ECOWAS military interventions in 3 decades
After independence, many West African countries faced coups and instability as they sought to come to terms with their new forms of self-government.
In the late twentieth century, the region was commonly known as the “coup belt,” as multiple countries experienced violent and non-democratic transfers of power.
In 1975, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was established as a regional economic community whose primary aim was to facilitate trade among its members.
Conflicts across the region
However, as conflicts emerged across the region, ECOWAS also came to prioritise a military agenda. Liberia and Sierra Leone revealed how economic growth is interconnected with peace and security and how it is impossible to focus solely on economic integration in the region.
Since the 1990s, with the adoption of legal frameworks such as the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peacekeeping and Security, ECOWAS has provided military, mediation and peace-building support to its member states.
Three weeks ago, on July 26, 2023, members of Niger’s presidential guard deposed the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum in a coup, the fifth successful one in nine attempts in West Africa since 2020.
The Niger coup also came in the wake of recent coups in nearby countries, such as in Guinea, Mali and two in Burkina Faso in January and September 2022, which has led to the region being called a "coup belt".
ECOWAS, African Union and the international community have condemned the coup, with its Chairman, Bola Tinubu, President of Nigeria, warning that they would not allow another coup in the region and would take up these issues with the African Union and western countries.
The West African bloc has a history of successful military interventions to restore constitutional order within the region and its troops have intervened in other emergencies since 1990, including in wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The latest coup in Niger has prompted ECOWAS to impose sanctions and issue a one-week ultimatum to the interim military government to reinstall Bazoum or face possible use of force.
If ECOWAS goes ahead, it won’t be the first time the 15-member regional bloc has intervened in crises involving member nations. The Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the military arm of ECOWAS, was formed in 1990 to regularly intervene in conflicts within the region.
Central Sahel states
Niger represents the last of the three central Sahel states to succumb to a military coup, after Mali in 2020 and 2021, and two coups in Burkina Faso in 2022. While some interpret this event through the context of Russia’s increasing influence or its alignment with Western military training initiatives, the primary catalysts were essentially domestic in nature.
Bazoum's election in 2021 was a landmark in Niger's history, ushering in its first peaceful transfer of power since independence from France in 1960.
He survived two attempted coups before being toppled in the country's fifth military takeover.
List of ECOWAS interventions
In 1989, Charles Taylor led a militia against the Liberian government, leading to the outbreak of civil war there. Consequently, the regional bloc made an unprecedented move to intervene in 1990. The initial 3,000-man ECOMOG contingent was formed with personnel drawn from Nigeria, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone with additional soldiers contributed by Mali.
The mission was controversial due to a trail of human rights violations committed by its personnel, especially against women, but it secured peace. The troops were present in the country until 1996 when the war ended.
1997: Sierra Leone
ECOMOG’s next stop was the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, in 1997 following the overthrow of the elected civilian government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah by Major Johnny Paul Koroma in a military coup.
The force, under the command of Nigerian troops, moved part of its personnel from Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to recapture Freetown from the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and in February 1998, ECOMOG launched an attack that led to the fall of the military regime and Kabbah was reinstalled as leader of the country.
1999: Guinea Bissau
The next stop for ECOMOG was a ceasefire mission in Guinea Bissau after hostilities broke out following an attempted coup in 1998. The fight was between government forces backed by neighbouring Senegal and Guinea against coup leaders who had control of the armed forces.
2003: Côte d’Ivoire
After Ivorian armed forces and rebel groups came to a ceasefire agreement in 2003, ECOWAS deployed troops as ECOWAS forces in Côte d’Ivoire (ECOMICI) to complement the United Nations and French troops.
The second Liberian civil war also necessitated a return of regional troops. While the first civil war brought Charles Taylor to power, the second civil war between 1999 and 2003 led to his exit.
A 2012 coup in Mali led to a breakdown of order and armed groups immediately took advantage of the coup that followed to overrun the north of the country.
ECOWAS led the Africa-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) to support the Malian government in the fight against rebels in 2013.
2017: The Gambia
Codenamed “Operation Restore Democracy”, an ECOWAS operation led by Senegal, sent troops into Banjul to force Yahya Jammeh who had refused to concede an election loss to Adama Barrow in the 2016 election.
Consolidation of power
The consolidation of power by the Nigerien junta would represent the further spread of democratic backsliding in the Sahel. Should this occur, all central Sahelian states would be effectively ruled by military juntas, marking the end of democracy in the subregion for the time being.
Niger will likely face similar consequences as have already been observed in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, where the ascension of military governments led to the erosion of civil liberties and fundamental rights, including freedom of press and expression.