The instruments to so doing range from public condemnation, suspension of member states, and the deployment of mediators, to more coercive measures such as issuing sanctions as well as threatening the use of force and its application. Since the adoption of the AU’s anti-coup norm in 2000, the organization as well as its sub-regional counterparts intervened in a total of 22 cases in order to reinstall constitutional order in African states, with diplomacy and/or mediation being the most frequently applied instruments.
The regional reactions to political crises in Burkina Faso (2014/15) and The Gambia (2016/17) both fall under this category of intervention and are thus part of a much broader universe of African intervention practice. In the existing literature, both cases are described as success stories of African regional organizations’ conflict management. However, both the instruments as well as the social contexts of intervention differ in important ways. In Burkina Faso, AU and Ecowas used mediation to enforce the re-establishment of constitutional order, whereas in The Gambia, diplomatic means were accompanied by the threat of and eventually the deployment of a military force. Moreover, in The Gambia both organizations intervened against the President’s rejection to accept his electoral defeat, hence enforcing the popular will. In Burkina Faso, by contrast, AU and Ecowas actually sought to contain the more revolutionary ambitions of a broad popular movement that had brought President Compaoré to fall, thus pitting regional norms of constitutionalism against the popular will ‘on the streets. These differences make it likely that local perceptions of both interventions differ as well. While not treated as representative for a broader universe of cases, the two interventions are therefore particularly pertinent for an inductive and explorative comparative study.
Regional interventions in Burkina Faso (2014/15)
In October 2014, months of country-wide protests and mass mobilization led by a generation of new social movements forced then President Blaise Compaoré to leave office and flee the country, a moment that is today referred to as a ‘revolution’ in Burkinabè collective memory. Local grievances against Compaoré’s 27-year-long rule had risen in the course of 2014, fuelled by his attempt to change the constitution to allow him another presidential term. This attempt had also made him lose key allies within his ruling party Congrès pour la démocratie et le progrès (CDP). Over the previous decades, Compaoré’s ‘semi-authoritarian regime’Footnote39 was held by a strong political and economic patronage system protected by the presidential guard of the national army, while at the same time allowing selective democratic openings for a vivid landscape of local civil society organizations. Outside Burkina Faso, Compaoré gained reputation as one of Ecowas key mediators in negotiating peace agreements in francophone West Africa.Footnote40
The power void left after Compaoré’s fall on 31st October 2014 was filled by a low-ranking military supported by factions of the protesters, which immediately caused AU and Ecowas to call for elections and the return to constitutional order. However, both organisations refrained from suspending the country. The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) urged to establish a civilian transitional government within 14 days under the threat of sanctions, whereas Ecowas initially applied a more open, moderate approach. Both organisations dispatched mediators to facilitate a return to civilian rule and to negotiate a roadmap to pave the way towards elections. A 6-month timeline to re-establish constitutional order proposed by Ecowas became the most contested element of the transition as some members of the social movements key in bringing Compaoré to fall opted for a longer period to allow for reforming the old system. Negotiations ultimately resulted in a civilian–military government to lead a one-year transition.
In September 2015, the transition was interrupted by a military coup, led by members of Compaoré’s former presidential guard. AU and Ecowas immediately condemned the coup. However, their approach differed: while the AU suspended Burkina Faso from the organization and threatened sanctions against the perpetrators,Footnote45 Ecowas dispatched the Presidents of Senegal and Benin, Macky Sall and Yahya Boni, to negotiate the return of the transitional government and the release of some of its members with the coup plotters.Footnote46 Although this strategy was eventually successful, the proposal by the Ecowas mediators of an amnesty for the putschists was fiercely opposed by Burkinabè civil society and the larger public.Footnote47 Ecowas Heads of State, at their extraordinary summit on 22 September 2015, decided to support the transitional government and transitional elections were held on 29 November, marking the return to constitutional order and the official end of the regional intervention.Footnote48
Regional interventions in The Gambia (2016/17)
Compared to Burkina Faso, The Gambia has seen a regional intervention that was two-fold in nature from the very beginning, drawing on non-military and military means to solve the country’s political crisis. On 1st December 2016, the Gambian electorate voted President Yahya Jammeh, after 22 years in power, out of office, uniting behind the coalition candidate Adama Barrow.Footnote49 After Jammeh had initially accepted defeat, a few days later he challenged the election results by clinging onto power. In The Gambia, the political stalemate that ensued is commonly (but not unanimously) referred to as ‘the impasse’.
In a swift reaction, AU and Ecowas together with the UN jointly called for a peaceful transfer of power.
A high-profile delegation of former and sitting Heads of State engaged in several rounds of negotiations with Yahya Jammeh and the opposition’s political leadership. With no success in sight, as early as mid-December AU and Ecowas issued a threat of use of force, confirming their readiness to ‘take all necessary measures’. These decisions formed the basis for what later became the Ecowas Mission in The Gambia (Ecomig) also called ‘Restore Democracy’. With the constitutional ultimatum on 19 January 2017 approaching and Jammeh still clinging to his lost presidency, Ecowas materialised its threat of use of force. While the different contingents constituting the Ecomig forces were drawn together in the background, a Senegalese advance contingent assembled at the Gambian borders, preparing to intervene forcefully once the ultimatum elapsed. Rumours about an eventual outbreak of violence or a forceful intervention incited fear among Gambian citizens. As a consequence, thousands left their homes. President-elect Adama Barrow, preventively taken out of the country, was sworn in in the Gambian embassy in Dakar, Senegal, on the day of the ultimatum.
