Countries across West Africa are facing numerous challenges that could increase political turmoil in the region. This was exhibited in Monday’s postponement of presidential elections in Senegal — the region’s most stable democracy — and the declaration on Jan. 28 of the immediate withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The delay of the Feb. 28 Senegalese elections and the breakup of ECOWAS could damage democratic reform in West Africa and raise fears about the stability of the region. And these two major events have not received the coverage they deserve from the Western media due to journalists’ preoccupation with other crises, such as the war in Gaza and U.S.-British airstrikes on the Houthis in Yemen.
Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — which, along with Guinea, underwent military coups between 2020 and 2023 — stated that they are withdrawing from ECOWAS because it had “drifted from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of Pan-Africanism.” ECOWAS replied by sanctioning the three countries, imposing a no-fly zone on them and freezing all of their assets at the ECOWAS central bank. Western states also imposed sanctions or suspended aid to the three countries, which have been dealing with decades-long uprisings.
Headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, ECOWAS has been in operation for almost half a century. It is perceived as the most successful model of regional governance on the continent. The rapid secession of its military-ruled three member states does indeed raise concern about the possible disintegration of the strategic bloc and stability of the West African region.
The three West African states have vehemently denounced the admonition and political isolation they have received from ECOWAS and Western states due to their coups. They view the newly formed organization of the Sahel Alliance (which they launched in September 2023 in retaliation for the sanctions imposed on them) as an alternative.
With a strong democratic institution, Senegal has enjoyed peaceful transitions of power over the years and no postponement of elections. Unlike other West African states, it has never witnessed a coup and is viewed as a bastion for democracy, often applauded for its stability in a region plunged in political turmoil. And so the postponement of the country’s presidential elections until mid-December, announced by the Senegalese parliament days after a call for delay by Senegalese President Macky Sall, has sparked protests. Some opposition leaders are denouncing it as a “constitutional coup” and “treason”.
Regrettably, the delay of elections places Senegal’s democratic traditions under scrutiny and puts its ruling government — which has cut internet access to the public and revoked the license of one private television network — on the brink. Senegal’s democratic label is in danger. ECOWAS called on government and opposition leaders to engage in dialogue to avoid conflict.
The postponement of Senegalese presidential elections and the withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger from ECOWAS should be viewed as damaging to democratic reform in West Africa. Each event is likely to incite protests and cause an increase in the level of poverty in the region. Some have further argued that the weakening of the bloc would serve the interests of Russia, whose Wagner Group mercenaries have been active in the region.
There is fear today among African scholars that the ECOWAS diplomatic meltdown and the rise in instability in West Africa could result in a surge in the number of military coups. This would further hurt struggling African economies and increase local hunger. The international community, in cooperation with the African Union, should play an active role in restoring political stability in West Africa and urge the Sall government to defend democracy and hold the elections as soon as possible.
Mohamed El-Bendary, a foreign policy analyst based in Egypt, taught journalism in the United States and New Zealand. He is the author of The “Ugly American” in the Arab Mind: Why Do Arabs Resent America?
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