The military coup d’états which took place in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger and the Economic Community of West African States’ (ECOWAS) response have set back West Africa’s regional integration agenda significantly, for an organization that has been facing serious challenges in terms of its capability to address the myriad of problems facing the West Africa Sub-Region. Some have argued that these events have simply exposed the fragility of the organization in terms of achieving its very raison d’etre, which is the economic and political integration of a region with multifaceted cleavages -sociocultural, economic and colonial experiences. Many observers who have studied political development in Africa have argued that democratic dispensations have come to stay and the era of military coups/governments are no longer tenable. In many respects, this assertion was not totally unjustified given the fact that for decades, African states have accepted multiparty elections as the preferred avenues for choosing their political leadership, even if flawed and imperfect.

In several cases, these elections have been conducted with little regard for global best practices, ECOWAS and the African Union protocols. These elections threw up leaders who enjoyed little or no legitimacy. Some have characterized many of these elections in Africa as hollow exercises which provided dictators with the veneer of “democrats”, simply by using undemocratic electoral processes to “legitimize” dictatorships. The presumptive arguments which were advanced, by many, notably the African Union, NEPAD and the sub-regional entities such as the ECOWAS, global organizations such as the UN, OECD about “democratic dividends” began to ring hollow as most African States consistently underperformed in most indicators of socioeconomic development and human security. In spite of the outward trappings of “Western democracy”, African leaders exhibited all the tendencies of the military dictators that had preceded them. They displayed all manner of profligacy, disregard for the rule of law, lack of accountability and transparency. Perhaps, their biggest Achilles heel was their failure to promote socioeconomic development and in a number of West African states, the spate of insecurity has resulted in state fragility and loss of faith in the ability of these “democratically elected“ leaders to turn around the dismal socioeconomic conditions and human security challenges in their respective states. These objective realities have increasingly amplified the voices of those all the sceptics who have always wondered whether “Western Democracy” as a model of governance is fit for purpose in Africa.  The failure of African leaders to produce positive development outcomes are attributable to the adoption of “western liberal democratic model” and not the rentier class that have captured the African state. This model, they argue, is at odds with African governance systems and values.  Consequently, the call for a “Home-grown Democracy” in Africa as an alternative model is growing louder and louder. Its form, content and modality will be the topic of an Expert Group meeting which to be held by the African Center for Governance and Economic Management (ACGEM).

But, at the same time, rather surprisingly, there is increasing popularity and nostalgia for the return of military regimes, especially in West Africa.  It was therefore no surprise that when    Mali experienced coups on August 18, 2020 and May 24, 2021, Guinea on September 5, 2021, Burkina Faso on September 30, 2022 and Niger on July 26, 2023,, most observers were not surprised and the new military regimes were wildly welcomed to the chagrin of those who had avowed, hyperbolically, with near certainty, that the days of military regimes were over in Africa, because they argued that the “worst democratic regimes were better than the best military regimes”. Not only were these new military rulers welcomed enthusiastically in their respective countries, they became “causes celebres” in other African countries which began to send shock waves to the other African leaders who were fearful of the contagion effect. There have been numerous reports of some African presidents who have reshuffled their military chiefs, cracked down on dissent and muzzled (still muzzling) the press as pre-emptive measurers to avert military coups in their countries.

It is yet premature to ascribe the return of military rule solely to the failure of western democracy as a governance model if you take the view that “western democratic model” has been reduced to “electoral dictatorship” as dictators have hijacked the electoral processes to capture power, “by any means necessary”, without recourse to the basic and fundamental core tenets of “western democracy”. It can be argued that the problem lies not fundamentally with “western liberal democracy”, but the perversion of the model in Africa. However, both stances do not negate the imperative of a “home-grown” democratic model for Africa.


ECOWAS initially imposed sanctions on Mali, Niger, Guinea, and Burkina Faso in response to military coups that took place in each country. These coups were seen as violations of democratic principles and a threat to regional stability. ECOWAS, as a regional body whose stated commitment is to promote democracy and good governance, imposed sanctions as a way to pressure the military leaders: to return to civilian rule through a democratic transition, deter future coups, protect human rights and democratic institutions in the region, isolate the military regimes and exert economic pressure on them by freezing the financial assets of the coup leaders. ECOWAS went further by closing land and air borders to the affected countries (except for humanitarian supplies), suspending financial aid from ECOWAS institutions and disrupting trade and economic activities in the affected countries. ECOWAS stated ultimate goal of the sanctions was to exert enough pressure on these military leaders to reverse course and return to “democratic rule”. Paradoxically, these measures were counterproductive.


