You are currently viewing Tinubuplomatic approach to ECOWAS’ politico-militari lull: The challenge of coup after coup, by Prof Bola Akinterinwa
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One politico-military lull with which the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is currently faced is how to resolve the problem of unconstitutional change of government in Africa. Unconstitutional change of Government as a critical issue in Africa dates back to the 1990s and has now acquired a recidivist character.  Several efforts have been made by African leaders, but to no avail, to prevent the saga. It is against this background that the statement made by Nigeria’s new leader, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu (PBAT), in Guinea Bissau on Sunday, 9th July, 2023 should be explained and understood. He said we could no longer sit down idly to watch coups being made one after the other. 

True, the literature on unconstitutional changes of government in Africa is quite rich. For instance, the discussion paper number 70, entitled “Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa: What Implications for Democratic Consolidation?” presented by J. Shola Omotola to the Nordiska Afrikainstitutet in Uppsala in 2011, is noteworthy because of the holistic character of the issues he raised. In this regard, Research Professor Cyril Obi, formerly of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs and later a Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, noted in his foreword to the published paper the military coups in Mauritania and Guinea in 2008, Madagascar in 2009 and in Niger Republic in 2010. In the eyes of Obi, the coups were ‘unwholesome trend in the face of sub-regional and pan-African norms proclaiming zero-tolerance for unconstitutional change in government (which) poses a major challenge to the democratic project in Africa’ 

In other words, unconstitutional change of government is quite familiar an issue in political governance. It is a problematic. Shola Omotola has said: ‘the various forms of unconstitutional change of government constitute grave dangers to the stability and consolidation of democracy in Africa… When sanctions are imposed on an unconstitutional government by the international community and donors, ordinary people feel the pain and suffer much more than the power elites. In these circumstances, both strategic and non-strategic elements of national security are compromised, especially human security. These consequences generate conditions that are inimical to the stability and consolidation of democracy.’ How can the Tinubuplomatic approach solve the problem of unconstitutional change of government which has defied the serious efforts of the past leaders? 

AU and ECOWAS’ Politico-Militari Lull


The global world of the 1970s and 1980s was not as complicated as the global world of today. There was no globalisation in the 1970s and 1980s per se. Today, it is a world of globalisation driven by ICT that has the potential of being used to recolonize Africa by new means. It is in this new complex world that PBAT is preparing to enter and engage Nigeria. And without any jot of braggadocio, unconstitutional changes of government in Africa have not only been of major pre-occupation, but have been particularly very saddening, especially when viewed from the perspective that former colonial masters at times aid and abet coup making in Africa. Africans accept to be used as instruments of instability and insecurity.

In 1991, the Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS met in Authority and decided in its Declaration A/DCL.1/7/91 on Political Principles of the ECOWAS to promote democracy in West Africa ‘on the basis of political pluralism and respect for fundamental human rights as embodied in universally recognised international instruments of human rights and in the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.’


The Declaration specifically states that the AU is ‘guided by the principles enshrined in the various instruments adopted by the OAU and the AU to systematically and consistently address the unconstitutional changes of government, in particular Decisions AHG/Dec.141 (XXXV) and AHG/Dec.142 (XXXV), adopted by the 35th Ordinary Session of the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, held in Lomé, Togo, from 10 to 12 July 2000’ which is generally referred to as the Lomé Declaration.

Similarly, Article 3(g) of the Constitutive Act of the African Union, done in Togo on 11th July 2000, provides for the promotion of ‘democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance. The Article requires the ‘respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance’ and specially condemned and rejected any ‘unconstitutional changes of governments.’ Explained differently, not only did the ECOWAS frown at dictatorship in 1991, and determining to promote democracy and protect human rights, the African Union (AU) further strengthened the ECOWAS determination by accepting the non-acceptance of unconstitutional change of government in whatever circumstance in Africa beyond declarative condemnation.


The Chairman of the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of States and Government, H.E. Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, has not only inaugurated a Reflection Forum, but has declared a zero tolerance for the overthrow of constitutionally-elected governments. He condemned the manipulation of constitutions by incumbents and all other forms of unconstitutional changes of government. He argued that a stable period of constitutional government and proper management of the economy can lead to inclusive prosperity for Africa (vide AU’s Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa).

It is therefore not surprising that the OAU unequivocally condemned and rejected in 1997 any unconstitutional change of government in Harare after a coup d’état in Sierra Leone. In the eyes of the OAU, ‘coups are sad and unacceptable development in our continent, coming at a time when our people have committed themselves to respect of the rule of law based on people’s will expressed through the ballot and not by bullet.’ In fact, the OAU Decision AHG/Dec.141 (XXXV), mentioned above unanimously rejected any change in the constitution in order to sustain power incumbency as an unacceptable and anachronistic act, which is in contradiction of the commitment to promote democratic principles and conditions.


