After all said and done, it appears that coup plotters in Niger Republic, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali will get away with only light slaps on their wrists for truncating the constitutional democracies of their countries. According to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), it has decided to lift some of the sanctions placed on the three countries in the spirit of lent and the forthcoming Ramadan period. At a time when many people are observing different religious practices as the times dictate, it is not inconceivable that ECOWAS is being lenient. But at what cost? Plus, is it really leniency, or is courage finally deserting West Africa’s preeminent regional organization?

Coup plotters struck in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso Niger Republic and Gabon between 2021 and 2023, all in West Africa. With the success of the coup in Guinea, it quickly spread like a contagion to neighboring West African countries, and ECOWAS soon found itself battling a small-scale epidemic of coups.

Now, the custom when a coup happens is to tread with custom. Usually, region and international organizations which usually intervene when coup plotters topple the democratically elected government of any country know they have to execute a fine balancing act between preventing the deterioration of peace and order, de-escalating tension with the coup plotters and ultimately, protecting the rights of civilians in the country.

With the coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea, ECOWAS found its hands full of this delicate task. The coup in the Niger Republic was something like the proverbial last straw for ECOWAS for two reasons. First, after the spiral of coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, it was one coup too many. Two, Niger shares borders with Nigeria where President Bola Ahmed Tinubu who was sworn in as Nigeria’s 16th president on 29 May 2023 was also sworn in as ECOWAS president shortly before the coup of 26th July 2023. The president, a prominent pro-democracy campaigner who was exiled during Nigeria’s brutally oppressive military regimes of the 80s and 90s for his activities with NADECO has a born aversion to military rule.

Tinubu, scathing in his criticism of the coup plotters in Niger, soon moved the ECOWAS machinery against the tiny, landlocked country which also counts among the world’s poorest and cowers in the presence of Nigeria, its towering neighbor who has, however, been a benevolent big brother to the country.

ECOWAS even threatened to invade the country, summoning meeting after meeting of its member states’ security chiefs to mobilize forces to achieve this aim of forcefully returning the country to constitutional rule.

However, while ECOWAS fine-tuned its strategy to deploy force, the criticism at home in Nigeria and elsewhere was searing. While many argued rather constructively that force ultimately breaching international law could not feasibly bear fruits of democracy in the short- or-long run, many others were destructive with their criticism that Niger was about to be invaded when the coup plotters had saved the country from chaos.

While ECOWAS strategized and aggregated opinions, the coup plotters in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger Republic banded, and threatened that an attack on one of them would be considered an attack on all. They also continued to mount pressure, overtly and tacitly. The height of it was when Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso chose to steal the spotlight of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Côte d’Ivoire to announce they were pulling out of ECOWAS.

It appears it was this last decision that has finally broken the spirit of ECOWAS which had grown increasingly resilient and resolute as an outbreak of coups enveloped the West African sub-region.

This decision by ECOWAS, as lenient, benevolent and diplomatic as it sounds, is undoubtedly a deathblow to democracy in the West African sub-region region. In the first place, it was this kind of helplessness on the part of ECOWAS and the African Union that emboldened coup plotters in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Niger to turn their countries into laboratories for coups. It is this kind of strategy which appears wise, but is only as useful as a wasting sickness that would give prospective coup plotters in other West African countries the impetus to execute their odious plots against democracy.

As democracy has come under increasing strain in West Africa, it is no surprise that terrorism attacked on all sides in other parts of the world has found sanctuary in the region. Without the granite guarantees of the rule of law and human rights which democracy provides, terrorism which feasts on the mucus of marginalization and immiseration can only fatten itself preparatory to tearing down entire communities and irreversibly altering the lives of vulnerable women and children.

When soldiers who should otherwise be pristine in their professionalism and inviolable in their patriotism cast away their pearls as soldiers before the swine of filthy indulgences in infiltrated and polluted corridors of power, then democracy, and security face an existential threat.

ECOWAS has huffed and puffed since the coup in Niger Republic but very little has come out of it. President Mohammed Bazoum remains in incarceration and there  is no date in sight for the restoration of democracy in the country.

The loud cheers which greeted news of the coup in the capital Niamey have since died down to murmurs of discontent as the strictures of military rule have set in for Nigeriens.

Military regimes anywhere are known for systematically crushing the spirits of those under them and those who oppose them. At the end of the day, they leave only broken spirits with no wish or will to challenge them. In getting ECOWAS to lift these sanctions, they may have scored their biggest victory yet, and everyone who is of West African descent should be alarmed.

If countries in the region are ever to continue the irreversible journey to peace and development, then coup plotters  whose compass only points to dark paths long left in the past, must be circumscribed to their barracks or prisons.

To do otherwise is to risk sentencing democracy to time in unremitting darkness.

Kene Obiezu,

[email protected]