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ECOWAS Democracy: A Government of the Politicians, By the Politicians, For the Politicians

Toyin Falola


The mid-20th century brought with it the height of independence-related agitations and clamouring in many African countries. Rising nationalists who had gotten their education and the attendant exposure that came with it ultimately believed that African states were ready to govern themselves in the newly introduced democratic system. From that period to now, several African states have gone through turbulent moments of shapeshifting — a democratic state today, a military-junta-ruled state tomorrow. More often than not, military interventions in the democratic running of African states are touted as the Messianic way out of the country’s corruption practices of the democratically elected leaders. As altruistic and patriotic as these military interventions seem at the outset, historical precedents in Africa show that the Messiahs often end up as or worse than the oppressors they initially wanted to save the people from. Africa does not need coups and military leaders.

Nigeriens have suffered immensely for years due to a radically corrupt democratically elected government. There has been unprecedented corruption, economic stagnancy, rising cases of insecurity, general fear for lives and properties among the citizenry, and a neocolonialism-fueled pillaging of the country’s resources. Reports coming out of The Republic of Niger (Niger, for short) place the children of the country as ranking highly on the list of children facing the worst forms of labour in the world. In Niger, children work on farms and in mines—digging uranium for the benefit of France-government-owned Orano, one of the biggest uranium-mining firms in Niger. The Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) has been silent on this suffering. But it quickly reacts to the pain of removing one of its politicians from power. The mandate of ECOWAS, it seems, is to protect the interest of those in power and not the citizens.

The suffering of Nigeriens, as the people have expressed without coercion, became so catastrophic that the citizens would rather have the temporary salvation of a military coup than continue to wallow in the unending mire that the government of Mohamed Bazoum was dragging them through. Even in the face of historical precedents and the unattractiveness of military rule, the citizens have become so hopeless they see theirs as a case of being between the devil and the deep blue sea. Such is the state of melancholy and hope-ruining corruption that has been rocking Niger for years. Expectedly, ECOWAS, to which the Republic of Niger belongs, reacted to the country’s military takeover. While Nigeriens rejoiced at the temporary respite, and while the new military leaders swung into action to incarcerate the corrupt leaders and demand accountability and a recounting of their stewardship, the ECOWAS leadership, headed by Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, did not waste time to threaten fire and brimstone on the coup plotters.

The hasty reaction from ECOWAS, including stiff sanctions in the first few days of the military takeover of Niger and the threatened mobilization of the ECOWAS army, while it might have been in good taste for the overall beneficiaries of a war-torn West Africa, was largely in bad taste, if considered holistically. The first set of questions one would ask is, “Why was the ECOWAS in haste to wage war against Niger? To whose benefit would it have been, especially seeing that the Nigeriens widely welcomed the coup?”

Perhaps we would get closer to the answers to this first set of questions if we look back to the realization that these ECOWAS leaders who are masking themselves as the upholders of the tenets of democracy are only democrats in name and not in practice. ECOWAS is not the people’s parliament; it has never represented you and me. It is a reflection of the bad governance and corrupt African leaders. A corrupt politician sends his friends to ECOWAS to represent his country. Of course, many decent bureaucrats are working there that one is not trying to tarnish.

The politicians who control ECOWAS rule over countries where the fundamentals of democracy are being grossly flouted — a Nigerian state where state-owned operatives disregard the rulings of the judicial system in the obsessive manhunting of the likes of the peace-loving Omoyele Sowore, where the right to peaceful assembly and protest is marched upon through the gunning down of innocent #EndSARS protesters; a Cameroonian state that the president is slowly turning into a one-party, one-man empire, with election results being manipulated and the electorate being robbed of their voice and choice — several West African states are the poster countries for how not to run a democratic government, with deeds and happenings far from the realities expected of democratic states. Paul Biya has been the President of Cameroon since 1970. When will ECOWAS move its army there to remove him from power? One of the Presidents who wanted to send an army to Niger is Alassane Ouattara, the president of Côte d’Ivoire since 2010 and publicly supported a coup in his country in his search for power. Is this 81-year-old man running a democracy? When will ECOWAS move its army there to remove him from power?

Yet, the governments of these non-democratic, democracy-portraying countries are at the forefront of the agitations and planned military invasion of Niger on the promise of “restoring democratic stability” to the country. What democracy do they have in their various countries other than the democratization of corruption? If they object to a coup, what do we call their invasion to forcefully impose a leader on the people? After imposing the leader and stationing an army to protect him, is this a democracy?

This begs the question, “Why exactly does ECOWAS want to invade Niger?” Is it a way of cutting the wings of military leadership in ECOWAS member states before the military in other countries wakes up to the citizens’ realities and toe the path of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger? The fear factor? Or is it a way of showing the European and American world that the erring and insubordinate military can be gagged and beaten into shape? The playbook of neocolonialism that supported the assassination of Lumumba, Nkrumah and Shankara? In the end, if the coup in Niger and the takeover of government is handled precariously, so much so that it festers into a full-blown war, the war would soon be taken over by the United States and Russia, two sparring countries contesting for supremacy that have always sought and found other grounds for combat, except for their homelands.

There is the need to understand that the ECOWAS leadership has, time and time again, acted in ways that prove its mission is to first secure the interests of the representatives — that is, the presidents and heads of state of each member-state — rather than ensure the stability and prosperity of the citizens of each member state. How so?

The Beam and the Speck: ECOWAS Leadership and Niger Coup Plotters

One of the famous parables in the Bible is that of the hypocritic Pharisees who, although having a beam in their own eyes, are rather bent on spotting and removing the speck in other people’s eyes. So is the case of the ECOWAS leadership compared to the coup plotters in Niger. To put things into context, the ECOWAS leadership is not bent on restoring “stability” in Niger — even if that stability comes at the price of ravaging the country with war for months or years — because they care about Nigeriens or are concerned for the welfare of the citizens. It is rather to show solidarity with their fellow democratically elected corrupt leader who has been ousted from office while also ensuring that their vested interests are not compromised, and they are in good standing in the books of the subtle neocolonialists.

