ECOWAS and Crisis of Democratic Legitimacy in West Africa, By Joseph Phillip


On 5 September 2021, President of Guinea Alpha Condé was captured by the country’s armed forces in a coup d’état led by Special Forces commander Mamady Doumbouya. This was the third military coups to have taken place in West Africa; twice in Mali and once in Guinea.  

While these events attracted  met wide spread condemnations from the global community and imposition of sanctions by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the first coup in Mali and the recent coup in Guinea were seemingly greeted with jubilations on the streets of the respective countries. 

Despite this foregoing, a common feature in ECOWAS’s response statement to these coups is the condemnation of such acts as a direct violation of the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. The protocol being an integral part of the 1999 Mechanism on Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security attempts to link governance with peace and security and promote the adoption of common and universal norms on democratic governance by member states through “constitutional convergence”. These constitutional convergence principles as outlined by the protocol were targeted at promoting the rule of law, autonomy for the parliament and judiciary, free and fair elections and political participation, civilian supremacy over military forces, and civil liberties, with special provisions for women and youth.

However, the level of compliance and implementation of these principles by ECOWAS member states have been subject of debate. Central to these debates is the holding of regular elections as a democratic tool and limiting presidential terms. As all countries in the region are ‘constitutional democracies’ which identify elections as a means to accede to power, analysts have argued that major challenge for the sub-region is regular attempts by sitting heads of states to use the parliament, judiciary or other State institutions like the Electoral Management Bodies, the police and military to manipulate electoral outcomes or the constitution to their advantage or that of their political parties. This has been singled out as one of the major factors behind the sudden resurgence of military coups within the region. 

Article 1 (b) of the  protocol provides that “every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections”. It also demands “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”. The first coup in Mali was preceded with protests led by a coalition of opposition political parties, religious organisations and civil society known as the June 5 Movement (M5-RFP), calling for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in the wake of the country’s April parliamentary elections. The protests were spurred by a Constitutional Court’s decision to overturn some of the election results, which the opposition said unfairly helped members of Keita’s party remain in office. 

Prior to the military takeover in Guinea, the 2020 Presidential Elections in the country that saw the emergence of Conde as President had huge legitimacy concerns. This was further compounded by the fact that he amended Guinea’s constitution to enable him run for a third term. All efforts to convene national dialogue had been resisted by the the opposition over fears that the institutions responsible for facilitating such process will skew the outcome to favour the party in power. 

While the region’s zero tolerance for military takeover is highly commendable, the conspicuous silence to violations of the constitutional convergence principles as outlined by the protocol by member States has raised legitimacy concerns and doubts over the sincerity of the regional body in championing democracy and good governance. Furthermore, among those deployed to negotiate the coup in Guinea is President Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire whose presidency just like Conde, has legitimacy concerns as a result of amendments in the Ivorian constitution to allow him run for a third term and an alleged manipulated election to ensure his emergence as a president.

Thus this brings to fore the troubling question of ; Why has the “coup” by some Heads of States within the region to elongate their term in office not been met by same level of condemnations and sanctions? Also, Why is the regional body seen to endorse elections which have been alleged not to be free and fair, or far below standards as articulated in the ECOWAS Protocol for Democracy and Good Governance? All these have fuel the speculation that the regional body is more interested in the security of tenure of member Heads of State than promotion of universally acceptable democratic norms and good governance.

ECOWAS seeming inaction or silence have been attributed to the absence of the legal basis for intervention in “domestic issues” confronting member states. There were also attempts by the regional body to introduce in 2015 to push for the prohibition of the Heads of States, staying beyond two terms. Such a move was rejecting by some West African leaders who argued that each country has a different political context and there cannot be a blanket ruling. 

The region has so far adopted an iterative approach in developing its peace, security and governance agenda by developing instruments to address issues facing the region as they emerge. These has further been demonstrated by the recent call for the review of the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Governance by the Heads of State during the Extraordinary Session Of The ECOWAS Authority Of Heads Of State And Government held in Accra Ghana on 17th September, 2021.  This was followed by another call by President Akufo-Addo for third term to be outlawed within the sub-region. Speaking in his personal capacity, he believes it is the surest way to safeguard Africa’s fragile democracy, and prevent coup d’états from happening in the sub-region. 

As such, now more than ever is an opportunity for the region to demonstrate the leadership and political will it has always been known for in working collectively to address some of these issues which have continuously threatened the peace and stability for region.

Phillip is a Governance Programme Coordinator at Goodluck Jonathan Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Sky Daily