ECOWAS: A West African work in progress

Following a coup in Niger, the West African economic bloc has again resorted to sanctions against a member state. In the past, these have often proved ineffective, revealing the alliance’s weakness

ECOWAS paints a vision of a region that gives its people access to overflowing resources and allows them to live in dignity, peace and security
Deutsche Welle

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) told member state Niger that it had one week to reinstate constitutional rule following last Wednesday’s coup. Otherwise, the bloc will “take all necessary measures to restore constitutional order,” including the use of force, it warned.

Niger is the fourth ECOWAS country in the region to fall into the hand of putschists in the last few years. While the alliance’s reaction was unusually harsh, the question remains of what it can do.

An important economic alliance

ECOWAS was founded in 1975, in Nigeria, with the signing of the Treaty of Lagos, revised in Cotonou, Benin, in 1993.

The alliance has 15 member states with 400 million people living in just over 5 million square kilometers, making it one of the larger regional economic communities in Africa.

In terms of size, it corresponds roughly to the former French colonies in West Africa, but also includes two former Portuguese colonies and a handful of Anglophone countries, including Africa’s leading economy, Nigeria.

Coups in ECOWAS region since 2020
Deutsche Welle

On its website, ECOWAS paints a vision of a region “without borders” that gives its people “access to overflowing resources” and allows them to live “in dignity, peace and security.” The emphasis is placed on a common economic area.

The eight francophone countries in the region have a common currency, the Franc CFA, which — like its Central African counterpart — is pegged to the former French franc, and thus to the euro. An overarching monetary union of all ECOWAS countries and a decoupling from the euro have been under discussion for years, with little progress so far.

Powerless against terror

The regulations also provide for peacekeeping missions. In the 1990s, ECOWAS member states sent troops to end civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. ECOWAS also intervened in Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau and Mali. When Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh refused to hand over power to his democratically elected successor, Adama Barrow, in 2017, the alliance sent soldiers.

For the past decade, Islamist insurgents in the Sahel have posed a new challenge to the region. Many military operations with international participation have failed to solve the problem — to the consternation of the populations of the poorer Sahel countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. That helped military coup leaders to usurp power there between 2020 and 2023.

In 2022, ECOWAS countries agreed to create a regional joint force. In the past, smaller alliances involving individual ECOWAS countries, like the Group of Five (G5) Sahel, had little success.

ECOWAS lifted sanctions against Mali only a few months after implementing them
Deutsche Welle

Experts warn that without adequate funding the force is condemned to be ineffective.”

It’s not just a matter of setting up such a force,” said Islam researcher Abdoulaye Sounaye of the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (Leibniz Center for Modern Oriental Studies), “but of making it effective: How does it intervene, does it engage in combat, how is it funded?” Voluntary funding by member states has not worked so far, he told DW.

What leverage does ECOWAS have?

The Sahel crisis is also an ECOWAS crisis. Following Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, putschists have now taken over in Niger. The treaty between ECOWAS member states includes several sanction options for these situations.

The alliance can restrict freedom of movement by closing borders and canceling flights. It can also block accounts and money flows in the CFA currency area.

One of the harshest measures is the suspension of membership. That has happened to the four member states that saw their legitimate governments toppled by a coup. Bounty Diallo, a social scientist in Niger’s capital, Niamey, said that sanctions in Mali and Burkina Faso have failed to change the government’s and people’s minds, despite the economic pressure.

“To think that things will be different in Niger and that the government will give in in a week or two is an illusion,” he told DW.