ECOWAS: Between Criticism And Crisis Of Legitimacy
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was created on May 28, 1975, in Lagos, Nigeria, with the aim of encouraging and strengthening economic integration in West Africa. Almost fifty years later, despite significant advances, ECOWAS is the subject of various criticisms. The people have been left wanting, both in terms of expected economic fruits and political and cultural aspirations. From criticism, we have moved to revolt even in some countries like Mali, where ECOWAS is increasingly decried and perceived as illegitimate. This article draws a parallel between the initial objectives of the organization and the current shortcomings that explain the criticism and the crisis of legitimacy.
ECOWAS: Creation and Basic Objectives
The Treaty of Lagos initiating the creation of ECOWAS was signed in 1975 by the states of Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Togo. Cape Verde joined the organization in 1977, but Mauritania, the only Arabic-speaking state in the community, withdrew in 2000. The combined GDP of the 15 member countries amounts to 730.8 billion dollars in a geographical area of 5.2 kilometers square.
At the time of its creation, ECOWAS gave itself the mission of strengthening cooperation and economic integration with the aim of promoting the well-being and development of the people. "The objective of the Community is to promote cooperation and integration in the perspective of an economic union of West Africa, with a view to raising the standard of living of its peoples, maintaining and increasing economic stability, strengthening relations between Member States and contributing to the progress and development of the African continent," says the official website of the organization. On the economic front, the organization aims among other things: the harmonization and coordination of national policies in various areas, the promotion of the creation of joint production enterprises, the creation of a common market through the liberalization of trade for the creation of a free trade area within the community, the removal between Member States of obstacles to the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital as well as the rights of residence and establishment; or the promotion and strengthening of relations and the circulation of information, in particular between rural populations, women's and youth organizations, socio-professional organizations such as media associations, businessmen and women, workers, youth and labor unions.
But the role and ambitions of ECOWAS are not limited to the economic aspect. The organization is also part of a political dynamic that finds its source in its fundamental principles. These principles, which are set out in the Community Treaty, include equality and interdependence of member states, non-aggression among member states, maintenance of regional peace, security, and stability through the promotion and strengthening of good neighborly relations, respect, promotion and protection of human and peoples' rights in accordance with the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights; transparency, economic and social justice and popular participation in development, recognition of and respect for the legal rules and principles of the Community; promotion and consolidation of a democratic system of government in each member state as provided for in the Declaration of Political Principles adopted on July 6, 1991, in Abuja. The Abuja Declaration also stipulates that the Member States undertake "to promote and encourage the full enjoyment by all our peoples of their fundamental rights, including political, economic, social, cultural and other rights, which are inherent in the dignity of the human person and essential to his free and progressive development.
In view of the inventory of these commitments, ECOWAS has always been an organization that aspires to strengthen economic integration but also the political and social stability of the Member States, which are fundamental pillars for development. But today, after 47 years of existence, the record is more than mixed. Although there has been significant progress, ECOWAS, which wanted to be the "people's" organization, is now decried by a large part of the people themselves.
ECOWAS: a crisis of credibility that taints its legitimacy
ECOWAS is far from being unanimously accepted by the West African peoples for several years. Yet it can boast of having been able to embody a leadership that has enabled it to resolve many political crises. It distinguished itself throughout the 1990s in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. More recently, it intervened in Gambia, notably in 2017 when the dictator Yaya Jammeh, defeated in the elections, did not want to leave power after 27 years of rule. But in recent years, the organization has lacked this leadership on an issue that is plaguing democracy in West Africa: the third or constitutional putsch. Indeed, the cases of Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea have dealt a serious blow to ECOWAS' credibility.
In 2020, President Alassane Ouattara was re-elected for a third term after a chaotic pre- and post-election period that left more than 85 people dead and more than 480 injured. While the constitution limits the number of terms to two, Ouattara has gone beyond this to run for a third time and ECOWAS has remained totally inert in the face of this violation. The same is true in Guinea, where former President Alpha Conde ran for a third term in 2020. A few months before the elections, he had the Guinean constitution amended in a highly contested referendum, under fire from critics, arrests, and deaths. For months, the country was in nameless chaos, completed by Conde's election for a third term that ultimately divided the nation. Yet with all this unpopularity, ECOWAS congratulated the president-elect and deemed the election "regular" while the opponents all denounced a fraudulent process. This inability of ECOWAS to be in phase with the aspirations of the people who no longer want these constitutional coups is the main reason for the criticism of ECOWAS. In all the countries where this phenomenon has been recorded in West Africa, it has given rise to strong tensions resulting in several deaths and prolonged political instability. Today, the illegitimacy of presidents re-elected for a third term has brought coups back to the stage. In Guinea, Colonel Mamadou Doumbouya overthrew Alpha Conde in the midst of this brouhaha.
Security issues are also not in favor of ECOWAS. West Africans have to deal with the rise of terrorism in the region, having to rely on rather weak states. This was particularly the case in Burkina Faso, but also in Mali, where the government of Ibrahima Boubacar Keita was finally overthrown in August 2020 after having been re-elected for a second term a few months earlier. Corruption, his inability to stop the advance of jihadists in the north, and a contested electoral process eventually created a strong popular revolt that the army ended by taking power. ECOWAS has remained rather weak in these incidences. Worse, it now denounces military coups that have the support of the people in a way but is still not able to stop the constitutional coups denounced by West African nations and that destabilize the region. "The fact is that it basically condemns military coups but is totally powerless to speak out when incumbent heads of state manipulate institutions to stay in power," says Gilles Yabi, founder of the think tank Wathi. The organization has implemented a series of sanctions for months on Mali, including the closure of borders by neighboring countries. A decision that has been very unpopular in Mali (and in the sub-region) where during demonstrations, people have even expressed the desire to leave ECOWAS. "More broadly, at the national level in Mali, the organization has acquired, through the repeated use of sanctions and threats of sanctions, the image of a censor rather than a partner. This obviously undermines its legitimacy. It would be useful, from this point of view, to adopt an approach that is much more constructive by moving towards dialogue," notes Ornella Moderan, researcher and head of the Sahel Program at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) based in Bamako.
