In Praise of ECOWAS

The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, are 15 countries in West Africa, some of which are linked by a common currency, all of which are linked by geography. Except Senegal, all have experienced some form of military rule since decolonization.

If you look at the list of countries, you’ll see that several have experienced civil war in the past 10 to 15 years, and many currently experience general security problems.  They are all democracies, though with varying degrees of democracy and stability.

Despite these individual countries tenuous relationship with democracy–or perhaps, because of it– the collective has been the single most important defender of democracy in the region. In 2009, it suspended and imposed sanctions on Guinea and Niger after those countries came under a military rule following a coup (Guinea) or coup-like situation (Niger).  When Cote D’Ivoire’s president lost an election and refused to step down in 2010, ECOWAS led mediation efforts. When that failed, it appealed to the Security Council to impose global sanctions on the regime. It also used its political weight to suspend the regime’s  accounts in the Central African Bank, which undermined the regime’s ability to pay its soldiers. This strategy worked. The Ivory Coast’s democracy has been restored.

By the time an army captain in Mali last week decided to launch a coup against the democratically elected president, ECOWAS was well versed in the diplomatic arts of countering military coups. They have responded swiftly and robustly. To wit:

West Africa’s regional bloc announced late Thursday that it is closing all land borders with Mali and freezing the nation’s bank account in an effort to force mutinous soldiers from power who seized control in a coup last week. The financial sanctions are among the harshest imposed in recent years on a nation in West Africa and are likely to strangle impoverished Mali, which imports nearly all of its gasoline from neighboring Ivory Coast.

Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, the president of the commission of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, told reporters in Ivory Coast that the sanctions will go into effect in 72 hours. He said that in addition to the closure of the borders, all countries belonging to the 15-nation bloc will stop allowing Mali from using their ports. And in addition to the central bank freezing the country’s account, Ouedraogo explained that the bloc will instruct the central bank not to transfer money to any of the Malian government’s commercial bank accounts.

We don’t know how the Mali coup will end. But because of ECOWAS, I predict it will end badly for the putschists. And, in the long run, this swift action should be a deterrent to other would-be coup leaders in the region.