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ECOWAS and the Political Crisis in Mali

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The ongoing political crisis in Mali presents a dilemma for ECOWAS as it strives to restore calm and bring back the ousted regime. ECOWAS is caught between minimizing civilian casualty, maintaining stability and on the other hand restoring the ousted regime of Amadu Toumani Toure. Any success attain any side will be the organization’s first most successful attempt at restoring civilian democratic rule and stability as previous efforts in Guinea (2008) and Niger (2010) failed. At the same time the crisis poses a challenge to the legitimacy of ECOWAS as a sub-regional governing body, and this will be seen if the military juntas survive the pressure and hold on to power. This was the legitimacy crisis that faced ECOWAS when it failed in isolating the juntas in Guinea and Niger.

Days before the coup in Mali ECOWAS had a fact-finding mission in Mali during which they called on parties in the crisis – the Government of Mali under ousted President Toure and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA)  – to observe a ceasefire and allow humanitarian missions to reach civilian areas. ECOWAS also declared support for the Government of Mali and asked member states to support the regime with necessary logistics in fighting to regain its territories.

This call was made two days before the coup on March 21. Unfortunately, member states could not support the regime with logistics, and this was evidenced by the rapid advances made by the rebels, and the frustration of soldiers who led the mutiny that resulted in a coup. At the moment the NMLA has overrun government forces and has claimed Northern Mali ‘liberated’. The question now is will ECOWAS continue to mobilize its 2000 standby soldiers to support Mali or will it continue to impose sanctions on the current junta leadership?

What ECOWAS has to realize at the moment is that the coup has changed the situation in Mali dramatically, and the self-claimed victory of the NMLA in the North has deepened the fragility of the situation. The need therefore to design a strategy that will stabilize the situation and minimize further civilian casualties and destruction is imperative. Threats of sanctions and isolation will not succeed in this case, but will increasingly make Mali ungovernable thereby giving rise to insurgent activities in other areas including the capital Bamako.

ECOWAS’ current action against the junta is supported by its Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, in which the leaders of the subregion commits themselves to recognizing only governments that are formed through constitutional means, and not through force of arms. Article 1 (b) states: ‘Every accession to power must be made through free, fair and transparent elections’; and (c) Zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means. By this Protocol ECOWAS members therefore, cannot recognize the current junta leadership as a legitimate governing authority.

But what happens to the people of Mali in this case. In anyway, returning Toure to power cannot easily resolve the political crisis. The government of Toure has been delegitimized and demoralized in the face of the Malian people. At the same time the military cannot be trusted as history has shown. ECOWAS at this point will want to be careful not to worsen the situation. Sanctions on the country will be felt more terribly by the ordinary people of Mali than the ruling military. The need therefore to find a trade-off between enforcing the protocol and the survival of the Malian people is critical at this point.

ECOWAS invocation of its protocol on Governance and Democracy in case of military coups have not also succeeded in fully isolating and compelling juntas to turn over power to civilian rule. Recent cases in Guinea and Niger were clear examples. Even with threats of isolation and sanctions from the sub-regional body, and the African Union, West African leaders worked and allied with both juntas. In the last political crisis in Ivory Coast, efforts by ECOWAS to use military force against defiant Laurent Gbagbo was frustrated by Ghana, seen then as an allied of the Gbagbo regime. The refusal of Ghana to participate in the campaign was a major blow to the organization because Ghana is a major power in the sub-region, and its territories were earmarked as a base for the military operation.

Nonetheless, the situation in Mali is seeing some coherence amongst ECOWAS members, but also pundits believe that the efforts are only aimed at bringing back a deposed ‘friend’ to power despite the precarious situation and the loss of legitimacy. Malian civilians have proven this by their support for the junta leadership. Opposition politicians have also not called for the return of Toure but continue to demand a turn over power to a civilian transitional arrangement. We believe that Toure’s return to power will degenerate the situation into further chaos, since we cannot out rule the possibilities of persecutions, and purges in the military and the political class.

Increased isolation of the juntas while they still hold onto power will also increase the tendency to strongman and dictatorial rule as characteristic of military leaderships. It is important to be reminded of the case of Guinea when outside pressures led the civilians to demonstrations against the military during which over 150 civilians were killed.  What can be seen as opportunity for progress at this early stage are the moves for recognition by the military and its submission to the demand for the restoration of the Constitution. The announcement by the junta leader on April 1 2012 that the Constitution has been restored is a sign of progress which ECOWAS can build on. A second opportunity is the planned national transitional dialogue with civil society and political parties which the junta leadership is organizing. ECOWAS can participate and give guidance to this transition process.

ECOWAS’ initial plan to boost the military capacity by deploying 2000 troops from the ECOWAS Standby Force needs to be revised considering the dramatic change in leadership and the occupation of the North by the Tuaregs (NMLA). The force can now be deployed with a new objective of separating the two sides in the war. This force will also enforce the ceasefire and maintain stability. Any attempt to engage the Tuaregs militarily will possibly lead to years of war and destruction that will at the end, return to a referendum like the case of South Sudan.

The dialogue initially called for by ECOWAS between the Government of Mali and the NMLA can begin now and without delay. In this case ECOWAS will want to constitute a working committee to engage the Tuaregs, and also such committee can lead negotiations between the Tuaregs and the juntas to establish and enforce a ceasefire until a civilian government is elected after the proposed transition period. The civilian government with ECOWAS and United Nations support can now lay the foundations for discussing the future of Mali with focus on the demand of the Tuaregs. This will include deciding whether the Tuaregs will vote for an independent Azawad or will run an autonomous authority in the Republic of Mali.

Additional dialogues by sub-regional actors are also needed to examine the Tuaregs insurrection on the stability of West Africa, considering the increasing militarization and proliferation of small arms in the sub-region. Here we take note of the increasing instability in Nigeria by militants of Boko Haram, intermittent unrests in the Cassamance region of Senegal, and the alleged mobilization of rebels along the Liberian-Ivorian border. 

Lastly, it is important for ECOWAS to strengthen its institutions and begin to promote programs aimed at increasing political and economic integration of the West African sub-region. The need to rationalize policy positions on international issues and a common security strategy for the region cannot be overemphasized. Efforts at rationalizing a common West African position on international issues have been frustrated by countries still under imperial control and led by puppet governments. ECOWAS must therefore include in its protocols sanctions against governments that undermine declared positions of the organization. Unless the members of the organization recognize it as a sub-regional governing authority, ECOWAS will continue to struggle for legitimacy.

-In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry

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