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From Niger to Guinea, Ecowas sanctions against juntas have failed

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Amid the biggest crisis in its history, the West African regional organisation is now prioritising dialogue in an attempt to keep military-led countries within its fold – at the risk of losing credibility.

After several years of arm wrestling with the military coup leaders in power in Mali, Guinea and Niger, the Economic Community of West African States has decided to change its strategy. Meeting at an extraordinary summit in Abuja, Nigeria, on Sunday, February 25, it decided to lift most of the sanctions imposed against Bamako, Conakry and Niamey following the overthrow of elected presidents by the military between 2020 and 2023. The primary aim of these political, economic and trade restrictions was to force the military to organise elections within a reasonable timeframe. So far, to no avail.

The Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, who is currently the chairman of the Ecowas Authority said the bloc must re-examine its current approach to the quest for constitutional order in four of its member states. His speech included Burkina Faso, also led by a military leader, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, but for which sanctions remain in place for the time being.

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With regard to Niger, Ecowas decided to “lift with immediate effect” the closure of land and air borders, to end the suspension of all economic transactions between Ecowas countries and Niamey, and to lift the freeze on assets held by the Nigerien state with commercial and central banks. It was a gesture of appeasement made without any corresponding trade-off.

Although Ecowas had previously made the release of deposed Nigerien president Mohamed Bazoum and his wife – held captive by the junta in the presidential palace for seven months – a precondition, the West African states have now disregarded this requirement.  Ecowas Commission president, our own son, Dr Omar Touray said some targeted sanctions and political sanctions remain in place for Niger, without giving details.

At the same time, the West African heads of state announced the end of financial and economic sanctions imposed on Guinea, namely the ban on financial transactions between Conakry and the body’s member states.

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Ecowas’s latest offer to West African military regimes was the lifting of “restrictions imposed on recruitment of its citizens to professional posts within Ecowas institutions”. Most of the economic and territorial sanctions decreed in an attempt to bring Colonel Assimi Goïta to heel were dropped in July 2022 in exchange for the military regime’s publication of a transition timetable.

It goes without saying that Ecowas’s relaxation of sanctions was occasioned by the announcement of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali that they were leaving the regional bloc. This announcement was made at the time when Senegal, one of the poster boys of democracy in the region, was experiencing unprecedented political upheaval with President Macky Sall postponing the presidential election and the resultant pushback from an enraged Senegalese populace.

The lukewarm reaction of Ecowas to Sall’s actions drew widespread condemnation from far and near and the organisation took a lot of flak, deservedly so, for its hypocritical response.  Therefore it was not surprising that Ecowas clambered from its high iron horse, relaxed its hard stance and ended the sanctions.

Democracy is in decline the world over and many are wondering whether Ecowas has not sacrificed its principled stance on the alter of political expediency. What consequences will this action have on the promotion of democratic constitutional rule in the coup fraught region? With the trajectory of things, it does not bode well. Time will tell. We hope we will find out later than sooner.

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