It should also be noted that at this 35th Ordinary Session of the OAU, ‘a definition of what constitutes an unconstitutional change was given: military coups d’état against democratically-elected governments; replacement of democratically-elected Governments by armed dissidents group and rebel movements; refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party after free, fair and regular elections. In fact, as further provided, whenever there is a case of unconstitutional change of government, the OAU Chairman and the OAU Secretary-General ‘should immediately and publicly condemn such a change and urge for the speedy return to constitutional order.’ The OAU should also ‘convey a clear and unequivocal warning to the perpetrators of the unconstitutional change that, under no circumstances, will their illegal action be tolerated or recognised by the OAU.

And true enough, both the ECOWAS, in particular, and the AU, in general, have been complying with the foregoing prescriptions whenever there are fresh cases of coups. The West African region has played host to coups in Guinea Conakry, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mali in the past 24 months. The ECOWAS mediation intervention in Mali is interesting in terms of its futility. The definition of an unconstitutional change of government is mainly considered from use of military force and peaceful, but fraudulent manipulation of the Constitution to prolong the stay in power of an incumbent leader.


Whereas, as clearly shown in the cases of Mali and Burkina Faso, it is not any dissident group or military guys that initiated the coups. The people or a larger population of the country wanted a change of government. When a coup is popularly supported, the question of who the ECOWAS or the AU is seeking to protect must be asked. Neither the ECOWAS nor the AU has any policy attitude towards people’s coup. This is why it has always been difficult for regional and continental organisations to nip in the bud coup-making in Africa. In recent times, elected governments are better known for very poor governance, and heightened political and economic corruption to the extent that the civilian law-abiding people have to embark on weeks of protest to compel a change of government. This was specifically the situation in Mali.

It can be argued that the people should wait for the time of election to remove any unwanted president or ruling party. But the dilemma is that African elections are never seen to be credible. They are generally fraught with deliberate rigging, violence, declaration of results where the election never took place. Without gainsaying, elections in Africa are, at best, elections of magouilles. This is why space is always created for coup-making and this is also why the Reflection Forum became a desideratum.


In other words, the AU Department of Political Affairs, led by H.E. Bankole Adeoye, the AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, held the ‘Reflection Forum on Unconstitutional Changes of Government in Africa from 15 to 17 March 2022 in Accra, Ghana. The Forum requires the AU Member States to comprehensively address unconstitutional changes of Government in Africa, to synergise their interventions and called for the establishment of a multi-stakeholders mechanism on democratic governance, to facilitate the consolidation of constitutionalism in Africa and to establish different categories of sanctions that they may be gradually applied in accordance with the gravity of the violation or threat to the Constitutional Order, without compromising the well-being of ordinary, and especially vulnerable citizens. 

Tinubuplomatic Approach and Implications


PBAT’s acceptance speech as ECOWAS Chairman is more of a happiness to commit than an acceptance to recall history and learn from it. Nigeria’s chairmanship of the ECOWAS has shown a collective wish for Nigeria to lead the regional organisation, not necessarily because of any Nigerian special skills that other countries do not have, but primarily because of the need to secure Nigeria’s commitment as a big brother or big financial spender, so to say, to provide more financial resources for ECOWAS development projects. 

Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida was especially encouraged to serve as ECOWAS chairman for many consecutive years in the past, whereas the chairmanship of the organisation was, and still is, for one year and on a rotational basis. It should be recalled that General Muhammadu Buhari ousted Alhaji Shehu Shagari from power in December 1983. General Buhari was the Chairman of the ECOWAS as at August 1985 when General Babangida also ousted Buhari from power. This was how President Babangida remained the ECOWAS chairperson until 1989. 

Lennox Mall

Without doubt, Article 5(4) of the 1975 ECOWAS Treaty says ‘the Authority shall meet at least once a year. It shall determine its own procedure, including that for convening its meetings for the conduct of business threat and at all times, and for annual rotation of the Office of Chairman among the Members of the Authority.’

Apart from the case of President Babangida, and in spite of the fact that the ECOWAS Treaty provides for one year tenure of chairmanship, there has always been an exception to the rule, especially in the context of Nigeria. Many Nigerian leaders, like Sani Abacha, Musa Yar’Adua, and Goodluck Jonathan, served for two years consecutively. Several reasons can explain why: Nigeria’s big population in the region, which partly explains why Nigeria has 35 out of the 115 seats in the Community’s Parliament while other countries are given 8, 7, 6, or 5 seats. Nigeria also accounts for about one-third of the ECOWAS annual budget. It is against this background that the election of PBAT in Guinea-Bissau should be appreciated and discussed. PBAT’s maiden speech as chairperson of the ECOWAS clearly suggests a determination to confront the many problems with which the ECOWAS is faced.


