Op-Ed: Is ECOWAS up to the new challenges facing the sub-region?


THERE appears to be a growing disconnect between the institution and its key constituents – the people of West Africa – for whom it was created to serve in the first place, argues Adama Gaye.

 Barely a year ago, West Africans railed against France’s attempt, with the help of Cote d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, to usurp the name of the regional currency, the Eco, which was coined by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The French move was clearly aimed at derailing the much-sought after integration process in our part of the world

As the Ghanaian President, Nana Akuffo-Addo, took over the mantle of Chairman of the main regional body, he must have noticed the growing disconnect between ECOWAS and its key constituents – the West African people for whom it was created to serve in the first place on May 28, 1975

Take, for example, the recent elections in Guinea that saw President Alpha Condé returned to power for a controversial third term.

It was clear that he was going to lose on October 18 to his challenger, Mamadou Cellou Dallein Diallo.

ECOWAS was not pro-active in dealing with the situation, even when it was clear that the democratic process was under threat. What did West African leaders themselves say about Guinea? Nothing.

It was not just Guineans who were worried about the erosion of the democratic space but the whole of West Africa.

Many are convinced that ECOWAS is no longer alive.

More and more, the debate is about changing it into what is loosely called an ECOWAS of the peoples when, in truth, its nature of an inter-governmental organisation does not allow for such a move.

When it was launched during the heat of the Cold War era, it could not handle clearly the challenges of democracy and political pluralism nor even deliver on the promises of economic integration it was meant to foster.

Ideology reigned supreme then. Yet, with the advances made in facilitating the movement of its citizenry within its borders, while reducing the barriers to trade, ECOWAS had become a name recognised and respected by foreign partners after the Cold War receded.

They saw it as a worthwhile in African regional integration. And this was further bolstered by its quick positioning to provide a framework for promoting peace and conflict management, while becoming a welcomed elections broker as the region entered an era of multi-party politics.

For long, mainly because few knew of its huge shortcomings, ECOWAS was accepted as the voice of West Africa and that gave it legitimacy in the region.

Today, let’s face it, ECOWAS is not just seen as an empty shell but a remote organisation that is unable to connect or respond to the expectations of a restless demography: youths and adults alike.

They are being influenced by the growing technological and economic connectivity in today’s globalised world.

For example, people around the world joined the struggle of young Nigerians against police brutality.

Millions of tweets about it were shared, globally highlighting Nigeria’s bad governance, disastrous economic management and corrupt political leadership.

Across the region, indeed, tempers are flaring as fraudulent leaders rely on ethnicity, populism, corruption and undemocratic behaviour to stifle competition.

Such leaders have killed the chances of what was widely seen as the reinvention of West Africa towards the end of the last century.

In the Malian crisis, ECOWAS failed to grasp why the military toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18 following mass protests against his government.

Instead, there was grandstanding from the regional leaders who were bent on defending their colleague even though crowds were out daily to challenge the way their country was being run.

They went on to impose uncalled for economic sanctions against the military regime before realising that they were going against the will of Malians and ending up accepting the terms of an 18-month period of transition.

In all this, big questions loom large for West Africa’s post-Covid-19 future. Where does ECOWAS stand on the issue of a regional currency? Why has the regional Court of Justice been transformed into a weak bureaucratic institution whose rulings are not taken seriously?

When is ECOWAS going to meet the terms of its declaration on political principles and abide by its Protocol of Democracy and Good Governance?

Why does its leadership continue to remain numb when the human rights of its people are trampled on?  What is ECOWAS doing to stop police brutality and the hold on to power by autocratic leaders and arbitrary detention?

Indeed, ECOWAS is at the crossroads.

It has lost credibility and shunned by those it is supposed to serve. It is late in action.

It is often missing when it matters. It is just seen as an organisation serving the whims of autocratic, undemocratic, leaders within the region.

It is time to arrest the rapid decline of ECOWAS or else its relevance will become even more acute.

Adama Gaye from Senegal is a former Director of Communications at ECOWAS.

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