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Commentary: After Guinea, should ECOWAS be worrying about Liberia?

More than 30 years after the West African grouping first diverted its focus on economic integration to resolving wars and political discontent in the region, it continues to spend its energy on preventing conflicts, which does not augur well for the Community, writes Desmond Davies

LAST week, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States agreed to impose sanctions on the military regime that usurped power in Guinea on September 5. The soldiers forced President Alpha Conde out, citing the usual reasons for soldiers who intervene in politics in Africa: corruption, bad governance, economic mismanagement and the need to change the country’s direction.

ECOWAS leaders swiftly called on the National Committee for Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), which was established by the soldiers after the coup, to unconditionally release Conde and warned them that they were ‘individually and collectively responsible for [his] physical safety’.

While the leaders were collectively flexing their muscles at an extraordinary summit in Accra last week, ordinary Guineans were not worried by the threat. By their reaction to the coup, they appeared to be happy to have seen the back of Conde, who contrived to have the Constitution changed last year for him to serve for a third term – a move not unknown on the continent.

What does this all portend for ECOWAS and its stance on military intervention in the region? What is blindingly obvious is that West Africa’s political leaders seem to close ranks when one of them is threatened or overthrown. Indeed, several presidents, including Liberia’s George Weah, took the news so seriously that they barricaded themselves into their residences, fearful of any contagion, until the threat passed. And yet the sort of reaction to the coup in Guinea is never seen when these politicians engage in political chicanery to hang on to power against the wishes of their citizens.

The one exception was in The Gambia in 2017, where President Yahya Jammeh attempted to cling on to power after losing the election to Adama Barrow. Jammeh was forced out. But then, tiny Gambia does not have the military firepower to deal with the force of West African soldiers.

But in the main, these leaders have a way of doing things in a manner that borders on illegitimacy but with some veneer of legality. They are masters of the sleight of hand when it comes to political manipulation and lining their own pockets, which have led to conflict in some member states.

Indeed, this is the main reason why ECOWAS has deviated from its primary goal of fully integrating the region economically. This was the original aim when it was formed in May 1975.

But, today, even with moves to create a single currency, which have stalled, many West Africans could be forgiven if they thought ECOWAS was, primarily, a peacekeeping body rather than an economic grouping. This is because since 1990, it has been involved in halting armed conflicts in a number of member states such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau and Cote d’Ivoire.

It would seem that the ECOWAS Early Warning and Response Mechanism is not up to the job of pre-empting conflict even though these systems exist in members states including Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Burkina Faso and, just last week, Sierra Leone.

Civil society organisations in the region do keep an eye on events in member countries and do come up with insightful analysis that should ring alarm bells at ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja.

In one such analysis, a Liberian non-governmental organisation, Naymote Partners for Democratic Development, released the results of its Governance Perception Survey Report 2021 days before the coup in Guinea. This seventh survey, administered between July 13 and August 31 this year, focused on service delivery, the economy, accountability, democracy, and security – and should act as a warning sign that consistently poor leadership of Liberia must change.

The report revealed several challenges that confront the quality of governance in the country, urging the government to be more transparent about its activities and make important choices that are reflective of the needs and priorities of the people.

It stated: ‘Findings from this survey show a negative trajectory of citizens’ views and perception of the quality of governance in Liberia. If not overturned, this negative trend has the potential to further deepen the level of state fragility in Liberia.’

Bemoaning the government’s failure to deliver for the people, the report noted that ‘the quality of social services including health and education that are provided by the government is poor’, while ‘generally, citizens are not happy with the state of the economy’, adding: ‘This is unhealthy for a fragile state like Liberia because a weak economy is a sign of vulnerability, and with a huge unemployed and youthful population, the potential for instability and violent tendency can be high.

‘Without addressing the issues described in this report, forms of inequalities, particularly in access to quality services, are likely to be reinforced and heightened,’ the Report said.

‘Inequalities contribute to polarisation of society and are triggers of conflict and deeply rooted grievances; and where they are not addressed appropriately, they could be exploited negatively by would-be “spoilers”.’

Clearly, Weah’s bunkering down earlier this month was an implicit acknowledgement that he knows he is vulnerable to the anger of the people. This survey paints the picture of an opportunity for those who are going to challenge the president in 2023, such as Alexander B. Cummings, leader of the Alternative National Congress, to position themselves to make a significant change in the country.

As the Naymote survey found, Liberians want a leader that can contribute to political accountability and strengthen the governance system – something they are not receiving now.

Liberians are also looking for a leader with the calibre of Cummings, a former Coca Cola executive, to develop fiscal and monetary policies to address the negative trends of the economy: the crisis of mass youth unemployment, controlling inflation and stabilising prices of basic commodities especially in rural communities.

All of this makes the run-up to the 2023 elections a crucial period in Liberia, the country which derailed the ECOWAS project in the first place in 1990 when an armed conflict erupted to oust the repressive regime of Samuel Doe. ECOWAS needs to heed the warnings from Liberia and elsewhere in the region or else it will continue fighting fires in the region caused by civilian leaders who have lost their way.

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