusive club by dint of his successful coup on January 24th 2022.
Already discredited before it had time to be deployed, Ecowas’ one-size-fits-all policy to deal with the aftermath of the coups in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso has exposed it as out of touch with the politics which precipitated interventions from the military in those countries.
In Guinea, former president Alpha Conde’s insistence on holding onto power after exhausting his constitutional two terms had provided the pretext for Doumbouya to act.
In Mali and Burkina Faso, protracted instability caused by insurgencies had led to citizens taking to the street to call for an end to the governments of the day which were seen as incapable of tackling the crises.
Observers say the regional bloc’s only hope of gaining more leverage on the three defaulters of democracy is to go back to its drawing board and craft policies specific to each country based on their political situations at the time of the coups.
But will a bloc as divided as Ecowas recognise this and act accordingly?
Pundits say anybody’s guess is as good as theirs.