The latest coup in Guinea and the reaction of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to suspend the country’s membership have yet again demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the regional body in enforcing good governance in the region. It also raises questions about the commitment of its member states to comply with its protocols.
ECOWAS was established on 25 May 1975 to promote regional economic and, subsequently, security integration of the 15 West African states. But military coups in the region and growing moves by political incumbents to elongate their stay in office through dubious constitutional amendments are proving a tough challenge. And, as the Guinea case shows, the two are interlinked.
Guinea’s ousted president Alpha Condé changed the country’s constitution so he could run for another term in March 2020, effectively going beyond the constitutional two terms.
Condé was not the last. In August of the same year, President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire ran for a third term, capitalising on the stipulations of a new constitution. This move was greeted with violent protests in the country.
In Condé’s case, Guinea has been unstable since last year’s elections, which were fraught with irregularities, setting the stage for yet another coup.
Ripe for a coup
The 5 September 2021 coup is only a reflection of the unstable political climate that Guinea has had since independence in 1958. Guinea has had three long term presidents since its independence from France. There was a coup in December 2008 which led to the country being isolated internationally. The United States suspended its bilateral and security aid to Guinea, while the European Union, ECOWAS, and the African Union imposed an arms embargo. The unpopularity of the mid-ranking military officers who led the coup paved the way for a democratic transition that eventually culminated in the election of Condé as president in 2010.
In a way, history is repeating itself. The chaotic sociopolitical and economic conditions that transpired prior to Condé’s presidency are quite similar to the chaos of his regime which led to his ouster.
With a population of 13 million, Guinea is one of the poorest countries globally despite its huge mineral resources. More than two-thirds of its people are multidimensionally poor, a measure of poverty that includes more than just a lack of income. Guinea also ranks 178 out of 189 countries in the 2020 Human Development Index, which measures quality of life.
The overthrow of Condé’s government is premised on its violation of citizens’ rights, disregard for democratic norms, politicisation of public service, endemic political corruption and poverty. Mamady Doumbouya, the head of Guinea’s special forces and leader of the coup, said “it was the duty of the soldier to save the country” from one-man rule.
The coup was received with jubilation in the streets of Conakry, Guinea’s capital. The coupists released about 80 political prisoners who had been jailed for protesting against the constitutional change that enabled Condé’s third term.
Reacting to the latest coup, ECOWAS demanded the immediate release of Condé and the other government officials. In line with the 2001 Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy, the regional body also suspended Guinea’s membership and demanded that the coup plotters return constitutional order in Guinea or face sanctions.
This is not the first time ECOWAS has sanctioned Guinea. After the December 2008 coup, the regional body and the African Union suspended Guinea’s membership. But they did not impose sanctions on the junta.
Article 45 (1) of the 2001 Good Governance and Democracy Protocol says that when there has been an unconstitutional change of government in a member state, and this has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses, ECOWAS must impose sanctions on the member state. Such sanctions include suspension of membership and the closure of land borders by member states. The latter is meant to halt trade and other cross-border economic activities. The intention is to pressurise the junta to return the country to a constitutional order.
The imposition of economic sanctions could jeopardise Guinea’s ailing economy. However, the regional body could combine a number of measures to achieve its mandate as enshrined in its good governance protocol.
These measures could include economic sanctions, a travel ban, freezing of personal assets of the coup organisers, denouncing their transitional arrangements and rewriting or amending the constitution.
Barring these, ECOWAS could be signalling to other ambitious soldiers in neighbouring countries that there are limited repercussions to toppling sitting presidents in the region.
Yet despite robust mechanisms and mediation efforts in Guinea, the September 2021 coup raises several questions regarding the reputation of the body and the commitment of its member states to comply with its protocols.
The regional body’s response to the Guinea crisis reflects its legitimacy deficit. The organisation was conspicuously mute when Condé effectively carried out “a coup” against the Guinean constitution to elongate his term in office. If ECOWAS is to be a champion for good governance, it should address the root causes of political instability and coups. Foremost are the illegitimate measures to extend the terms of incumbents and their abuse of power.
Article 1 (b) of the ECOWAS 2001 protocol provides that “every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections”. It also demands “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”. But then Condé managed to change the constitution and ran for election based on what was constitutional in terms of the amendments.
The first step should have been to call Condé to order for flouting the protocol. The body’s reaction to the coup effectively protects Condé, who manipulated the constitution to prolong his stay in office.
ECOWAS should condemn a coup and suspend the country if there is a military takeover that topples a constitutionally mandated and elected “democratic” government. It must also be committed to transitioning from merely deploring violence to passing stringent laws that would accompany its protocols. This would ensure that the preconditions of coups – such as the unconstitutional extension of terms in office and the abuse of power through the repression of mass protests – are punished.
Dare Leke Idowu, Assistant Lecturer, Political Science and International Relations Programme, Bowen University, Iwo, Nigeria, is a co-author of this article.