The Commission must look inwards to arrest the threats to its corporate existence, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

These men won’t be forgotten anytime soon: General Abdourahamane Tchiani, Colonel Assimi Goita and Captain Ibrahim Troure who preside over Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso respectively. But that alone doesn’t explain their importance and snowballing stature. Just as the rest of West Africa and some other parts of the world that practice democracy or pretend to democratic credentials were mounting pressure on them to return their countries to representative administrations, they jointly announced that they were opting out of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) altogether. That was earlier this year.

The preceding occurrences were even more melodramatic. Military coups, not particularly strange in West Africa, began to make a comeback, a situation that was concerning for lovers of civilian government; more so for presidents within the subregion who had cause to be nervous about the frightening prospects of being swept off their seats. My column written in response to the nations’ withdrawal notice at the time, titled, “ECOWAS’ Existential Blues”, captured the moods of the moment thus: “Some critics have dismissed the action of the three countries as mere grandstanding taken too far. But one couldn’t have followed the events there since their present leaders grabbed power via military coups without noticing their willingness to challenge the status quo and carve out lasting legacies for themselves.

“They have since wrestled their erstwhile almighty colonial master, France, to the ground and stripped it of virtually every badge of imperialism within a short period. The military threats issued by ECOWAS to them to return their nations to democracy achieved practically nothing. Even their suspension and the economic blockades imposed on them, though painful, haven’t produced the desired effects. More significantly, the populism that ushered the soldiers to the centre-stage in the first place hasn’t yet faded away as earlier predicted by some pundits. There appears to still exist enough fire to sustain the idealistic rulers in their quest to make a difference, no matter what that actually turns out to be in the long run.”

Approximately six months after their severance declaration, the triumvirate met last weekend in Niamey to formalise the union. And they did it in style – a day before the 65th Ordinary Session of the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government in Abuja. A spectacular way to register the fact that they meant business, that the Alliance of Sahel States (AES) had become a multinational reality. Tchiani’s announcement that the three of them were “irrevocably” turning their backs on their West African neighbours was only an admonition to the bloc that it should concern itself with other matters as it trudges on towards the actualisation of its objectives. His revolutionary mission statement of building an alliance that is “far from the control of foreign powers; a community of peace, solidarity and prosperity based on our African values” shouldn’t be brushed aside as a mere propaganda.

The youngest of the trio, Troure, the undisputed rising star of Ouagadougou, also added to the resounding rhetoric of the day. According to him, “This continent has suffered and continued to suffer from the fire of the imperialists. These imperialists have only one cliché in mind: ‘Africa is the empire of slaves’”. A sharp reminder of one of his late predecessors, Captain Thomas Sankara, whose hatred for foreign domination was well-known. So much for disowning and bidding farewell to an institution co-founded by the well-respected departed Aboubakar Sangoule Lamizana of the then Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, Moussa Troure of Mali, Seyni Kountche of Niger Republic in concert with the other visionary West African leaders of their time.

By now, sceptics and cynics should have enough grounds to concede that something unprecedented is happening in this part of Africa. Never since the attainment of independence by African nations from their former colonial masters had they come together in this form and at a governmental level to openly challenge the sad normality. These three co-travellers, being Francophone, have naturally thrown their punches at France, especially. They have expelled French soldiers who had come to help in the fight against Islamist insurgents. They have also made it clear that they would part ways with CFA Franc, the currency that binds together the French-speaking countries in the continent. As for ECOWAS, they’ve stated in clear terms that any attempt to re-integrate them would be strongly resisted.         

The dismemberment and the manner in which it is being prosecuted are surely not how the larger portion of the body had envisioned the period leading to the marking of its 50th anniversary next year. Many analysts see ECOWAS as underperforming, with credible premises. But that isn’t the whole story. In nearly five decades, it can lay claims to, at least, moderate achievements in conflicts resolution, trade relations and integration. It can even push its luck further by insisting that it has enough evidence of being set for more compelling accomplishments.

Unfortunately, there is no luxury of time for blames, excuses and overindulgence in what should have been or what will most likely be. The re-elected Chairman of ECOWAS and Nigerian President, His Excellency Bola Tinubu, has appointed his Senegalese and Togolese counterparts, Bassirou Diomaye Faye and Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, as special envoys to the aggrieved leaders with the main aim of getting them back into the fold. A daunting task, no doubt.

President Faye already shares some kindred spirit with Tchiani, Goita and Traore as they’re united in imperialism-loathing, desire for true economic liberty and the enthronement of African pride in the comity of nations. He is, therefore, positioned to reach out to them with a significant hope of understanding. Gnassingbe, however, holds a different, worrying kind of prospects. His democratic profile is largely viewed as below average, a good example of heads of government who make military intervention in politics look noble. It’s terrible for people to shoot their way to power, quite okay. But manipulating a country’s constitution and its democratic institutions is equally reprehensible and must be seen as such. The leaders of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have constantly anchored their defiance on the sad reality that many of their colleagues are widely believed to have rigged their way to power, a vice as obnoxious as gun-wielding, if not worse. We can only hope that Gnassingbe isn’t a wrong leg on this difficult journey towards fence-mending and rediscovery.

“Our region is facing the risk of disintegration”, President of ECOWAS Commission, Omar Alieu Touray, warned the other day. That mustn’t be dismissed as unfounded and alarmist. With all their diatribes against western dominance, the seceding rulers have publicly embraced Russia and China. That decision doesn’t look like something built on conviction or ideology but necessity or survival. It means a region already bedevilled by monstrous problems can easily become a battlefield for distant opposing superpowers.

From experience, even the mass appeal the radical leaders are enjoying in their bases now may not last long. The usual crack-down on dissent associated with military dictatorships may be employed in efforts to cement their stay at the top. And the northern borders of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are still home to terrorists who have imperilled the security of the Sahel for years.

This is a disturbing picture of an uncertain future. The surest way for the ECOWAS mainstream is to be seen to make deliberate and visible efforts at good governance. True, it won’t happen overnight. But anything short of that would give the regional separatists the weapons to convince their local populations that the only way isn’t behind them but the new forward. That can further endanger the entire subregion with one of the worst border controls on earth.  

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board  

Related Articles