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Coup d'Etat in Guinea: is ECOWAS really useful?

ECOWAS hastened to condemn the military coup in Guinea and demand the release of Alpha Condé, demanding a "return to constitutional order". Does ECOWAS still have weight? And above all a utility?

ECOWAS "notes with great concern", "condemns with the greatest firmness" or even "demands unconditionally" ... Generic terms, addressed to the Guinean putschists, signed by the presidency of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The West African intergovernmental organization, which brings together fifteen states, has long since become ineffective in several areas. And especially since she tries to play a diplomatic role in the region.

However, it is not for lack of means or of influence. A source close to the body quipped: "ECOWAS has become the union of West African presidents" with each political crisis. We remember during the coup d'état in Mali that ECOWAS asked for the reinstatement of Brahim Boubacar Keïta. A failure. Is the Economic Community of West African States still a credible mediator in the sub-region? And what are the positions of the heads of state of ECOWAS really worth?

With the military coup in Guinea, which took place this Sunday, September 5, these questions are back in the news. The fall of Guinean President Alpha Condé, now in the hands of a 500-man military unit - the Special Forces Group (GPS) - commanded by Mamady Doumbouya, has shown the fragility of regimes that are a priori unbreakable. A hard blow for the institution: Alpha Condé was an influential player at ECOWAS. Was condemnation of the putsch inevitable?

Internal divisions within ECOWAS

During the Malian coup d'état by Assimi Goïta and his men, ECOWAS seemed to speak with one voice. However, the heads of state of the institution were divided. And if West African presidents have long played the peace card to warn the coup plotters, it is above all their interests that they seek to defend.

Public opinion is not fooled: the reaction of African authorities does not seem credible. "Why did ECOWAS not react when Alpha Condé ran for an unconstitutional third term? », Asks pan-African activist Natalie Yamb. A question which is far from trivial. The ECOWAS, which suspends and condemns the putschists, as in Mali recently, welcomes heads of state reluctant to set up democracies. Indeed, how can Alassane Ouattara, Faure Gnassingbé or Patrice Talon defend a “return to institutional order” in Guinea, when they have, in their own countries, installed unconstitutional regimes?

Except that trampling the Constitution, arbitrarily imprisoning the political opposition or building its governance on nepotism, violence and the oppression of populations, is precisely what precipitated the fall of Alpha Condé. And this even if the Guinean president enjoyed a certain legitimacy, given his militant past.

The useless assets of ECOWAS

In its defense, ECOWAS has three strengths. First of all, the influence of the BCEAO and the BOAD, which therefore does not include Guinea, provided with its own currency. Second, the White Helmets of the Ecomog. But then again, this asset can turn into a weakness. We remember that the Ecomog in the past intervened to protect Samuel Doe's regime in Liberia. A failure: the images of the torture and the assassination of Samuel Doe in 1990 have been around the world. Third, a range of mediators, for some former presidents such as Goodluck Jonathan, current ECOWAS mediator in Mali or Mahamadou Issoufou. The latter would also be the possible logical representative of ECOWAS in the Guinean crisis. He had often attacked Alpha Condé on the question of the third term, and enjoys a certain prestige in the eyes of certain heads of state of ECOWAS.

If ECOWAS will hide behind its diplomacy to position itself in favor of civil status in Guinea, the bet is risky. The leader of the putschists in Guinea, Mamady Doumbouya, fully accepts the contrast between his actions and political uses. He holds Alpha Condé hostage and does not risk releasing him at the simple request of ECOWAS, it is also impossible to see Alpha Condé regain his place in Guinea. The former ministers and generals of Alpha Condé all responded to Doumbouya's invitation during a meeting held on Monday, September 6 in Conakry. They therefore support, despite themselves, the coup.

The real question today is whether ECOWAS will find a compromise on the Doumbouya case, as was the case with Assimi Goïta. But, whatever the options, the instance will inevitably show its vulnerability and reduced influence. The only way for the group of heads of state to gain credibility should be through the boycott of gangrenous regimes such as that of Condé in Guinea. But as long as autocrats are part of ECOWAS, this is not likely to happen.

ECOWAS, very silent in Guinea

It also seems "impossible for ECOWAS 'modus operandi to change overnight," assures a source on the spot. In Guinea, explains Dr. Gilles Olakounlé Yabi, author ofa report from the Friedrich-Ebet-Stiftung (FES), "Guinea is an important member of ECOWAS". The political crises in Liberia and Sierra Leone had made Guinea - then under Lansana Conté - a key player in regional security.

Then, under Alpha Condé, the will of the Guinean state to adhere to the new single currency, the Eco, represented an opportunity for France. Even if the latter condemns the coup, it is in part because it is losing an ally in order to develop its new currency. The political context, unlike Mali, suits Paris: Mamady Doumbouya is a product of the French foreign legion. Was he able to act independently of France?

When Guinea faltered under the repression of a bloodthirsty, ill and late Lansana Conté in 2007, "ECOWAS had deployed Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal to help resolve the crisis" , explains Dr. Yabi. The result: at least 200 dead and thousands of injured civilians. On the ECOWAS side, we “deplore the high loss of human lives” and we “call on the Guinean authorities to guarantee the peace and security of their fellow citizens, in particular when they exercise their constitutional rights, namely freedom of association and expression ”.

These obvious commitments of ECOWAS in Guinea, however, disappeared overnight with the death of Lansana Conté, followed by the seizure of power of Moussa Dadis Camara by arms. Then, in 2010, when Alpha Condé won his first election, the results of which are still disputed, ECOWAS observers were in favor of his victory.

At the start of Alpha Condé's mandate, ECOWAS had no complaints after the first acts of repression by the Guinean president, who even represented ECOWAS during political conflicts in Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Togo and in Guinea-Bissau. Certainly, Alpha Condé had an irreproachable first term, despite a controversial vote. However, in 2019, when it proposed its referendum to change the Guinean constitution, ECOWAS could and should have opposed the idea. In 2020, Alpha Condé reelected for a third term, twelve heads of state participated in the investiture.

Individual interests above all

It is only today, once Alpha Condé has been overthrown, that ECOWAS opines. But except for a loss of credibility, what can ECOWAS do?

With the price of bauxite, of which Guinea is the second largest exporter in the world, which has continued to rise since the coup, Ghana (15th in the world) could even benefit from the chaos. This explains the surrealist declaration of ECOWAS, of which President Nana Akufo-Addo is also the leader. However, at the head of the other ECOWAS states, the fall of Alpha Condé is a godsend. Macky Sall in Senegal, Adama Barrow in The Gambia, Umaro Sissoco Embaló in Guinea-Bissau and Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria have always opposed the xenophobia of Alpha Condé, which stoked hatred against the Fulani in Guinea in the sub-region. Just as Issoufou was openly opposed to the third term of Alpha Condé. On the side of neighboring Liberia, the priority is above all on border security.

However, in the case of Togo and Côte d'Ivoire, any military coup in Africa is a problem. These regimes, which rely on the public force and the army to establish their domination, risk seeing their officers take the example of their colleagues. The President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, has already had his own concerns with the army after a few months. Targeted by an attempted coup in March, he spoke out against military regimes, especially that of Mali under Assimi Goïta. The latter, who would know Mamady Doumbouya personally, can only support the coup in Guinea, just to strengthen his own demands.

There are therefore, potentially, only a few heads of state of ECOWAS who seem to want to stamp their feet and act against the new Guinean military power. ECOWAS, forced to demand accountability, seems to be taken aback. Its members remain very silent and even the emergency meeting has been postponed several times. It will finally take place tomorrow, virtually and not in Accra, as initially planned.

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