A good confirmation of this is how the ECOWAS leadership has feigned ignorance about the goings-on in one of the ECOWAS member-states, the Republic of Chad. The ECOWAS has not as much as reacted to the gross abuse of power, citizen suppression, killing of protesters, and political instability that has rocked the West African nation, climaxing in an unconstitutional and promise-breaking extension of Mahamat Idriss Déby’s transitional government. When is ECOWAS going to match its army against Chad?

Similarly, the Eyadéma family has invoked a nepotistic, one-party, one-family rule in the Republic of Togo, starting from the self-installation of Gnassingbé Eyadéma that lasted for 39 years, a reign that ended at his death and has since been carried on by his son, Faure Gnassingbé, for close to 23 years. In the over 60 years that the Gnassingbé Eyadéma family has forcefully ruled Togo and suppressed the citizens in the most undemocratic ways, where have the ECOWAS and its self-righteous leadership been? Have they been at the forefront of sanctions and military mobilization to restore peace, power, and stability to the people of Togo? The family-controlled, heavily deprived Togolese state is also part of the ECOWAS, and since the rule of the Eyadéma family does not directly threaten any of the leaders of the other ECOWAS states, they are happy to look away and feign ignorance or nonsensical and toothless diplomatic gestures. When is ECOWAS going to match its army against Togo?

The ECOWAS leaders are self-righteous politicians adept at making a scapegoat of some states with interests that do not align with their interests. This is the case of what has happened with Niger, making ECOWAS approach the issue with energy and zest. If the coup plotters in Niger did not demand accountability of the ousted president nor incarcerate him on corruption charges, if they at all showed that they would be willing to dance the selfish dance and dine with the other ECOWAS leaders instead of toeing the path of the junta in Burkina Faso, then, ECOWAS would not have responded the way it did.

Poverty in the Land; Riches in the Leaders’ Pockets

In the earliest years of independence, politics was not a full-time career to aspire to for most Africans. A little over six decades later, politics has registered itself as one of the surest paths to generational wealth in Africa, especially one with a low barrier to entry when it comes to education, exposure, and technical depth or entrepreneurial prowess (all of which are important for wealth building). Many African leaders have risen from being average-income earners to controlling an unimaginable wealth acquired through the outrageously ridiculous salaries and allowances the constitutions provide them with and cases of embezzlement, money laundering, and other corrupt practices. When will ECOWAS use its army to stage the coup against the thieves in power? This is the fight we commission them to do!

Yet, the citizens’ experiences are a starkly different reality from what is obtainable with their leaders. As inflation keeps rising in many West African countries and economies keep crumbling, leaving the citizenry poorer, with a reduced level of purchasing power, a steadily weakening currency, and a stagnant earning potential, their leading few keep enriching themselves at the expense of the poor masses. It has taken forever to accomplish the ECOWAS vision for significantly reducing poverty in member-states, necessitating the need to shift the deadline further forward and re-Christian Vision 2020 as Vision 2050 — another proof that the coalition has yielded little benefits for the expected beneficiaries of democracy; the citizens. A road journey of seven hours that I used to make between Lagos and Accra is now for twelve hours and some sleep on the road. Why is ECOWAS not interested in using the 21,000 soldiers it wants to raise to attack Niamey to protect the poor traders on the Lagos-Accra road?


Corruption and Consequence-Defying Corrupt Practices

Perhaps the biggest problem with the ECOWAS framework and its existence is that it has served as an avenue to share, bolster, and consolidate individual interests among the crassly corrupt heads of state and presidents of ECOWAS member-states. From Nigeria to Ghana, to Togo, to Niger, to Senegal — no ECOWAS country has a semblance of stability or economic prosperity, talk more of improved living conditions for the citizens.

Worse than that, each of these member-states is buried deep in its pile of corruption-related troubles. Africa is a prime example that nothing in life is perfect. Of the abundance of natural and human resources the continent is blessed with, it has been unlucky with its crop of leaders. Coalitions and considerations like the ECOWAS are supposed to birth prosperity and mutual growth. Sadly, that is not the case for the West African member-states whose conditions are hard to differentiate from other West African States that are not part of ECOWAS.

Togo and Cameroon are faced with similar problems, yet one of them is an ECOWAS member-state, a membership for which it has nothing to show outside of the increase in overhead costs and cost of governance brought about by the ECOWAS-related meetings representatives of each member-state have to attend.

Time and time again — for which there are existing proofs all over the world, from Singapore to Japan, to Hong Kong, to Switzerland, to the United States of America — the saying holds that a country will eventually reach close enough to its full potential when it adopts a citizen-centred development model. Countries that think of their citizens and future citizens and approach development from that angle truly experience development. Until African leaders — whether self-righteous, wrath-invoking ECOWAS leaders or their power-drunken nemesis — understand this and adopt it, the existence of bodies like ECOWAS does not hold any significant and change-inducing benefits for member-states, especially the citizens.

This is not a piece to justify the military take-over of a government, but one to say that corruption, bad governance, neglect of people experiencing poverty, and collaboration with those who plunder Africa’s wealth are more serious to warrant the attention of ECOWAS. This is not a piece to call for any coup but a plea to ECOWAS to at least know that the interest of ordinary people should be more important than the interest of the politicians. One day, we will create a Parliament of the People to serve our collective interests. In ECOWAS, power is vested in the politicians to serve the interests of politicians.

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