People’s Sovereignty versus Delegated Sovereignty: The Case of ECOWAS Mediation of Malian Crisis

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Col. Goita

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

Nigeria’s foreign policy is currently challenged by an exercise of conflicting authorities: People’s sovereignty, people’s delegated sovereignty and supranational authority’s sovereignty. People’s sovereignty is the people’s power and it is at the epicentre of all other sovereignties. This is why it is generally argued that sovereignty belongs to the people. Sovereignty at the level of the people simply means ultimate authority, ultimate power.

For the purposes of exercising the people’s sovereignty, representatives of the people are elected and a part of the people’s sovereignty is delegated to them to exercise on behalf of the people at the national level. This is the case of delegated sovereignty, which is never total or absolute. Absolute power only resides and can only reside with the people. If and when a representation is deemed not to be reflective of the people’s interest, the representatives can be removed through due process, especially during new elections and the delegated authority or sovereignty is withdrawn.

Supranational authority’s sovereignty is the authority or power ceded to international organisations, be they bilateral (like the Nigeria-Niger Joint Commission), plurilateral (like the ECOWAS and European Union), or multilateral (like the United Nations and its agencies), by their Member States. Put differently, in joining any international organisation, would-be members generally accept to fulfil all obligations of the organisation and others that may arise from policy decisions of the Assembly or Authority of Heads of State. The meeting of ECOWAS leaders is legally referred to as ‘Authority’, while those of the African Union are called ‘Assembly’ of Heads of State. In both cases, the Authority and Assembly of Heads of State always meet and give directives that have to be complied with. It is within the context of such directives that cases of abuse do arise.

In this regard, the exercise of ECOWAS supranational authority in the mediation of the political crisis in Mali has been shoddy and abused. The ECOWAS did not distinguish between the sovereign power of the people of Mali and the delegated authority by the people of Mali to the Aboubacar Keita administration, on the one hand, and the limitations of the delegated supranational authority of the ECOWAS Heads of States, on the other. ECOWAS mediation placed more emphasis on supranational authority of the regional organisation to the detriment of the wishes of Malians, by talking about unconstitutional change of Government and by quickly deciding to take sanctions against the peaceful removal of President Keita. Malians have rejected ECOWAS advice.

By the rejection, the Malians are sending two complementary messages to the peoples of West Africa: West Africa belongs to the people, and not to the delegated or elected sovereigns; The ECOWAS will need to focus greater attention on integration of peoples, rather than on integration of governments. The foreseeable implication of this is that the ECOWAS may lose its respect in Mali, and by so doing, also lose its sovereignty to influence. Besides, Mali can withdraw its membership of the ECOWAS to delight of the advanced countries which see the ECOWAS as a cartel.

The Malian Saga
The Malian saga is made up of three critical issues: notion of coup d’état, unconstitutional change of Government, and conflict between people’s sovereignty and delegated sovereignty. As regards the notion of a coup d’état, who plans and carry out coups d’état? The word ‘coup’ is a French word that originated from a Latin word, ‘colaphus’, meaning a ‘shock’. It also means an injury. As explained in the Nouveau Petit Larousse Illustré, a coup is a ‘décharge d’une arme à feu,’ that is, ‘discharge of fire arm.’ A coup in a non-military sense can have other meanings, such as ‘once’. The dictionary gives one example: ‘ce qu’on bois en une fois,’ meaning something one can drink at once. More interestingly, when joined with other words, the word ‘coup’ can have various meanings, like in tout à coup (suddenly), coup de poing (small pocket pistol), etc.

We are more interested in the word coup in its sense of ‘discharge of fire arms’ and in ‘coup d’état’. According to the Larousse dictionary, a coup d’état is an ‘action d’une autorité qui viole les formes constitutionelles.’ In other words, a coup d’état is an ‘action of an authority that violates constitutional modalities.’ This definition brings us to the determination of whether the role of the military in the resignation of the Malian president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), is constitutional or not. Does the role constitute a coup d’état? This determination and question is necessary because many observers see the military intervention in the Malian crisis as a coup d’état, a perspective that I do not agree with.

If the military intervention in Mali that prompted the resignation of IBK, a former plenipotentiary of Mali to the Côte d’Ivoire and a former Prime Minister, is considered as a coup d’état, there cannot but be very serious problems and dangers to the protection of people’s or general public interest. In our view, the military intervention in Mali was to bring pressure to bear on IBK to consider the complaints of the people of Mali and not strategically to seize and remain in power. IBK’s resignation is a resultant from insurrectional pressure and not from a coup d’état. And if we have to consider, for whatever reasons, that the military intervention in Mali was a coup d’état, then it must be qualified to read ‘people’s coup d’état.’ The problem, however, cannot but remain the determination of whether a people can plan a coup against itself.

And fair enough, the ECOWAS Authority has avoided admitting that there was a coup d’état. As noted in paragraph 2 of its Declaration issued following its videoconference on August 20, 2020, the ECOWAS Authority talked about coup and military coup d’état. In the words of the Authority, ‘the Heads of State and Government reviewed the current political situation in Mali, characterised by an ongoing military coup d’état on 18 August 2020. The coup resulted in the arrest of the democratically-elected President in 2018.’

