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Ethiopia, Mali and Guinea as litmus tests for Africa’s regional bodies

By Olukayode Oyeleye

ANY REGIONAL POLITICAL OR ECONOMIC bloc is as strong as its weak members. In North America and the European Union, weak members are easily protected and their weakness is not as widespread as it is in Africa where most African Union (AU) member countries are predominantly in abject poverty. The economic size and robustness of intra-continental regional economic communities in Africa are more pragmatically defined by their weaknesses rather than strengths. In the particular cases of the East African Community (EAC), a regional intergovernmental organisation of six partner states, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) made up of 15 member countries, it has become evident that Africa is not yet ready for the challenges and the benefits of regional groupings

Since November 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed gave an order for the invasion of the Tigray region of his Ethiopia homeland, the country has been embroiled in a war that would likely prove too difficult to win by the sitting Prime Minister. An invasion that, as Abiy Ahmed initially boasted, was to be over within weeks has lingered for nearly a year now, with no sign of an end in sight. So far, the various regional geopolitical and economic blocs have failed to resolve the intractable and festering war that Abiy Ahmed first described as “internal affairs” in his efforts to ward off foreign interventions. This has put their relevance to the test as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) – the largest regional economic organisation in Africa, with 19 member states and a population of about 390 million – and AU have so far been unable to rein in Ethiopia’s Prime Minister or the warring Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The “internal affairs” excuse by political and state leadership has been the undoing of many hitherto promising African countries.

It is not hard to figure out how robust a regional or sub-regional body could be, especially when the regional poverty estimate for Sub-Saharan Africa hovers around 41.0 per cent to 41.2 per cent. If the AU could be so hamstrung in Ethiopia’s case, it is no surprise if it could not effectively restore normalcy in the troubled Mali, Chad or Guinea Conakry. The sabre rattling by ECOWAS does not seem to have changed anything in any significant way as Mali, Chad and Guinea Conakry have fallen back into military governments in the period of just about a year. Although Chad belongs to the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC), the transition of government to military rule after the death of Idris Deby was hardly resisted by the continental or sub-regional bodies, let alone their colonial masters, setting a stage for subsequent domino effects. The first domino fell in Chad on April 20, 2021, since the burial of Deby and his replacement with his soldier son, effectively returning Chad to a full blown military regime.

The second domino fell in Mali on May 24, 2021, when the country’s Army – led by Vice President Assimi Goïta – captured and deposed President Bah N’daw an interim president appointed eight months earlier. Goita seized power this time, unlike in 2020 coup d’état that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, which Goita merely led. The third domino came tumbling down on September 5, 2021, when Alpha Condé was removed from office and his government toppled in a coup d’etat led by Lieutenant Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, who has since assumed the position of the head of the country. The reactions of ECOWAS were swift in both cases of Goita and Doumbouya. While ECOWAS threatened sanctions against them, the sub-regional body ignored the jubilation of Malians and Guineans and their popular approval of these soldiers’ intervention by the public. The actions of ECOWAS have provided a basis for an assumption that ECOWAS is now more of a personality club rather than a true sub-regional group dedicated to the progress and better quality of life of the people. The question should be asked why did ECOWAS easily acquiesce after Condé secured his third term bid through the backdoor? Why did not ECOWAS rise vehemently against him and push him to standstill, forcing him to abandon his third term ambition? Why did not ECOWAS meet Alassane Ouattara with stiff opposition after he had tricked Cote d’Ivoire into a third term charade? What makes a third term secured through treachery against a state less evil compared to coup d’etat?