ECOWAS lifted sanctions on Mali, Niger and Guinea on February 24, 2024. It’s important to note that Burkina Faso was not included in the recent lifting of sanctions, though sanctions against them had been previously lifted in July 2023. The lifting of sanctions is seen as a move by ECOWAS to encourage dialogue with the three countries which are all currently governed by military leaders after it had stridently refused to engage the coup leaders in any meaningful dialogue. All three countries have also announced their intention to withdraw from ECOWAS and have since formed the Association of Sahel States (AES). ECOWAS lifted the sanctions on Mali, Niger and Guinea for a combination of reasons: 1. Humanitarian Considerations: The official reason cited by ECOWAS was humanitarian concerns. This included the potential negative impact of sanctions on ordinary citizens, especially during important religious holidays like Ramadan and Lent. 2. Socioeconomic Impact: The sanctions were also causing significant economic hardship in the affected countries. Lifting them aimed to alleviate this burden and encourage economic recovery. 3. Security Concerns: The instability caused by the sanctions was seen as a potential security threat in the region. The sanctions have caused serious economic hardships, disruption of trade across the sub-region and inflow of refugees into the neighbouring countries. While ECOWAS may have lifted the sanctions to encourage the military regimes in these countries to engage in dialogue, work towards a return to civilian rule and persuade the three countries to reconsider their withdrawal from the organization while re-joining the regional efforts towards integration and cooperation, it has definitely done so rather late. It’s important to note that the situation remains complex and the long-term consequences of lifting the sanctions remain to be seen.


ECOWAS belated removal of the sanctions is not without its critics. The argument here is based on the premise that ECOWAS volte face on sanctions demonstrates that it has weakened its stance against coups, condoning military interventions and unwittingly emboldening future coups. Without these sanctions, they argue, strong pressure, the military leaders are less likely to commit to a clear and credible timeline for returning to civilian rule. Looking ahead one ay argue that the lifting of sanctions marks a significant shift in ECOWAS’s strategy. Only time will tell if this gamble pays off and leads to a more peaceful and democratic future for the region.

The official reason given by the ECOWAS for lifting the sanctions totally belie the objective realities that made the sanctions ineffective which became self-evident after the ECOWAS imposed those sanctions. In the first place, the decision to impose the sanctions was precipitate and really doomed to fail from the onset. It also demonstrated that the ECOWAS as an effete regional organization who could bark, but cannot bite. It threw up several contradictions about the organization, notably; the fact that its leaders (Presidents) were people? of dubious democratic credentials. Its Chairman, President Bola Tinubu, had just emerged from an election which almost all the observers, domestic and international had adjudged to be very flawed. It was therefore not seen as a credible arbiter. The decision was seen by many in the sub region as one which was being undertaken at the urging of the West, particularly the French. Some of the countries were not on board, with its initial decision which threatened Niger with a military invasion if the ousted President was not restored to power immediately. It was very questionable if ECOWAS could muster the requisite military force to force the military leaders in Niger to restore Mohamed Bazoum to power. The citizens of the Member States of ECOWAS were sternly opposed to the military option as well as the sanctions which could not be totally enforced.

In essence, the efficacy of the sanctions to achieve the stated outcomes was questionable and improbable, given the limited capacity of the ECOWAS to effectively implement these sanctions, let alone exercising the military options. The coups were popular with the populace, albeit because of the unpopularity of the ousted civilian governments.  With withdrawal of three Francophone States form the organization, the fear of more states following suit and dismemberment of ECOWAS loomed very large and the volt face was inevitable. Indeed, ECOWAS may have become a weakened or diminished organization based on the decision to hastily impose these sanctions and its sudden volte face in rescinding the sanctions within a few months. It failed to fully grasp the fundamental root causes of the political upheavals which were mere manifestations of bad governance and dire socioeconomic conditions which have become endemic in the sub region.


One critical imperative that must be addressed by the ECOWAS, in particular, the African Union, the United Nations, is to commit strongly to implementing and adhering to the sections of the ECOWAS Protocols and the African Union Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) which stipulates that Military coup d’états and Constitutional Coup d’états similar in terms of their threats to democracy. The global community must sanction African countries and leaders who manipulate their constitutions, electoral laws and mechanisms and employ violence to steal elections to either elongate their tenure or impose themselves on their citizens. These methods are as pernicious as military coups because they deepen the crisis of legitimacy of African leaders. Unfortunately the West condones and in some cases gives legitimacy to leaders who emerge through these fraudulent elections. A key component of many of these conflicts in the West Africa sub region emanates from electoral and post-election violence and the repression of political opponents following these flawed elections.

