Coupists get away with military takeovers in W’ Africa because ECOWAS lacks mechanism to stop coups – Sarki, ex-deputy Permanent Representative to UN

Adelani Adepegba

3 February 2022

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A former Nigerian Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations and current Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Ambassador Usman Sarki,

A former Nigerian Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations and current Directing Staff, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Ambassador Usman Sarki, in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA, discusses the trend of military takeover in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso

How do you see the truncation of democracy by the military in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso?

I must say if you look at the global situation today, not only in Africa, democracy is under global challenge. Countries like Myanmar and if you come to Latin America, there are difficulties with selections, contentions following elections leading to unrest, demonstrations and violence. In the United States that is considered as one of the champions of democracy, 2016 to 2020 were turbulent years in their history of politics and government. So, democracy today is being challenged, structurally, systemic-wise and also in the perception of people. The first challenge is that democracy is not meeting the expectations of people particularly, better life for the people in terms of security and ameliorating class contradictions. So, you find increasing concentration of wealth across the world in the hands of few people. The situation is made worse by the arrangement of our economic systems, by the way governments are seen as clientele governments that are unable to control the destiny of the nations. Democracy has become very contentious in Africa; Presidents even change the constitution to elongate their tenure or perpetuate their stay; opposition parties have become maximalists. Maximalists in terms of total opposition to everything the government or the party in power does. So, the gap between the ruling parties and the opposition has become increasingly wide and hostile. So, elections have become catalysts for unrest. The situations in Mali, Guinea, Sudan, Chad, Sudan and now, in Burkina Faso are a combination of different factors in those countries.

What can the African Union and ECOWAs do to restore and sustain democracy in these countries?

These two organisations were established under the premise of non-interference in the affairs of the member-states. The constituting Act of the African Union and other declarations of the Heads of States and Government have decried the unconstitutional takeover of government. However, there are no established mechanisms for interference other than the expression of disgust, disapproval and disavowal by the AU Commission and other member states. Beyond that, there are no provisions for military intervention to rectify the situation and bring it back to the status quo ante. So, in this case, the only option open to the AU is diplomacy, engagement and dialogue. In some cases, they would succeed, in some other cases; they have to follow the situation to its logical end. The same thing can be said of ECOWAS. However, because of the nature of the arrangements in ECOWAS, we have some protocols that can be effected. I’m not saying it is enforced, but effected by agreement of a certain number of member states to bring about some corrective measures. We have seen how President Yahyah Jammeh refused to acknowledge his defeat and failed to hand over power to the duly elected President Bawa. Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and some other countries decided that the situation should not be allowed to subsist; they went ahead to put military pressure in order to bring about change that was demanded by the people of Gambia.

So, why didn’t they do so in Mali, Guinea or Burkina Faso? 

That (Gambia) was an exceptional situation. These are situations that are totally different. You have a national army with the backing of some civilians and civil society alleging that the government in power has been incapacitated either by corruption, nepotism or illegality as the President of Guinea wanted to do to change the constitution to continue in office and in the course of that, they have intervened in order to rectify the situation. Does that give the member states of  ECOWAS the legal right to intervene?  In Burkina Faso, the latest takeover was predicated on dissatisfaction with President Kabore’s government. The coup plotter alleged that the government was incapable of prosecuting the war against militants and they also accused him of irregularities leading to lack of popularity and illegitimacy. On the basis of that, it would become a matter of collective decision by ECOWAS member states. ECOWAS and the AU prefer diplomatic outreach before other things can be considered.

Would you say ECOWAS and the AU are more or less toothless bulldogs?

Not necessarily. They are guided by their statues; the constituent Act of the African Union provides for interference when genocide or systematic human rights violations are taking place in a country. Where those issues are verified to have happened, I think ECOWAS, within the collective decision of the Heads of States and Government,   and the AU can take action in that regard. But whether forceful changes in government meet that criteria is something debatable. ECOWAS too has some protocols in terms of repudiation of forceful takeover of government but whether those protocols allow for military action for instance, is something that has not been tried and tested. However, the measure of sanctions imposed on Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso and suspension of these countries; these are things that ECOWAS can impose but the AU too has imposed sanctions on them. As we speak, the AU Peace and Security Commission is meeting to discuss the incremental stages of action that would be taken. The ECOWAS Secretariat and the Presidency are meeting too. Let’s give them the chance to see how far they can go.

Is it right to say that the military in the affected countries are taking advantage of AU and ECOWAS’ failure to take decisive actions against other coup plotters?

I agree, that is true. I think it is a window of opportunity and they saw that they can get away with it. That’s what happened. In retrospect, if ECOWAS, for instance, has a mechanism to stop these kinds of activities, I think they would think twice before they would change the government by force. When we decided to interfere militarily in Gambia, the circumstances had given Nigeria and Senegal the means to do it but in a country like Mali, Guinea or even Burkina Faso, I think the logistics and commitments required would be too great to convince any government to go into any of these countries militarily to restore the previous government into power. We have seen in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso how some sections of the civil society carried placards to support the (military) government. You as an outsider when you go in, which side are you supporting because you may not know what is the disposition of the populace? So, the best thing is not to intensify the conflict and division in the country but to bring all the leaders together and obtain assurances from those who have taken over the government to restore democracy and civil rule as soon as possible. What the media in West Africa should highlight and emphasise is that governments in power must respect their constitutions and they should not abandon the rule of law for selfish interests. Good governance is an assurance of stability in any country. When the principles of good governance is vitiated by the incumbent like we have seen in Guinea, it gives an excuse to the military boys and others who want to undermine democracy to act in a way that is inimical to the interest of the entire nation. Politicians and leaders should eschew self-interest and observe the rule of law and constitutionality and ensure stability in their country particularly, during elections and succession.

Do these coups not question Nigeria’s leadership in ECOWAS and the sub-region?

This is a very important question. The issue of leadership in a conglomeration of countries of different sizes, strengths and weaknesses, resources, and wealth would make it difficult for one country to come out as the pre-eminent country to establish its hegemony in the region particularly when you working within structures that are commonly agreed to by all member states. Nigeria is always reluctant to lead from the front simply because of the perception of its hegemony and dominance, I think. So, it is always good for Nigeria to allow the others to have a say in how problems and challenges could be resolved in West Africa without imposing its will on the process. But when the chips are down, so to say, Nigeria can assert its predominance, hegemony and power in the region. You can see how Nigeria took the lead to bring an end to the civil war in Liberia and how we contributed materials to also end the strife in Sierra Leone.

But Nigeria does not seem to be fully utilising its economic and military power and influence effectively in the region

I agree and I think our foreign diplomacy and diplomacy and internal arrangements that support our diplomacy should be retooled in terms of making our regional diplomacy to be very sharp and focused, dynamic and up front. We cannot continue to be reactive to developments; we should anticipate developments and act decisively in such a way that no room would be allowed for speculations about Nigeria’s determination.

There was an attempted coup in Guinea Bissau. Should Nigerians be worried about this copy-cat trend?

It is very unfortunate that we have copy-cat coup attempts taking place in West Africa. As you can see, it is happening almost in the francophone countries; so, it is nothing Nigerians should worry about. Our democracy is too entrenched for us to be worried about this sort of thing. These are infantile, unstable people but for us, we can’t even start to think about it.    ,

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