By talking about a military coup d’état, the ECOWAS Authority is also admitting that a coup d’état is not only the preoccupation of the military. There can be a civilian coup and coup d’état. The critical point for reflection is whether the people who elected a government cannot use whatever means left to it to compel a change of government, especially when the parliament that represents the people is under the mainmise of the President, when parliamentary election results are rigged, and when the people believe that their sufferings are becoming recidivist under IBK.

In fact, The ECOWAS Authority, also in paragraph 3 of the Declaration, noted ‘with deep concern that this attempted coup d’état comes in the context of a socio-political crisis triggered by the parliamentary elections of March-April 2020.’ What is noteworthy in this paragraph is the recognition that the coup d’état was an attempt, even though it is still admitted in the Declaration that the coup d’état is ‘ongoing.’ An attempted coup d’état cannot be ongoing. Because it is attempted, it means it never succeeded. It was already a failure. And true enough, IBK resigned voluntarily or under pressure before getting to the stage of a coup d’état.

Additionally, the ECOWAS Authority still noted in paragraph 4 that ‘the attempted coup d’état also took place in a difficult global context for Mali with terrorist attacks, inter-community tensions in the central part of the country and a health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic along with its economic and financial consequences.’ This paragraph recognises the complexity of the problems in Mali, which has been bedevilling the country under IBK, but without solution. And yet, the ECOWAS is asking for IBK’s reinstatement.

From the perspective of polemology, the cardinal objective of a military coup d’état is always to seize power and replace the incumbent government. The modality for the seizure of power is not manu militari but actual use of military force, including the neutralisation of lives and property. The rationale for the coup d’état is more often than not, the purport of protection of public interest. Additionally, the coupists always quickly set aside the constitutional
frameworks. They often rule by decrees, which is always by fiat: no legislature, no means for checks and balances, etc.

The situational reality of the Mali saga is completely different. It cannot be rightly argued that the Assimi Goita-led military intervention took place to replace IBK in order to rule the country. In the words of the 37-year old Colonel Goita, the intervention was not meant ‘to hold on to power but to hold on to the stability of the country,’ an objective which partly explains the name of the military junta: National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP). The purpose of the military intervention is salvation. Thus, it was an intervention to bring about pressure to end the political lull in the country. In this case, pressuring cannot be an act of illegality, regardless of the mode of pressure. The Malian saga was more or less a case of manu militari.

Apart from Colonel Goita’s explanation that the military action was taken in defence of the people’s interest, the truth remains that both regional and international environments are hostile to military dictatorship. Since the Franco-African summit in La Baule, France more than two decades ago, democracy has remained a conditionality for development aid. Mali has been largely surviving on the basis of international aid. The military junta cannot therefore take into account this factor.

Besides, the leader of the opposition M5 Movement, which started the Kéita-must-go saga, conservative Imam Mahmoud Dicko, had also announced his withdrawal from politics, following the resignation of IBK as President of Mali. A question should be asked at this juncture: in a crisis situation, should the military support the Government or the people? This question raises the rivalry between people’s sovereignty and delegated sovereignty about which we already talked earlier. Under what circumstance should the military support an elected government against a people that elected the government? In the event of neutrality of the military, what then is the purpose of a military beyond waiting to defend political sovereignty (national independence) and territorial integrity of Mali?

Without any jot of gainsaying, the problem in Mali is more complex than the way it is taken by ECOWAS mediators. ECOWAS is placing emphasis on non-forceful change of Government as provided for in its Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. The prohibition of unconstitutional change of government is, at best, self-protecting, and quite far from being in the larger interest of the ordinary Community Citizens in the ECOWAS region. More important, the ECOWAS has only been promoting governmental integration in a vertical form and much less of people’s integration in a horizontal sense. And true enough again, the interests of the ECOWAS and the IBK government are, on the one hand, in conflict with the interests of the people of Mali, on the other.

Consequently, taking sanctions against Mali has the great potential to deepen insecurity, not only in Mali, in particular, but in the Sahel sub-region and the whole of the ECOWAS region, in general. This hypothesis is informed by the consideration that ECOWAS prefers to deal with arguments of constitutionality which favours IBK, but who is not wanted by his people. ECOWAS is talking about constitutionality for which the people of Mali say IBK has not shown respect. In other words, ECOWAS mediators are not much interested in the complaints of the people but only in the non-forceful change of government. This is most unfortunate.

The Problem and the Lesson
In this regard, what happens when people request for a change in situation but the Government turns deaf ears? What happens when a government consciously engages in electoral malpractices as it was the case in the last parliamentary elections which led to political resistance? What happens when people decide to protest peacefully but heavy reactive force is used against them, and at times killing people? How do we explain the fact that the people of Mali are complaining about bad governance, fraudulent administration, closure of schools for more than two years, etc, and the people have been complaining to no avail? When the people now decide to exercise its sovereign power to insist that IBK must go, why is that it is then the ECOWAS will come in to be preaching the gospel of non-constitutional change of government. Why has the ECOWAS been unable to influence IBK to engage in good governance? That inability in itself is a major source of problems.