The second fundamental challenge to democracy in the sub-region is the role of the French- colonial and post-colonial policies.  The issue of French colonial and post-colonial policies contributing to underdevelopment in Francophone West Africa is a complex and highly debated topic. The leaders of these coups have repeatedly cited the neo-colonial policies of France as a major structural impediment to socioeconomic development in their respective states. They argue that the postcolonial arrangement which requires these states to subjugate their monetary and financial policies to the French Central Bank and Ministry of Finance,  the continuation of payment of indemnities after decades of “independence”, the fact that these countries have remained essentially producers of raw materials for France, the inordinate dependence on the French military for their national security the use of the CFA as the national currencies, among others, are suffocating the ability of these countries to chart their own independent socioeconomic policies.  All these countries are taking some steps to redress these anomalies, but it will require France to significantly change its post-colonial policies which, to all intents and purposes, is a continuation of its colonial policies. A number of reforms have been proffered. France must consider amending its policies that will lead to:

  • Reduced Reliance on Raw Materials by their former colonies and support initiatives that help these countries diversify their economies, engage in value addition and beneficiation of their raw materials.
  • Enhancing Regional Trade: France could support the development of regional infrastructure and trade agreements within West Africa to encourage economic integration and reduce reliance on France as a sole trading partner. The resentment against French neo-colonialism is palpable and may become irreversible if France does not take these proactive measures for its own long term benefit.

France must consider debt relief or restructuring programs for these countries as part of its rapprochement towards its former colonial territories, in addition to supporting initiatives that promote transparency and accountability in managing public finances can help break cycles of debt and corruption. These must be undertaken alongside, supporting fair trade practices, fair trade agreements that ensure these countries receive a more equitable share of profits from their resources.

France must encourage French businesses operating in the region to prioritize ethical practices, environmental sustainability, and investments that create local jobs and contribute to local economies.

It is important to note that addressing underdevelopment requires a multifaceted approach. While the onus also lies on the African governments of these countries to implement good governance, fight corruption, and invest in their own people to achieve sustainable development outcomes, their efforts will be forlorn unless the structural stranglehold which France has had since pro-independence and post-independence is significantly abated and removed.



ECOWAS itself has, over the years, become a largely bureaucratic organization, characterized by inertia, a reflection of the effeteness and inadequacies of its Member States; very much like the African Union. The expectations of citizens of the organization are very much at odds with its capacity to deliver on those expectations. ECOWAS has not been very successful in achieving its raison d’etre of economic integration, let alone in reducing significantly the spate of insecurity in the sub-region. The disconnect between Governance and development is a fundamental challenge that needs to be addressed urgently!

Flawed elections which do not adhere to the stipulations of the African Union Constitutive Act, African Union Charter on Democracy and Elections (ACGEG) and even national electoral laws and constitutions have become the proximate causes of military coups, instability and insecurity in many African States.

It is obvious that the ECOWAS and the African Union (AU), despite the ECOWAS PROTOCOL and the AU Charter on “Democracy, Elections and Governance” which reject non constitutional means and methods of accession to power, they have woefully failed to address the root causes of military or civilian coups. International Election Observers, Western governments either give a wink and a nod to electoral outcomes that are blatantly flawed or they lend legitimacy to the outcome and the leaders that emerge from these elections. The reason why “constitutional coups were deemed as unacceptable as military coups was based on the fact that African politicians had become very nimble and realized  that they could use the electoral process, manipulate the constitution and as long as there was a veneer of  “democratic elections”, they will be legitimized by the AU, ECOWAS and “International Community”.

Because of the failure of African leaders to adhere to the rule of law, good governance and achieve sustainable socioeconomic development, African states will remain fragile and candidates for non-constitutional and military coups.

A multifaceted approach, which combines good governance and sound socioeconomic policies are essential for ECOWAS, both at the Member States levels and at the sub-regional level to effectively address the root causes and dynamics that contribute to military coups in West Africa.


The prospects of more military coup d’états in Africa are not farfetched. All the pre-conditions such as: monumental bad governance, dismal socioeconomic performance, economic mismanagement, poverty, corruption, massive debt burden and state failure threaten the sustainability of “western liberal democracies.”

The disenfranchisement of citizens continues unabated with the “constitutional coup d’états” which have increasingly alienated them from their leaders. There is a growing crisis of legitimacy of most African governments. These realities will remain tenable and intractable as long as African regional and international organizations and other key players continue to legitimize African leaders who emerge from “constitutional coup d’états” are not ostracized and sanctioned like leaders who emerge from ‘military coup d’états”.

The answer to state fragility in Africa remains fundamentally the disconnect between governance and development. That nexus must be strengthened in order as bad governance in all its ramifications is a fundamental factor in the political and socioeconomic predicament of most African states. Some have argued, persuasively, that you must get governance (politics) right in order to get socioeconomics right. Are African states not getting governance right because the dispensation or prevailing governance systems are not responsive to the socio-cultural and historical “realities” of Africa? The question for African states remains; what kind of political dispensation is fit for purpose for Africa? Western Liberal Democracy or a home grown variant?


Professor Okey Onyejekwe
Executive Secretary

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