West Africa

West African leaders attempt to cling to power and the role of ECOWAS

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West African leaders attempt to cling to power and the role of ECOWAS

Jessica Moody

20 Feb 2020

5min min read
  • Democracy
  • Political development

residents clinging on to power longer than they were constitutionally mandated had fallen out of fashion in West Africa. In 2015 President Goodluck Jonathan distinguished himself in Nigerian history by becoming the first president to lose an election and peacefully stand down. His decision came as the region seemed to be becoming increasingly democratic with the popular overthrow of long-time quasi-authoritarian leader Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso in 2014 and the removal of dictator Yaya Jammeh in The Gambia in 2017. 

This year may well see a reversal of this positive trend. 2020 is likely to see a number of presidents in West Africa seek to tighten their grip on power rather than stand down as they are constitutionally-mandated to do. President Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire seems increasingly likely to stand for a third term in presidential elections due in October, despite the two-term limit there. In nearby Guinea, President Alpha Condé is seeking to change the constitution and fears abound that he will make amendments to allow himself to remain in power beyond his two-term mandate. Meanwhile, Togolese president Faure Gnassingbe will stand for his fourth term in elections due to be held on 22 February and Gambian president Adama Barrow has sparked uproar by refusing to stand down after his three years in power, as he had originally pledged to do.

What does this mean for ECOWAS?

This worrying situation raises difficult questions for regional institutions like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has traditionally been ardently opposed to unconstitutional changes of power. Its stance on this issue has contributed to the demise of coups in the region and it has spoken out and applied sanctions to countries contravening this norm. Following a coup attempt in Burkina Faso in 2015, ECOWAS took a decisive stance and agreed to support the government, calling for the coup leader to disarm and return power to the transitional government. It took a similarly strong position against coup leaders in Guinea and Mali in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Violent and unconstitutional transfers of power have thus become increasingly uncommon.

However, more subtle efforts to alter the constitution to remain in power have not been quite so effectively quashed and the institution’s position on the topic remains hotly contested. At the ECOWAS 47th summit in Ghana in 2015, the regional bloc had sought to outlaw presidents remaining in power for longer than two terms, but the move was rejected by Gambia and Togo. Both countries had presidents who had been in power for longer than two terms at the time. More recently, debate was sparked at the opening session of ECOWAS in January 2020 when the speaker suggested that term limits should be a sovereign matter and were of no concern to the regional body. Members of the assembly booed his intervention and claimed that the body should be working hard to prevent such undemocratic leadership on the continent. 

This internal debate will need to be resolved before the more challenging elections take place later this year. Residents of the countries in question, particularly Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, may seek the assistance of ECOWAS to prevent undemocratic acts by their leaders and help them to peacefully transfer power to new presidents. Repeated demonstrations in Guinea over the possible amendments to the constitution have shown how determined Guineans are to keep the constitution as it is but as tens of people die in clashes with police, citizens are likely to seek external assistance. An announcement that President Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire will stand for a third term, a decision he is due to make by July, would likely result in a similarly terse reaction from the public and large-scale anti-government demonstrations, potentially accompanied by requests for ECOWAS to mediate the crisis. Togo’s elections in February, which come amid ongoing calls for the president to stand down, could also see protesters call on assistance from ECOWAS to help to remove their leader. 

Will ECOWAS help West Africans oust undemocratic leaders? 

It is unlikely that ECOWAS will be a decisive force in preventing the leaders of these countries from doing as they please, a calculation that has likely already been made by leaders like Gnassingbe, Ouattara and Condé. The organisation did intervene militarily in the Gambia in 2017 in a situation where it clearly perceived a leader to be undemocratically holding on to power. Indeed, ECOWAS was integral in ensuring that the 2017 election result was upheld, and defeated President Yaya Jammeh stood down. But, ECOWAS’ intervention in Gambia to remove Jammeh was an aberration rather than a norm. The move depended on the weakness of the Gambian military and the united support for the mission from the countries in the region, something which is much less likely to be forthcoming in the cases of Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, where the armies are much larger, the economies stronger, and regional support likely to be more readily-available.

The case of Togo is indicative in this regard. Despite enormous anti-government demonstrations in 2017 and 2018 over the refusal of the president to stand down, having already served more than two terms in power, ECOWAS did very little to intervene on the side of democracy. It facilitated discussions with the protest movement and the government but was not able to resolve the crisis, which eventually petered out, at least in part due to an absence of either domestic or international military support. Protesters in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea later this year are likely to find themselves in a similar situation, unless they are able to garner the support of the militaries within their own countries. 

The case for pragmatism 

ECOWAS’ unlikely intervention in these crises is illustrative not only of the lack of clarity within the organisation over what to do in the event of a leader seeking an unconstitutional extension of their time in power but it could also be a sign of pragmatism. From a security perspective, there would be some wisdom in allowing some of the longer-term leaders in the region to remain in power. Given the expanding reach of Islamist extremism in the Sahel and West Africa, it could be useful to facilitate stable, more authoritarian leaders remaining in power rather than assisting with messy transitions to less experienced governments. 

Burkina Faso notably underwent a transition to democracy in 2014 after the ouster of President Blaise Compaoré, who had been in power for 27 years. This was positive for the rule of law, but overwhelmingly negative for the security situation. The new, inexperienced government inevitably had to gut the old security apparatus and remove those involved in human rights abuses, but in doing so left the army and intelligence services woefully ill-equipped to tackle the spread of Islamist extremist violence in the region. The country is now weighed down by an insurgency that by some estimates now consumes a third of its territory

Countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Togo face a growing threat from Islamist extremist violence and jihadist cells have been discovered on both of their territories. Removing their leaders from power would, in a similar fashion to Burkina Faso, be positive for democracy but may not be particularly helpful for regional security. The last time power was transferred at the ballot box in Côte d’Ivoire, more than 3,000 people were killed in post-electoral violence. In a precarious region where Islamist extremists are proliferating, ECOWAS cannot afford an economic powerhouse like Côte d’Ivoire to collapse in political turmoil, allowing insurgents to infiltrate the country. 

Nonetheless, ECOWAS would do well to consider the equally dangerous implications of not assisting in upholding democracy in a region where residents are increasingly infuriated by the authoritarian tendencies of their leaders. If citizens are angry and see no democratic means of seeking change they may provide perfect recruitment fodder for armed insurgents, who will seek to utilise such grievances in broadening their base.

Moreover, if ECOWAS allows this dangerous trend to go unchecked it will set a worrying precedent for the region. The institution has done well to diminish the rate of successful coups in West Africa but if leaders become inured to this normative change and seek instead to remain in power longer than through more subtle means, will ECOWAS just stand by and watch? Such an attitude would certainly reverse the trend towards a more democratic West Africa and could see a wave of unconstitutional power grabs in the years to come.

(Main image: Ivorian President Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara (R) and Guinean counterpart Alpha Conde attend the opening of the 2017 International Conference on the emergence of Afric at the hotel Ivoire in Abidjan on 28 March 2017 - Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.