Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met yesterday in Abuja for talks about the region’s deepening crisis, after four countries fell under military rule and with risks growing from Sahel jihadist conflicts.
After coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger since 2020, the 15-nation ECOWAS bloc also saw member states – Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau – report attempted coups in recent weeks.
The regional bloc has decided to set up a committee of three leaders to negotiate with Niger’s military junta on a transition to democratic rule and to consider easing sanctions, just as President Bola Tinubu, who is the Chair of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, said the Sahel Alliance by Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, which is under military dictatorship would not lessen ECOWAS’ resolve to uphold its primary objective.
A French military withdrawal from the Sahel — the region along the Sahara Desert across Africa — is increasing concerns over conflicts spreading south to Gulf of Guinea states like Ghana, Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast. Transitions back to democracy and elections have also been stalled or left uncertain in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.
After French troops began leaving the region, military regimes in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, struggling with jihadist violence, hardened their positions and joined forces in an Alliance of Sahel States.
Last month, armed attackers stormed military posts, prisons and police stations in another ECOWAS member Sierra Leone, in what the government called a coup attempt that killed 21 people. A week later, Guinea-Bissau also denounced an attempted coup, with fighting between the national guard and special forces of the presidential guard.
At Sunday’s summit in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, ECOWAS decided to set up a committee of leaders from Togo, Sierra Leone and Benin to engage the Niger junta to agree “on a short transition roadmap” and work “towards the speedy restoration of constitutional order.
“Based on the outcomes of the engagement by the committee of heads of state with the Niger junta, the authority will progressively ease the sanctions imposed on Niger,” ECOWAS said.
Niger military junta has refused to release deposed President Mohamed Bazoum and members of his cabinet and family, since the coup in July. President of ECOWAS Commission, Omar Touray, said the junta is interfering with humanitarian activities that ECOWAS has allowed into Niger despite sanctions imposed on the country.
In his opening remarks at the 64th Ordinary Session of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government in Abuja, Touray said the regional body had partially lifted sanctions to allow for access to medical and humanitarian goods for the people.
Touray said the commission maintains its ‘firm stance’ on zero-tolerance to unconstitutional change of government in the region by maintaining its decision on Niger Republic. He, however, said the Nigerien military has shown little or no remorse “as they hold onto their untenable positions, holding not only President Bazoum, his family, and members of his government hostage, but also the people of Niger.”
Touray also highlighted massive cash transfers by the junta in violation of the existing ECOWAS sanctions, saying, “despite the successful application of the sanctions, we observed with concern some breaches, including massive movement of physical cash by individuals across the borders.”
He further noted that political stability, peace and security remain critical for West African countries to attract investment that will aid development, lamenting how the region’s fragile democracy and persistent security challenges have affected the risk rating of the region and the flow of foreign capital and intra-regional trade and investment.
Touray also called the attention of the Heads of State at the meeting to the depleting revenue of the commission, saying the commission has been encountering challenges in accessing the Community Levy, which he said is the lifeline of the community institutions and integration programmes. ECOWAS collects a 0.5 per cent levy on imports from outside member countries.
He said the low resource mobilisation of the body is now more critical as member states under sanctions have stopped remitting the levy, adding that the body’s financial responsibilities are growing even as the financial situation gets more difficult.
Chaired by President Tinubu, the session, the third since he assumed the Chairmanship of the Authority on June 9, 2023, was attended by all heads of member states except for Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger Republic.
Other stakeholders at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja, venue of the meeting included former President Goodluck Jonathan, United States lead envoy for Africa, Molly Phee; the African Union (AU) representative, Bankole Adeoye; and the United Nations (UN) Secretary General Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonado Simao.
The end-of-year meeting apart from deliberating on coups in the region is expected to review various decisions and agreements taken and initiated by the body, including that of the adoption of the ECO as a common currency for the region.
Other issues are climate change, democracy, bilateral relations as well as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
In his opening address, President Tinubu said the regional bloc will re-engage member countries under military rule based on realistic and short transition plans that would deliver democracy and good governance.
The Nigerian president, who said there is no place for military rule in Africa, explained that the objective of ECOWAS in insisting on democracy is to prioritise good governance for West Africans, as it catalyzes socioeconomic transformation and development. He charged leaders of member-states to prioritize good governance for the people, noting that the survival of democracy depends on good governance and respect for human rights.
He told heads of state that: “It is important that we also review some developments in our sub-region, including the move by some of our members under military rule to float an alliance of Sahel States.
“This phantom, push back-alliance appears intended to divert attention from our mutual quest for democracy and good governance that will impact the life of our people. We refuse to be detracted from pursuing the collective dreams, aspirations and the noble path of ECOWAS integration as laid out in our institutional and legal frameworks.”
Recall that in September 2023, Mali’s Assimi Goita, who seized power in a military coup in 2020, explained that the “Liptako-Gourma Charter” forms the building block for an “Alliance of Sahel States to establish a collective defence and mutual assistance framework for our populations.”
Tinubu continued: “By providing good governance we would have succeeded in addressing some of the root causes of military intervention in our region.
“On the recent disturbances in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau, let me express my solidarity with the people and government of Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau. I wish to underscore our unequivocal stance against any form of unconstitutional change of government in our sub-region.
“The message must go out loud and clear: military rule has become an aberration that subverts the popular will of the people. It no longer has any place in Africa. Our people must be allowed to exercise their freedom of choice without hindrance.”
MEANWHILE, former Sierra Leone president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has been confined to his home, the government said at the weekend, after he was questioned over what it called an attempted coup at the end of November.
The office of the former president, who led the West African nation from 2007 to 2018, has said he was not placed under house arrest, but Information Minister, Chernor Bah, said Koroma, who was first brought in for questioning by police on Friday, was questioned again on Saturday before being released “with the condition that he stays in the confines of his property.
“He can’t step out of the house without the expressed permission of the inspector general of police,” Bah said on X, formerly Twitter.
Koroma has been allowed visits by just three family members and three-party members, Bah added — terms which will be in place until he meets with the police inspector again Monday.
In a statement by Koroma’s office, one of his lawyers denied that he was under house arrest but said the “security beef up around his residence and the extra caution on traffic into his home are state security determination.”
Koroma had on Thursday been summoned to appear before police in the capital Freetown within 24 hours, as part of an ongoing investigation into clashes that took place at the end of last month.
Armed attackers stormed a military armoury, two barracks, two prisons and two police stations, clashing with security forces during the early hours of November 26.
The fighting left 21 people dead, according to Bah. Since then, 71 people have been arrested. – Guardian.