In a last attempt of diplomatic means, two of Yahya Jammeh’s close allies, then Guinean President Alpha Condé and Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, President of Mauritania, brokered a deal with Jammeh to leave power. Whether this agreement negotiated on behalf of ECOWAS has ever been signed is subject to debate, as no signed copy is publicly accessible. Eventually, on 22 January 2017, Jammeh left together with Alpha Condé first to Guinea and then proceeded to Equatorial-Guinea for exile.
The morning after he had left, Ecomig forces crossed the border into The Gambia, headed by a small group of Gambian officers who had joined Ecomig to ensure a peaceful arrival of the forces on Gambian soil. Upon Jammeh’s departure and the arrival of Ecomig, Gambians rejoiced on the streets of Banjul. With an initial one-year mandate to provide security for the President, government, and state institutions, Ecomig has been showing military presence in the Greater Banjul Area (GBA), at the ferry terminal in Barra on the Northern part, and in the region of Foni, in the Southern part. Since 2016, Ecomig’s mandate has been extended several times. The last Ecowas decision to ‘maintain the military and police components of the Ecowas Mission in The Gambia (Ecomig) to consolidate stability in the country’Footnote55 stipulated no end date for Ecomig’s presence.
How African Regional Interventions are Perceived on the Ground
In this section, we present key findings about how AU and Ecowas interventions in Burkina Faso (2014/15) and The Gambia (2016/17) are perceived locally. While reflecting the different means and social contexts of intervention in both countries, our findings also reveal three common features: First, both interventions are locally more contested than the assumption of culturally proximate ‘insider’ interveners and the interventions’ depictions in the literature as successes suggest. Second, however, there is at the same time a clear appreciation of the interventions with regard to their aims, conduct, and outcomes, pointing to the great multiplexity with which different local actors experience and evaluate the interventions. Thirdly, cutting across the first two findings, there is a marked difference between elite perceptions and those of everyday citizens. The latter, hitherto largely ignored in the debate on AU and Ecowas, evaluate African interventions against yardsticks that significantly differ from those expressed by national elites. The following section is structured along these findings, providing evidence from both case study countries.
Elite perceptions of regional interventions
In Burkina Faso and The Gambia, AU and Ecowas interventions first of all became a source of contestation among the countries’ (political and societal) elites, in which the contribution of both organizations to the respective transitions was heavily put into question by one side – and highly appreciated by the other. These contestations largely reflect the intra-elite power struggles that were at the heart of both countries’ political crises, in which AU and Ecowas with their demand to restore ‘constitutional order’ intervened. They do, however, also reveal common concerns articulated vis-à-vis African interveners.
In Burkina Faso, the AU and Ecowas intervention provoked two recurring critiques, which are widely shared among leaders in civil society and different political camps. They both concern the structure and conduct, rather than the outcome of the intervention.
Particularly for those who were actively involved in the mobilization of country-wide protests against Compaoré’s attempt to stay in power, AU and Ecowas intervened too late, only after the fall of Blaise Compaoré, rather than when Compaoré was playing with the country’s constitution and democratic fabric. The late intervention gives fodder to a widespread accusation against both organizations as merely being a ‘Syndicat des Chefs d’État’ (a ‘Club of Heads of State’), whose members – incumbent presidents – protect themselves to remain in power. This popular imaginary serves to explain why AU and in particular Ecowas remained silent on the matter, often summarized as ‘zero contribution’ to the political struggles in Burkina Faso at that time. As one member of a social movement expresses: ‘They [AU and Ecowas] immediately took a stand for their ally’, accused of offering ‘tacit support’ to the former president. The late intervention is thus interpreted as ‘guilty silence’. It left the protagonists of the protests with the impression that AU and ECOWAS wanted to keep the one in power in place.
This critique of partial interveners not working in the interest of ‘the people’ was also nourished by both organizations’ demand for elections within a rather short period of time. To many civil society leaders, this means that AU and Ecowas were ‘stealing’ ‘their’ revolutionFootnote59, as rapid elections went against their thirst for more fundamental political change.
On the other side of the political spectrum, supporters of Compaoré, too, criticised the late intervention. They, however, expected an intervention when social uprisings against the President’s regime, which they consider ‘unconstitutional’, were on the rise and thus accuse Ecowas of being close to the protesters. In a winner-loser dynamic, each group thus blames Ecowas for favouring the other party to the conflict and for not sufficiently understanding the local situation.
The second widely shared critique among political and social elites is more specifically directed against Ecowas mediators and their amnesty proposal to the coup plotters in 2015. The coup during the transition was seen as an interruption of the latter and a threat to the accomplishments of the October 2014 ‘popular insurrection’.
Whereas the fierce reaction of the AU against the coup perpetrators, by imposing sanctions and labelling them as ‘terrorist elements’, is highly recognized, the conciliatory approach of Ecowas – not suspending the country and holding negotiations with the coup perpetrators – engendered strong critique. It remains one of the most remembered and contested elements of the transition shared across various elite actors from the country’s political opposition, civil society, and social movements. Ecowas mediators were criticised of ‘not playing fair’ and accused of acting on behalf of the old regime. Against this background, the AU as the continental organisation is deemed more neutral and its firm reaction against the 2015 coup has been assessed as ‘honourable’.
Despite this widespread critique of regional interventions in 2014/15, some elites from former opposition parties and more traditional civil society also highly value AU and Ecowas interventions. In particular, they applaud both organizations’ commitment to pave the way back to democratic rule, their demand for a civilian interim president, and their overall supervision of the transition and of the elections in 2015. These elites appreciate the intervention as ‘constant assistance’ and as a positive contribution to the country’s transition process, mainly because it gave the transition an orderly form. Yet, while these reveal more positive perceptions, the same actors also often share the above-mentioned two main strands of critique of regional interventions in Burkina Faso.
The research was conducted by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).
To be continued