ECOWAS, the West African regional bloc holds a regular Summit on Sunday in Abuja, to end a chaotic year characterized by two successful and at least one failed military coups; unending security challenges and suspension of two of its members.
The relatively peaceful presidential elections in Cabo Verde and the Gambia were the few bright spots in a year that bandits, terrorists and Jihadist insurgent groups including ISIS and Boko Haram, killed thousands of people in the troubled region, especially in the Sahel and Nigeria.
The ECOWAS-brokered political transitions are faltering in Mali and Guinea, which are under suspension and targeted sanctions on their leaders after military coups that ousted the governments of their elected presidents. Mali saw two of the coups within one year, while Niger reported a botched putsch in March before newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum was inaugurated.
At the heart of the region’s perennial political instability are flawed elections, bad governance, corruption and “third-term” fixation of leaders.
As a solution, the Heads of state and government, who meet in the Nigerian capital on Sunday, had mandated the ECOWAS Commission to oversee the review of the 2001 Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance.
The intention is to have presidential term limit inserted in the instrument so as to end the third-term controversy.
However, diplomatic sources say at least three member States are blocking moves to fast-track this project.
But if the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State, currently chaired by Ghana is sincere and committed to finding a lasting solution to political instability in the region, the regional leaders must rise above personal ambitions and respect the will of the citizens that elected them to office.
Opposition to third-term is not new in the region. It was raised at a summit in 2014, but was shot down by some leaders because of their personal interests. Also, as recently as September 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria had at an ECOWAS summit in Niamey, Niger, called on his colleagues to avoid the temptation of term elongation, but that call, again fell on deaf ears.
Several countries have second-term provisions in their national constitutions. For instance, under Cabo Verde’s constitution, no candidate is allowed three consecutive terms. Two terms are permitted with provision for a third term only after a five-year interval.
Analysts have warned that the region risks further democratic slide so long as the politicians continue to carry out “political or constitutional coups.”
Another topic on Sunday’s summit agenda is the delayed ECOWAS institutional reform.
The Council of Ministers has already recommended the reduction of the current wasteful structure of 15 Commissioners to just seven.
But the character and leadership qualities of individuals to fill the seven Commissioner positions will determine whether the organization remains relevant or continues to endure the palpable confidence and trust deficit among the community’s estimated 400 million citizens.
In a Declaration after their recent consultations in Dakar, Senegal, regional Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) noted the “political and democratic crises that are the consequences of constitutional changes and the organisation of elections on a basis that does not guarantee transparency and fairness,” as well as the “increasing reduction of civic and democratic space, obstacles to freedom of association and demonstration and the persecution of socio-political actors in some countries” in the ECOWAS region.
They regretted the “non-achievement of the ECOWAS Vision 2020 of moving from an “ECOWAS of States” to an “ECOWAS of Peoples,” and highlighted the “continuous deterioration of the image of ECOWAS in the consciousness and confidence of the citizens of the community.”
As things stand, ECOWAS requires no lectures on the need to restore its past glory or for effective and efficient management of scarce financial resources.
The Covid-19 pandemic has already compounded the region’s economic woes with only eight of the 15 member States reported to be regular in the contributions of their Community Levy, the Organization’s major source of revenue.
*Paul Ejime is a Global Affairs Expert and an Independent Consultant to International Organizations on Strategic Communications, Media, Peace & Security and Elections.