Africa, World, Politics

Ecowas threatens military action in Mali

By Simon Allison 29 March 2012

On Tuesday, the presidents of Ecowas nations met to discuss Mali. They condemned the coup and sent an ultimatum to the junta: step aside, or risk military intervention. By SIMON ALLISON.

This is no empty threat. Unlike other regional bodies, Ecowas has a substantial and occasionally successful record of forcing change, making an armed expedition to the Sahel a distinct possibility.

Mali is one of the members of the Economic Community of West African States, and was, until recently, a promising democracy with elections around the corner. That was until a group of disgruntled army officers, frustrated at what they saw as their government’s soft approach to the rebellion in the north, took matters into their own hands, storming the capital of Bamako and forcing the president into hiding. As far as anyone can tell, these mutineers – a military junta – are firmly in control and, although they promise to eventually hand over power to a new civilian administration, they want to sort out the rebel problem first.

Unfortunately for the junta, opportunistic coups d’état are frowned upon by the international community, especially in countries where the unseated government was not the plaything of some brutal dictator, but rather a decent democratic effort at governing a difficult and complicated country. So the junta has received no support, just a steady stream of increasingly irate condemnations. The latest, and most irate, came from Ecowas, which held an emergency meeting in Abidjan.

The reaction of the assembled heads of state was unanimous in its disapproval, calling on the junta to return President Amadou Toumani Touré to power as soon as possible. Well aware that such requests are meaningless without any carrots or sticks to enforce them, Ecowas plumped for threats, immediately suspending Mali from the regional body and warning it that the punishment for non-compliance would only get worse the longer the junta refused to comply.

Diplomatic isolation would be followed by economic isolation in the form of sanctions, followed by direct military intervention. Big talk, you might be thinking, but what are the chances of West African countries actually committing troops to such an operation?

Judging by history, the chances are good. Even though Ecowas began in the 1970s as an explicitly economic organisation, over the decades it has steadily evolved its mandate with approval of member states to encompass direct political action when necessary, including a military response. This was in recognition of the fact that economic development was impossible without peace and security. This mandate has been used on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of success.

In Liberia in 1992, responding to a request from beleagured President Samuel Doe, who was fighting and losing a civil war against Charles Taylor, Ecowas sent in a “peace-keeping” force. Although often criticised for doing less “peace-keeping” and more “enforcing” in favour of Doe, and for being a bit too brutal, the force was credited with preventing a humanitarian disaster in the country.

In 1998 the situation in Sierra Leone was very similar to Mali’s now. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah had been deposed in a military coup and forced into exile the year before. Ecowas soon reinforced an existing peace-keeping base in Freetown and then waited until it became clear the new military rulers, who had teamed up with an existing rebel movement, wanted to hold onto power. Ecowas troops eventually stormed the military strongholds in Freetown and forced the rebels out, paving the way for President Kabbah’s triumphant return.

Between 2002 and 2011 a tense and fragile peace obtained in Côte d’Ivoire. Laurent Gbagbo was president of a divided country, and an Ecowas peace-keeping force was deployed to protect the institutions of state. It sort of worked helping to avert a major civil war, but also maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo. This all changed after the run-off election in 2010, when Gbagbo simply refused to accept he had lost to Alassane Ouattara. Messy post-election violence ensued, with hundreds of deaths and massive displacement of people, resolved only after French troops, under a United Nations mandate, helped Ouattara’s militia forces storm the presidential palace and arrest Gbagbo.

Crucially, it was at the behest of Ecowas that the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1975 which authorised the use of force in Côte d’Ivoire to protect the civilian population.

These examples, not exhaustive, show Ecowas can be aggressive in enforcing its decisions when necessary. While the Liberian example is controversial, the interventions in Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire have both been attempts to protect those countries from significant threats to their constitutional and democratic integrity. Ecowas, in other words, has been fighting for democracy.

Another example which supports this view is Niger, where a 2009 coup unseated President Mamadou Tandja. Although the coup was quietly condemned, Ecowas chose not to intervene militarily because the circumstances were rather different. In this case, the threat to Niger’s constitution came from Tandja himself, who wanted to amend it to run for a third term. Niger’s coup leaders swiftly returned power to an elected civilian government and Niger is probably all the better for it.

Military intervention is a dangerous game. Even the world’s superpowers don’t often get it right, as witnessed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But so far, Ecowas has a decent record of it, and Mali’s new junta should not be surprised if it chooses to make another example of Mali. It will be tougher, though. In all previous instances, Ecowas had some presence in the country already from which it could launch operations. This is not the case in Mali, meaning troops would have to invade before they can intervene. But perhaps they might not have to: in the best-case scenario, the junta will be well aware that there is serious intent behind the Ecowas threat and that might scare them enough to hasten the transfer of power. DM

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Photo: Malian soldiers ride in the back of a vehicle following last week’s military coup d’etat, in the capital Bamako, on 27 March 2012. Thousands of demonstrators chanted pro-junta slogans in Mali’s capital on Wednesday, protesting against foreign powers’ threats to use sanctions to force the leaders of last week’s coup to step down. REUTERS/David Lewis.


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