Leaders of military juntas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have announced the exit of the three countries from ECOWAS
Leaders of military juntas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have announced the exit of the three countries from ECOWAS

The bravado departure

I am sitting here wondering what to make of the news that Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso had announced they were leaving ECOWAS, “without delay”. 


I suppose that means they are leaving immediately or to use the language beloved of military regimes or new administrations in Ghana, they are leaving, or have left with immediate effect.

In other words, I imagine they have left, since the announcement was made on Sunday and I am writing this on Monday night.

I must say I didn’t think a country could just announce it was leaving ECOWAS and walk away.

Surely, as I recall, there are protocols to observe when a country wants to leave an organisation such as ECOWAS, the latest example being the British leaving the European Union (EU).

We were all witnesses to the years of the Brexit drama as the UK struggled to leave the EU.

There is an example of a country leaving ECOWAS when the only Arabic-speaking Member, Mauritania, withdrew in December 2000 and then came back in 2017 to sign an associate membership agreement.

I don’t know what the word will be that will describe a country leaving ECOWAS and I am sure one of these bright young things will come up with something far more interesting than ECOXIT.  

I was there when the Treaty of Lagos was signed in May 1975 and ECOWAS came into being.

I do not recall that most people and I confess that I certainly at the time, did not feel that this was an earth-shaking event.

Of course, all the speeches promised that this was the most important thing that had happened in the West African region since the countries gained independence. It was to be a game-changer.

I don’t remember if that was the terminology that was used but I do remember that the commentators of the time all said that this was a good thing. 


The East African countries appeared to us here in the West as having got it right with the East African Community and various versions of Customs Unions.

The emphasis was on economic integration and everyone shied away from any suggestion there could be anything vaguely political in the arrangement being fashioned.

Indeed, it took a long while before it was admitted that for the hopes of economic integration to be realised, there would have to be some measures of political integration.

For example, at the time, there were strict visa requirements for travel between Ghana and Nigeria and the longest queues for visas in Accra were at the Nigeria High Commission.

I suppose I should add that Ghana passport holders did not need visas to enter the United Kingdom at the time.

The same applied to most Commonwealth countries, whose citizens could enter the UK without visas and got six-month visitor visas.

I believe it was in the early 80s that the UK imposed visa restrictions on Ghanaians.

But I digress. One of the first visible outcomes of ECOWAS was the introduction of the free movement of citizens protocols. Once it was in place, it was difficult to see why those restrictions had ever been there in the first place.


On reflection, it would have been difficult to craft a treaty at that time with political considerations.

I am not sure how many of the countries in the region then could boast of any democratic credentials and if truth be told, democracy was not something many considered important to aspire to at the time. 


Take the question of military coups and the overthrow of elected constitutional governments which is what has caused the current schism within ECOWAS.

Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are smarting from having been suspended from the organisation because they are currently under military dictatorships.


When the ECOWAS treaty was signed, many of the signatory members had military governments.

We in Ghana certainly had a certain General I.K. Acheampong and his NRC ruling the country, Nigeria was under the military. 

Coups and military governments were the accepted norm.

Apart from Senegal, my recollection is that even those countries that had civilian governments had one-party systems. 


There were no private radio stations anywhere in the neighbourhood.

There were regular upheavals and civil wars. 

But then if we thought West Africa was in a sad state, it might be worth mentioning that at the time, there was no such country as Namibia, no such country as Zimbabwe, but we only had racist Ian Smith and Rhodesia, Nelson Mandela was firmly in jail and no one was campaigning for him to be released.

It was a different world and colonels and generals and later on, flight lieutenants and master sergeants routinely took over governments in West African countries and freely espoused their half-baked theories about how we should be ruled and when we went to bed and when we got out of bed.

Gradually, ever so gradually, the mood changed and a consensus emerged that elections and multi-party democracies would be the path to lead us to enlightenment and economic development and ECOWAS evolved to match the changing mood.

Before then, the organisation had surprised itself by constituting a military set-up, ECOMOG, to intervene in the Liberian civil war.

For a few weeks, recently, after the military had taken over in Niamey, it looked very much as though ECOMOG was going to be resurrected to go into Niger and drive out the military rulers. 


At the moment, the three countries appear to be acting in unison, they issued one common notice to say they are quitting ECOWAS, they seem to have discovered at the same time that their former colonial master, France, was the source of their problems and have severed ties with France, employing the same language.

All three have discovered the same friends in Russia and the Russian paramilitary organisation, the Wagner Group and are hoping they would help fight to keep out the jihadists that have invaded their countries and taken over huge portions.

The rest of ECOWAS might not have been in the same situation that these three are in currently, but there is no question we have all had the experience of new rulers claiming we are self-sufficient and do not need help or interference from outside.

There would be some “progressives” in Bamako, Niamey and Ouagadougou telling the military rulers they do not need to beg ECOWAS to be accepted back in the group and certainly not on terms imposed by the organisation.

It might not be the most popular organisation, but I bet our three neighbours will soon discover they are better off with ECOWAS than ECOXIT. 

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