True enough the decision to elect PBAT was unanimous, especially because of the many recidivist challenges that require a very strong and solvent leader, perceptibly seen in PBAT, to address the problems. Political governance has been under terrorist threats for quite a long time now. The resurgence of coup-making or what is now referred to as unconstitutional change of government is another critical problem in the ECOWAS region, because, in between August 2020 and July 2023, the West African region has played host to two failed coups, those of The Gambia and Guinea Bissau, as well as to three successful coups: in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea Conakry.

Besides, there was not only the unconstitutional change of government aided by France and led by Lieutenant-General Mahamat Idriss Déby in Chad following his father’s death in 2021, there was also the quest of Morocco in the Northern region of Africa, seeking membership of the West African regional organisation, but full membership is also meant for states in the West African region. Morocco’s quest has led to centrifugal politics in ECOWAS governance. 


In reaction to his election as ECOWAS Chairman, PBAT said: ‘I’m humbled and honoured by this trust, and want to assure you of my unalloyed commitment to provide the necessary leadership with dedication…’ More important, he also declared as follows: ‘we will not allow coup after coup in this African sub-region. We will take it up seriously with the African Union, European Union, and Britain, and America. We will take it up, it’s a challenge, yes, democracy is very tough but it is the best form of government.’

Without doubt, the statement is loaded with critical implications. First, PBAT assured of his unalloyed commitment to provide the required leadership with dedication. What does this mean? Has unalloyed commitment been lacking before now? Was the election of PBAT as chairperson a resultant of trust or from Nigeria’s international image, or from diplomacy  put in place to secure support for his election? Is the issue because of trust or rotational principle? PBAT pledged the necessary leadership with dedication. Which type of leadership is required to push the ECOWAS forward? The ECOWAS is comprised of Anglophone, Arabophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries, hence different cultural backgrounds.

The misunderstanding between the Anglophone and Francophone is more pronounced than others but it is hardly talked about. The truth is that France is always hostile to any Nigeria that will be viable and capable of challenging any French foreign policy interests in Francophone Africa, and particularly in Nigeria’s immediate neighbourhood. And the same is very true of Nigeria’s foreign policy attitude towards France. Nigeria’s diplomacy has always been seized with how to contain any French policy that has the potential to threaten Nigeria’s own interest in West Africa as a whole. In light of this, which country is truly trusting PBAT’s Nigeria?

On not allowing coup after coup, PBAT’s position is at best very ambiguous. He said ‘we will not allow coup after coup in this African sub-region.’ Not allowing any coup, not to say coup after coup, is necessarily preventive in strategy. Not allowing coup after coup can mean not accepting coups in succession or frequency of the coup-making. PBAT’s commitment cannot but be seriously challenged when the AU or the ECOWAS is an accomplice or when it condones coups in whatever form. What was the position of the AU in the unconstitutional change of government in Chad? The AU simply acquiesced to France’s mediation of the crisis and all disregarded the Chadian Constitution which provides for presidential succession in the case of the demise of a president.   


Additionally, as it was the case in Mali, the coup was popularly supported. The people’s street protests against an elected president for many weeks prompted military intervention. In this regard, who will the ECOWAS under PBAT be protecting when it is the people that is encouraging military intervention? For over two decades, the OAU and the AU fought unconstitutional changes of government tooth and nail but to no avail. Even if there is good governance, can’t an individual’s political greediness prompt a coup d’état? Coup-making is not always about saving a nation-state. Good governance does not prevent the use of religious beliefs to plan coups. Religious beliefs can be dynamics of coup-making. Boko Haramism in Nigeria has little to do with good governance. The Boko Haramists simply do not want Nigeria as it is now. They want an Islamic State. ECOWAS leaders do not even appear to have asked what informed Muammar Gaddafi’s observation that there would not be peace in Nigeria until Nigeria is divided into Muslim North and Christian South. If Nigeria, at the domestic level, does not know or have peace and security as a regional giant, in which way can boko haramists and their Al Qaeda allies be contained in West Africa?

PBAT told the 5thMYCM (Fifth Mid-Year Coordination Meeting) of the AU about the ECOWAS plan to strengthen the ECOWAS Standby Force to deter coups and combat terrorism in the sub-region. How much can the Force do? France, EU allies and the US have been fighting terror for more than a decade but to no avail in the Sahel. Really, PBAT should be an internationalist, a regionalist or a sub-regionalist but should stop speaking simultaneously as a sub-regionalist and internationalist when he is an ECOWAS chairperson. He said, ‘in Nigeria we are back,’ but back to do what?

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