Today, it appears that ECOWAS is less that of the "peoples" and more that of the Heads of State. It is often likened to a trade unionist organization that defends the interests of its member Heads of State and not those of West African nations. Above all, it is disconnected from the aspirations of the people and in a way betrays the essence of its creation. "ECOWAS succeeded in bringing former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh to heel but remained weak in the face of the third terms of Alpha Conde and Alassane Ouattara. This posture erodes its legitimacy and discredits it in the eyes of public opinion," warned Alioune Tine, president of the think tank Afrikajom. Above all, there is an inability of the organization to impose its decisions. In Senegal, President Macky Sall has set out to "reduce the opposition to its simplest form". Not only have opponents Karim Wade and Khalifa Sall been imprisoned in conditions that did not respect their rights according to ECOWAS, but Macky Sall's regime has ruled out 82 potential candidates for the 2019 presidential election through a sponsorship system described by the sub-regional court as a violation of the “free right to participate in elections”. ECOWAS has remained ineffective on these issues since Senegal has refused to comply with the decisions of the Court, even though Article 16 paragraph 2 of the Treaty establishing the organization stipulates that “the decisions of the Court of Justice shall be binding on Member States, Community institutions and natural and legal persons”. Today, instead of rethinking its methods and functioning in order to better respond to the aspirations of the people, ECOWAS is instead seeking to create an anti-coup force that risks being a further factor of instability by meeting the anger of people. Also, there is the influence of foreign powers with agendas that are quite contrary to those of people. France's influence is increasingly indexed, particularly on the issue of sanctions against Mali. Today, Guinea and Burkina, which are led by putschists, have not been targeted by sanctions equal to those imposed on Bamako, which is at odds with Paris. This policy of double standards is further damaging the image of ECOWAS in West Africa.
On the economic front, the situation is almost the same. ECOWAS can be delighted to have won the bet on the movement of goods and people, even if all is not yet clear at the borders. There has also been considerable progress in harmonizing the law and the business climate in the subregion. However, the record remains just as mixed. The organization is still struggling to have the expected agricultural, industrial, and monetary policies. Three years ago, there was talk of creating an African currency within the framework of ECOWAS. This project was literally short-circuited by Emmanuel Macron and Alassane Ouattara during a visit of the French president to Abidjan in 2019. The Ivorian president had then announced the creation of the “ECO” currency for the WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union) zone, which would have a fixed parity with the euro and be guaranteed by France. In January 2020, Nigeria officially explained that the announcement of the Ivorian Head of State “is not consistent with the decision of the Conference of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS to adopt the ECO as the name of a single currency independent of ECOWAS”. Even if the project of this community currency remains on the table, the influence of France is likely to remain very heavy. ECOWAS is also likely to find it difficult to strengthen its credibility and legitimacy in order to achieve the political and economic objectives expected by the people.
“A Propos de La CEDEAO | Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).” ECOWAS. Accessed December 20, 2022. https://ecowas.int/a-propos-de-la-cedeao/?lang=fr.
Barry, Par Bob. “Mali: Les critiques contre la Cédéao sont-elles justifiées ?” Deutsche Welle. January 29, 2022, sec. News. https://fr.allafrica.com/stories/202201290117.html.
TV5MONDE. “Du franc CFA à l’eco : la longue marche de la CEDEAO vers une monnaie unique,” February 10, 2020. https://information.tv5monde.com/afrique/du-franc-cfa-l-eco-la-longue-marche-de-la-cedeao-vers-une-monnaie-unique-346011.
Ouestafnews. “Cedeao : les « peuples » veulent désormais être entendus.” Une information fiable et indépendante sur les questions qui traversent l’Afrique, April 20, 2022. https://www.ouestaf.com/cedeao-les-peuples-veulent-desormais-etre-entendus/.
ECOWAS. “Principes Fondamentaux | Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).” Accessed December 20, 2022. https://ecowas.int/principes-fondamentaux-2/?lang=fr.
 “A Propos de La CEDEAO | Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS),” ECOWAS, accessed December 20, 2022, https://ecowas.int/a-propos-de-la-cedeao/?lang=fr.  “Principes Fondamentaux | Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS),” ECOWAS (blog), accessed December 20, 2022, https://ecowas.int/principes-fondamentaux-2/?lang=fr.  Par Bob Barry, “Mali: Les critiques contre la Cédéao sont-elles justifiées ?,” Deutsche Welle, January 29, 2022, sec. News, https://fr.allafrica.com/stories/202201290117.html.  Barry.  Ouestafnews, “Cedeao : les « peuples » veulent désormais être entendus,” Une information fiable et indépendante sur les questions qui traversent l’Afrique, April 20, 2022, https://www.ouestaf.com/cedeao-les-peuples-veulent-desormais-etre-entendus/.  Ouestafnews.  “Du franc CFA à l’eco : la longue marche de la CEDEAO vers une monnaie unique,” TV5MONDE, February 10, 2020, https://information.tv5monde.com/afrique/du-franc-cfa-l-eco-la-longue-marche-de-la-cedeao-vers-une-monnaie-unique-346011.