The fourth domino of Cote d’Ivoire may therefore fall anytime soon. Although these are in francophone countries, it all means that Africa is gradually sliding back into militarism. Two years earlier, on April 11, 2019, long-serving Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in a coup d’état when the Sudanese army saw popular protests demanding al-Bashir’s departure. The soldiers therefore rode to power on the wings of people’s demands, notwithstanding the fact that over 100 civilians were massacred by the military as time went on. While the coup leader, Lt. Gen Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, became the new head of government, the AU suspended Sudan and demanded an end to military rule. But this did not deter Sudan, Chad, Mali, or Guinea. With the latest in Guinea Conakry, ECOWAS and AU need to have a serious rethink. Let us assume that as many as 15 African countries relapse into military regime anytime soon and they are suspended by the AU. That will reduce the number of participating countries in the AU to 39. For AU, this may be counterproductive. A regional body that is expected to be bigger and stronger may become flabby and weak. It is expected to sometimes carry carrots, nor sticks everytime.

Behind the façade of sanctions and suspension of countries because of successful coup d’etat is the hypocrisy of many African heads of government. It is counterintuitive that Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Faure Gnassingbé of Togo or Ali Bongo of Gabon would sit on an AU platform and pontificate about good leadership, inclusive governance, fairness and democratic ideals. But this exactly is one of the reasons the AU will remain ineffectual, as example is better than precept. African leadership will still remain in a quandary as long as there are those who refuse to honourably let go of the reins of power at the appropriate time. Reasons for the allurement of extended stay in political office until such aspirants become stale remain inexplicable. Such an inglorious attempt was made in Nigeria in 2007 by a retired military general who had the good fortune of ruling the country, first as serving military officer and secondly as an elected two-term president. But his inordinate ambition of a third term was thwarted early. How all these self-centred leaders hope to lead Africa into greatness remains to be seen as they are yet to demonstrate clear commitment to building institutions and successors that would outlast them.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was a military officer who became Egypt’s de facto leader in July 2013, after the country’s military removed a democratically Islamist President Mohammed Morsi from power. He became president since 2014, a year after he led the military’s overthrow of Morsi. Yet, eight years after, no indication has been shown of any possible handover of power in Egypt. What a land of heroic leaders Africa is!! And how well disposed are we to believe el-Sisi? And how will these self-serving leaders operate a virile and result-oriented regional grouping? How would these leaders be able to resolve thorny diplomatic issues such as the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) that is threatening to cause avoidable cross-border war between three neighbouring countries of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan?

In the ECOWAS region where many of the latest national government infractions have been occurring, it is important to express serious concerns because their actions will embolden others and their successful adventures will encourage others. For instance, the fire lit in Mali may sweep across the region in no time. Of the 15 members states of ECOWAS, countries that are not open to democratic ideas are clearly not well placed to recommend democracy or kick against military incursion in national politics. Meanwhile, what is mostly ignored is the fact that the misdeeds, poor economic management, averseness to accountability and the subversion of people’s will are part of the factors that trigger people’s jubilation after successful coup attempts. The practice of democracy within countries in West Africa in particular, and other parts of Africa in general has not been free from perennial and periodic challenges, such as election rigging, vote buying, violence, murders or repression of opposition candidates. These are prominent problematic areas among countries’ “internal affairs” that only the affected countries could properly tackle and deal with.

Because of the pluralistic nature of contemporary times, it is simply unwise for political office holders and heads of governments to assume that they have full control of events and a monopoly of knowledge, violence and mischief. Just as the despotic al-Bashir was disgraced out of office despite his iron hand rule, the intransigent Condé was sacked or N’daw was pushed out, all by military interventionists, many more may still suffer such inglorious exit from public office except they build structures that would provide strong basis for mpactful leadership; not those that help to perpetuate specific individuals in office beyond reasonable terms. How well our present and currently serving heads of national governments will respond to these will be of great interest. However, African leaders in public offices need to begin to fashion out systems that would make the continent great. One of them is to relinquish power after some time and pave way for others to make their marks. It does not seem like single individuals can, or should, run the affairs of their countries in perpetuity, till they themselves become stale and liabilities to the state. If the aberration of military intervention is to be further avoided, let those elected into offices run their offices well within the term limits and leave, for other actors to come on stage. With this, we should hope to bring an end to coup d’etat and violent change of governments.

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