Niger: ECOWAS failure to respect its democracy rules boosted putschists

By Jeggan Grey-Johnson

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Posted on August 7, 2023 13:32

Members of a military council that staged a coup in Niger attend a rally at a stadium in Niamey, Niger, 6 August, 2023.
Members of a military council that staged a coup in Niger attend a rally at a stadium in Niamey, Niger, 6 August, 2023. (REUTERS/Mahamadou Hamidou)

We are in a deep regional crisis just over a week after Niger succumbed to the political pandemic engulfing the region – military coups.

A nation of 25 million people had woken up to the news that President Mohamed Bazoum had been detained – just 24 months after he was elected in a peaceful, democratic transfer of power.

It would take a few days before it emerged that General Abdourahmane Tiani, commander of the presidential guard, was leading this latest military misadventure.

It is tipping the scales against civilian-led governments. One in five West Africans are now living under the yoke of military rule: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and now Niger.

This calamity didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was encouraged by the democratic backsliding by several civilian governments. However, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is taking a tough line with Niger’s putschists, failed to call out the backsliders.

Under what it calls its Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, the West African bloc has a clear set of political rules on putschists who try to run for election and for sitting presidents who try to finagle a third term by changing the constitution. However, it hasn’t enforced them.

Lessons unlearned

Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara ran for a third term although he had insisted that he wouldn’t. He won the presidential elections in November 2020, with an embarrassing 94% of the vote that sparked deadly violence and was boycotted by many oppositionists.

The West African bloc was silent on the manoeuvring that undermined its Protocol on Good Governance and risked unravelling a fragile political arrangement in Côte d’Ivoire.

Just over a decade ago, the country had been embroiled in an electoral crisis that triggered a short civil conflict with grave economic and humanitarian consequences.

The West African bloc then intervened to back Ouattara as a legitimately elected president, but when he later broke the rules to which he had agreed, it looked the other way.

Why was the regional body unable to halt this wave of bad governance by rapacious civilian politicians?

Côte d’Ivoire’s chequered history cannot be lost on regional leaders. After suffering from military interventions, it should have led by example. Instead it encouraged democratic backsliding by others.

As the Covid-19 pandemic raged, Guinea’s Alpha Condé tried his luck for a third term in the presidency. He orchestrated the undermining of state institutions and the inciting of ethnic tensions to justify him staying for another term.

To give these manoeuvres a scintilla of legitimacy, he called a referendum. Originally scheduled for 1 March 2020, it was pushed back as international observers questioned the electoral register and other electoral infractions.

However, Condé didn’t care. He forged ahead without serious regional or international censure. After the referendum, which didn’t meet the usual two-thirds minimum requirement for changing the constitution, Condé steamed on to win the legislative elections, with an embarrassing 90% of the seats, after opposition parties boycotted them.

The West African bloc didn’t make a single criticism of this undermining of the constitution to serve one man’s ambition.

Instead, in September 2021, the military seized power and among the many reasons cited for their coup was Conde’s tampering with the constitution to extend his stay in power.

Failure by the West African bloc to call out the civilian politicians’ rule-breaking in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire fostered chaos in the region. Senegal is following this destructive pathway.

Why was the regional body unable to halt this wave of bad governance by rapacious civilian politicians?

Putting a regional house in order

The dysfunctionality of the ECOWAS Commission must be addressed. It has been hollowed out by regional heads of state constraining it from acting independently.

The heads of state of the West African bloc, who control the authority of the regional body, have blocked the commission from fulfilling its mandate. They are the custodians of compliance to the commission’s democratic rules. Even so, they didn’t enforce the rules when some of them were orchestrating illegitimate third terms in office.

The commission, which reports to the heads of state in the Authority, couldn’t speak up and act as the region’s conscience.

This ushered in the era that West Africa now faces: tone deaf politicians whose hypocrisy offers justifications for opportunistic putschists to seize power.

The ECOWAS Authority should rethink its regional and national obligations. It is meant to protect the interests of the nearly 425 million people it leads. That means making a concerted effort to implement the governance protocols it has committed to uphold in the region.

That certainly doesn’t mean presiding over a political crisis that could lead to regional war. The West African bloc has reached a Rubicon and it must course correct. A cycle of instability threatens the region.

It is saddled with military strong men, who are ignoring their promised timetables for transition. The next question to focus is those junta leaders who want to run for election as  part of their ‘transition’ to civil rule.

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance specifically forbids this, but politically ambitious military officers calculate they will face few if any penalties if they break these rules.

Forced to dance to a different drumbeat

Once known for its effectiveness and functionality, the West African bloc now has to preside over a fissile confrontation between civilian leaders, some of whose legitimacy is fraying, and military leaders who have proved adept at getting the street behind them.

Niger’s military leaders are telling the West African bloc they will resist any attempt to force them to hand back power to ousted President Bazoum. They claim they are part of a coalition that includes the juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

Niger produces about 5% of the world’s uranium. The European Union imports about 24% of its uranium from Niger. Much of that uranium is used by France’s nuclear power stations to generate electricity.

Any military response to the Niger junta will have to be carefully weighed. There are about 1,500 French troops and 1,000 US troops in Niger along with other Western soldiers. For now they have been confined to their bases, but the junta wants to expel them.

Niger’s military is a serious force. Backed by neighbouring military regimes, it could fiercely resist a regional intervention.

The crisis in Niger could tear apart the West African bloc, presenting its political leaders with a collective credibility problem. The ECOWAS Commission, undermined by those leaders, is struggling to respond to a regional clash that threatens to overwhelm it.

The region’s potential demographic for peace, its young people, are among the most critical of civilian politicians and among the main supporters of military coups.

That’s hardly a surprise. Most of them have had their votes stolen, their livelihoods and rights taken away and their voices silenced. They get on the streets to march in protest and anger or risk taking perilous journeys to Europe.

These youths are disillusioned and distrust the current forms of civilian rule. They feel they have nothing to lose by choosing an alternative.

This cohort of young, disillusioned and marginalised youth is growing. It is evident, in daily street protests, on social media, in the lyrics of songs that bellow words of wisdom and send out warnings in crowded taxis.

The drums of political revolution are echoing across the region however much the political elites try to block out the sound.

Niger may be the country that forces the region to dance to a new political rhythm – with all the political dangers and opportunities that go with it.

Jeggan Grey-Johnson writes this article in his personal capacity.

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