The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has recently come under scrutiny for its inconsistent approach to leaders who violate the terms of office. This criticism has raised allegations that ECOWAS indirectly contributed to political instability and coups in some member states.
On the 1st of September, 2023, the African Union announced the suspension of Gabon membership over the military coup that occurred in August—just a month after a similar military takeover in Niger. This selective sanction by AU is worrisome given how readily these organizations excuse electoral malpractice in African countries.
While we must combat any threats to African democracy, ECOWAS, the AU, and the international community must also play a larger role in ensuring that sanctions are imposed, not only after coups but also against leaders who refuse to step down after their mandated terms.
Military coups are no different from those perpetuated by African civilian rulers who abuse election terms. Ali Bongo, who took over the ruling of Gabon from his Father Omar Bongo, had been in power for 14 years. The Bongo dynasty had been ruling the country for 55 years. Other African leaders who have been ruling for more that 10 years, such as Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea (29 years), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (36 years), Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo (38 years), Paul Biya of Cameroon (40 years), and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (43 years) have similarly faced little international pressure to leave office.
ECOWAS and the African Union should adopt a consistent and principled approach to uphold democratic norms in member states. This includes taking a firm stance against leaders who violate term limits, manipulate electoral processes, or engage in corrupt practices.
Africa has witnessed an alarming increase in coup attempts in recent times, with Burkina Faso experiencing two coups in 2022 and six coup attempts across the continent in 2021. The lack of sanctions and multiple instances of flawed elections in corrupt African countries—where sitting presidents are reelected and even groom their children as successors—raises doubts about whether we are witnessing true democracy or a form of monarchy. The presidency appears to have become a family inheritance, with little intervention from ECOWAS or the AU.
These African regional organizations can do better. One notable example of ECOWAS’s effective approach occurred in 2017 during the crisis in The Gambia. After losing the presidential election, President Yahya Jammeh refused to step down. In response, ECOWA employed the threat of force without resorting to direct physical violence. This approach gathered support from both the African Union and the United Nations Security Council. This approach gained ECOWAS legitimacy for what was essentially ECOWAS’s policy, and indeed an African solution to African problems. Ultimately, these efforts led to President Jammeh’s exile. ECOWAS was applauded for a successful intervention in defense of democratic norms.
This strategy should be consistently employed to uphold democratic norms in member states. Unless the continent’s leaders respect the rule of law, true constitutional principles, and democratic values, the wave of military coups in Africa will persist. Accusing military forces of undermining democracy is hypocritical when many African governments are led by corrupt civilian despots who rig elections and resort to violence to remain in power. ECOWAS and AU should encourage member states to review and reform their constitutions to strengthen democratic governance, including term limits, separation of powers, and checks and balances.
Unlike democratic elections in Africa, the military takeovers in Niger and Gabon this year resulted in zero civilian casualties. According to the premium Time media house, a total of 109 election-related deaths have been recorded across Nigeria in the build-up to the 2023 general election. This is not democracy.
The European Union (EU) provides a relevant example that ECOWAS and AU can use to ensure member states review and reform their constitutions. The EU encourages and mandates it for candidate countries to ensure that they align their constitutions and legal systems with European standards before they can join the union.
The AU’s failure to address these sit-tight despots is a stain on its record. How can one family hold power in a poverty-stricken country for 55 years? While military coups should not be endorsed, we cannot lament the fall of civilian despots who themselves have staged coups against democracy.
In true democracy, the electoral process should be free and fair. Any attempt to manipulate it for personal gain, regardless of the beneficiary, should be condemned by African Regional Organizations.
Oluwabukola Adimula is a dedicated advocate for human rights and gender equality with experience in communications and project management. She is a Prometheus fellow, African Liberty writing fellow, and Young Voices contributor. Bukola writes about women’s rights, politics, Free trade, policy, and human rights.