• Wednesday, April 24, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

ECOWAS sanctions as a strategic gamble.

ECOWAS sanctions as a strategic gamble.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lifted the four-month ban it placed on Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger on Saturday, February 24, 2024, in response to military coups and pressure to restore civil rule. ECOWAS Chairman and Nigeria’s president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, was instrumental in the sanction and removal. A crucial question for Nigeria and ECOWAS remains: what was the fuss about, and what did we gain or lose from it?

The lifting of the sanctions has sparked debate and raised questions about the strategic wisdom of the initial sanctions and their subsequent removal. While the move might offer a path towards dialogue and de-escalation, examining the broader context and potential consequences is critical. The dashboard should include an interrogation of the gains and losses to Nigeria and ECOWAS of the entire exercise.

“The decision to lift sanctions appears to be motivated by several factors; for one, the sanctions had a limited impact.”

Nigeria led and felt the consequences of the sanctions the most. The Niger Republic was closest to Nigeria and shared so much affinity. Niger shares the longest border with Nigeria, which covers up to five states. Nigeria stopped the age-long practice of providing electricity to the Niger Republic. Niger, in return, imposed a no-fly zone against Nigerian aircraft. It was significant because the air route over Niger was the shortest and most economical route to and from Europe for flights from Nigeria. Internally, Nigeria’s states in the North protested against the sanctions on the Niger Republic, citing their siblings across the border. The National Assembly did not buy into the government’s rationale and decision. Niger was also a strategic ally of Nigeria in terms of security.

Then, the clincher: Four countries withdrew their membership in ECOWAS in January 2024. They announced a new regional bloc called the Alliance of Sahel States.

On Saturday, February 24, President Tinubu led advocacy for the lifting of sanctions against Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger. It was at the general meeting of the body.

Two days earlier, ECOWAS founding leader and former Nigerian Head of State General Yakubu Gowon went to its Secretariat to canvas the closing of ranks. He urged all the West African leaders to “consider the implementation of the following: lifting of all sanctions imposed on Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger; withdrawal by Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger of their notices to leave ECOWAS; and participation of all 15 ECOWAS Heads of State in a summit to discuss the community’s future, regional security and stability, and the international community’s role given the current geopolitical context.”

General Gowon reiterated to the regional leaders that “ECOWAS is more than a coalition of states. It is a community established for the good of our people based on shared history, culture, and tradition.”

ECOWAS Commission President Dr Omar Alieu Touray assured General Gowon that the letter would be sent to all the leaders. The Secretariat played its part as the leaders cooperated at their leader’s request.

The lifting of sanctions and its implications

The decision to lift sanctions appears to be motivated by several factors. For one, the sanctions had a limited impact. Citizens criticised it for disproportionately impacting ordinary citizens, potentially hindering economic recovery, and undermining public trust in regional institutions.

Lifting the sanctions could promote dialogue and flexibility. It might be seen as an attempt to open channels for discourse and encourage progress towards democratic transition through engagement rather than isolation. On the obverse, people could see it as ECOWAS caving into geopolitical pressures. External pressures, mainly from Russia, could have influenced ECOWAS’ decision in a bid to maintain regional stability.

ECOWAS lifted the sanctions without achieving even one of its stated objectives for the action. Instead, the affected countries effectively called the bluff by setting up an alternative. Capitaine Ibrahim Traore of Burkina Faso swore there would be no going back on their decision to leave ECOWAS.

While lifting sanctions presents an opportunity for dialogue and progress, several uncertainties remain.

Can ECOWAS secure concrete commitments from these countries towards demonstrably transitioning to civilian rule and addressing human rights concerns? What is the guarantee of progress?

On the other hand, could the ECOWAS back down be perceived as a sign of weakness that encourages military regimes? Could it hinder future efforts to hold them accountable? Will the move stabilise the region in the long run, or could it create a precedent for further coups and instability?

The only takeaway from the ECOWAS events is prioritising dialogue and accountability. ECOWAS and African countries must also agree on the values drawn from their histories. At its inception in 1975, eight percent of the signatory nations of ECOWAS were under military rule. The narrative of civilian control as the only acceptable framework in West Africa did not sound convincing. Is ECOWAS back to Alexander Pope’s couplet: “For forms of government, let fools contest; whatever is best administered is best?”

With dialogue and agreement on political systems, it may be easier to ensure concrete steps towards democratic transition and human rights improvements. More significantly, ECOWAS must work collaboratively with other regional and international actors to address underlying issues contributing to instability, such as poverty, inequality, and corruption.