West African countries face many challenges that could increase political unrest in the region. This was exposed on Monday postponement of presidential elections in Senegal — the most stable democracy in the region — and the January 28 declaration of immediate withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
The delay in Senegal’s February 28 elections and the breakup of ECOWAS could harm democratic reforms in West Africa and raise fears about the region’s stability. And these two major events have not received the coverage they deserve from Western media due to journalists’ preoccupation with other crises, such as the war in Gaza and the US-British airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen.
Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – which, along with Guinea, suffered military coups between 2020 and 2023 – said they were withdrawing from ECOWAS because it had “derived from the ideals of its founding fathers and the spirit of Pan-Africanism.” ECOWAS responded by sanctioning the three countries, imposing a no-fly zone on them and freezing all their assets at the ECOWAS central bank. Western states have also imposed sanctions or suspended aid to these three countries, which have faced uprisings for decades.
Headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, ECOWAS has been in operation for almost half a century. It is seen as the most successful model of regional governance on the continent. The rapid secession of its three military-led member states is raising concerns about the possible disintegration of the strategic bloc and the stability of the West African region.
The three West African states have vehemently denounced the admonitions and political isolation they have received from ECOWAS and Western states over their coups. They see the new organization of 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 experienced 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 considered a bastion of democracy, often praised for its stability in a region mired in political turmoil. Thus, the postponement of the country’s presidential elections to mid-December, announced by the Senegalese parliament a few days after a call for postponement from Senegalese President Macky Sall, sparked protests. Some opposition leaders denounce him as a “constitutional coup” and “treason”.
Unfortunately, the delay in elections puts Senegal’s democratic traditions under scrutiny and puts the government in power – which has cut off internet access to the public and revoked the license of a private television network – on the edge. Senegal’s democratic label is in danger. ECOWAS called on government and opposition leaders to engage in dialogue to avoid conflicts.
The postponement of the Senegalese presidential elections and the withdrawal of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger from ECOWAS must be considered detrimental to democratic reform in West Africa. Each event is likely to spark protests and cause an increase in the level of poverty in the region. Some have further argued that the weakening of the bloc would result in serve the interests of Russiawhose Wagner group mercenaries are active in the region.
African academics now fear that the diplomatic collapse of ECOWAS and rising instability in West Africa will lead to an increase in the number of military coups. This would further harm 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 elections as soon as possible.
Mohamed El-Bendary, a foreign policy analyst based in Egypt, has 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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