For instance, Mauritania and Senegal are the two contiguous neighbours of Mali. Mauritania and Senegal are original founding members of the ECOWAS of 16 in 1975, but Mauritania withdrew its membership from the ECOWAS in 2000. In disagreement with the decisions adopted by the organisation in its summit held in Lomé, Togo on 15th December, 2000, the Nouakchott authorities announced on December 26, 2000 the withdrawal of their country’s full membership from the ECOWAS, but sought an Associate Membership Status of the ECOWAS in August 2017. In this regard, will the Government of Mauritania be obligated to comply with ECOWAS request for border closure with Mali as an Associate Member?

There are three other main problems in Mali: dilemma of economic poverty alleviation; dilemma of national cohesion, and dilemma of Mali as the operational base of regional terrorism, all of which the ECOWAS Authority has closed its eyes in the context of the complaints of Malians, but which the Assimi Goita-led interventionists have presented as conditions sine qua non for negotiated peace to be restored.

Economic poverty in Mali is quite critical in spite of the country’s gold mining and agricultural exports. While a country like Nigeria depends largely on oil as a foreign exchange earner, Mali depends largely on cotton and gold exports to the tune of 80% for export earnings. Mali, landlocked and one of the 25 poorest countries of the world, has frightening economic indicators in light of its high inflation, which measures the cost of goods and services, high unemployment rate, increasing housing deficit, the small spending power of the people, which is not much: the GDP per capita was only 899.66 USD in 2018 and 793.50 USD in 2019. But when the GDP per capita is adjusted by the Purchasing Power Parity, it is 2,327.40 USD in 2019, meaning 13% of the world’s average. In fact, confidence in the economy and in the government is no more and it can best be explained by the people’s request for the resignation of IBK. It can also be explained at the level of ECOWAS recommendations and the conditionality given by the Goita junta for return to democratic orderliness.

The ECOWAS Authority condemned the attempted overthrow of IBK and demanded ‘the immediate restoration of constitutional order,’ the immediate release of IBK and other arrested government officials, and the ‘immediate reinstatement of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita as President of the Republic.’ Besides, and more important, Mali was suspended from ECOWAS decision-making bodies with immediate effect. Land and air borders with Mali are closed. So were financial, economic trade flows with Mali were stopped. And, perhaps more disturbingly, the ECOWAS Standby Force is alerted and required to be immediately activated.

The reaction of the military government and Malians is also noteworthy. First, the people of Mali, particularly Malian youths, opted to demonstrate on Friday, August 21, 2020 in support of the military intervention. Secondly, the Goita regime reacted with a tall order, giving 15 conditions to be met for purposes of restoration of peace, but the conditions exclude the reinstatement of IBK: establishment of a transition college to be comprised of 18 civilians and 6 soldiers. The college is to play legislative roles; nomination of a Prime Minister, with a record of integrity and unanimously accepted; members of the Transition College and of the GUN shall not participate in the elections to be organised; establishment of a Transition Plan; all members of the Transition College must declare their assets before and after assumption of duty; establishment of a National Constitutional Review Commission; organisation of a free and transparent legislative and presidential elections, as well as a referendum; intensification of the negotiations for the immediate release of Soumalia Cissé; organisation of a National Forum on Peace and National Unity; immediate implementation of Article 39 (of the Constitution) and opening of all schools and universities as from September 2020; undertake serious and meaningful discussions with the friends of Mali (United Nations, ECOWAS, European Union, friendly countries, etc); diligent inquiry into the killing of protesters and violations of human rights in Mali; taking necessary measures to negotiate with the labour and social organisations for purposes of peace; and maintenance of existing institutions, especially the Constitutional Courts and others, in their current forms and composition.

Without any whiff of doubt, ECOWAS has tried its best to find peace in Mali, but its best has not been good enough for acceptability by the Malian opposition movements. The three levels of peace initiatives -good offices, mediation, summitry- have failed. The Ministerial Committee comprising the Foreign Ministers of Niger, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, under Niger’s president who is also the ECOWAS Chairman, the appointment of Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan as Special Envoy and Mediator and the intervention of 5 ECOWAS Heads of State (Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal) have failed. The sanctions of closure of land and air borders with Mali, suspension of Mali from all the decision-making processes of the regional organisation, non-trade activities with Mali, putting the ECOWAS Standby Force on alert, enjoining the African Union and the United Nations to support the ECOWAS measures, etc, are a non-solution to the socio-political problems in Mali. They unnecessarily trample on the sovereignty of the people and can only deepen the crisis, create a new crisis of legitimacy with more rooms given to terrorism to spread. True, there is a conflict between the people’s sovereignty and delegated sovereignty, but which one takes priority? This is the challenge to address in any mediation efforts.