West Africa's Troublesome Trio

20 February 2024

THE decision by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic, three landlocked sub-Saharan African countries, to pull out of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, has sparked fears of increased instability and insecurity in the region.

Recently emboldened by military take-overs, the three countries have accused ECOWAS of being a tool in the hands of neocolonialists. As if all along, to each of them, ECOWAS was not a foreign body, as they are to each other. It is a survival instinct to find emergency unity, to draw friends from anywhere in desperation. Three coups--Mali in 2021, Burkina Faso in 2022 and Niger in 2023--have defined this decision to leave ECOWAS.

The regional bloc upped the intensity of its response with each coup, until it threatened to invade Niger Republic. ECOWAS is losing members because it has become a threat to the threats that democracy faces in West Africa. The tiny regional bloc has become a direct danger to the daredevils of West Africa's democracy. What is a tragedy to ECOWAS is not the loss of the three countries.

They were never superpowers in the bloc. ECOWAS has had to pull each of them by their bootstraps before. The tragedy is the coups, the blow to democracy and the fact that the coups and the decision to pull out of ECOWAS is the decision of a few disgruntled and potentially despotic soldiers. Three decayed teeth have been pulled out of the mouth of ECOWAS, but the body cannot feel relief. Rather, it should feel regret at this retreat of democracy in West Africa. And what it could mean for the contagion of coups.

Economics may have informed the formation of the group, but democracy has become its highest ideal. Because even from the beginning, it was clear that there was to be no prosperity without democracy. Genuine efforts have been made to consolidate democracy in West Africa. Despots have mostly been rooted out, with democratic institutions finding some much needed impetus. These gains now risk a complete erosion.

In Mali, the junta cited insecurity as the reason for its coup. Insecurity was rinsed and repeated in Burkina Faso and to a lesser extent in Niger. Years and months later, insecurity has increased in the three countries. West Africa has a history of might over right. Deluded soldiers in many countries have always backed themselves to dig their country out of dark holes. Experience, however, has shown that soldiers are not saviours.

They have often left behind deeper, darker holes that only true democracy can fill. Military coups threaten democracy with corrosion and contagion. In some kind of torturous telepathy, success for coup plotters in one country usually means encouragement for would-be coup plotters in other countries. ECOWAS briefly threatened to invade Niger after the coup. Nigeria led the charge as leader of ECOWAS. Pressure from home and abroad aborted the move.

It was gutting to see Nigeriens applauding the coup plotters after the coup in their country. It was if they endorsed it. Furthermore, it was like all along, Nigerien civilians were waiting for the military to plug them out of the hole into which they had fallen. Furthermore, it was almost disastrous to see that in democracy's hour of pain in one of Africa's poorest countries, there were those who ululated as the military trampled over its grave.

There are many who hold that democracy is not suited to Africa. They also say that Africa will be better served exploring other forms of government that may get a tune out of its many complexities. Perhaps, to the coupists in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, who have no doubt faced unbearable pressure from ECOWAS, especially since the Niger coup, it was poignant to announce the withdrawal just when the whole world was watching the best of African football in Côte d'Ivoire.

By nature, coup plotters are alarmist attention seekers. One of their many flaws, however, is that they are always ill-suited to their purpose and are particularly adept at drawing attention to the wrong reasons. ECOWAS was formed in 1975 in Lagos to foster the idea of collective self-sufficiency for its members, to among other things, foster economic cooperation among west African countries. It may not have lived up to its full potentials yet but there is no doubt that it has been of great benefit to its member countries, especially those of them that it has had to pull by their bootstraps.

Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali, are among the poorest in Africa, and of course, the poorest in the world. ECOWAS's policies of economic cooperation and integration have been especially beneficial to them, even if they are reluctant to acknowledge it in these chaotic times. It makes their decision even more baffling and strengthens the conclusion of those who see the move as the desperate antics of a handful of corrupt and unprofessional military officers who are desperate to escape the backbreaking pressure that ECOWAS can bring to bear.

The most odious thing about this decision to break rank with ECOWAS is that it is not the decision of the majority of the people in the countries involved, like saying what you will get in a referendum. In what is also a spectacular irony, the decision appears to be inspired by the same foreign powers the military junta in the countries are supposedly eager to get away from, though of a different persuasion. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

The decision to leave ECOWAS may have little economic bearing on the military dictators who are already presumably stealing their countries dry. However, the poorest of the poor in those countries who even at the best of times barely manage to scrape by, would sure feel the pinch. There is talk of the three countries forming their own federation. What a weak and illegitimate federation it will be. There is safety in numbers, and there is no telling how vulnerable some of Africa's poorest countries have become with this incredibly ill-advised decision to set out on this illegitimate and irregular road.

·Obiezu a public affairs commentator, wrote via: [email protected]

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