New ECOWAS chairperson Dr Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embaló Picture: Reuters
By Chad Williams
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) last weekend elected Dr Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embaló, the president of Guinea Bissau, as its new chairperson, replacing Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the Ghanaian president, who had been the chairperson since September 2020.
ECOWAS is a 15-member regional organisation, established in 1975, with a mandate of promoting economic integration and shared development of West African sub-region (the member states include Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo).
Despite steady economic growth in several ECOWAS countries in recent years, it is still facing a myriad of security and socio-economic issues that threaten to shake the region’s relative stability and economic progress.
Ecowas continues to face criticism for its handling of power grabs, with many observers saying that the regional bloc is using kid gloves to deal with rogue military leaders who seek to grab power from some of the region’s ageing leaders and liberation movements.
Historian Arthur Banga from Ivory Coast’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny University argued for a resolute “zero-tolerance policy” towards coup plotters, which must be enforced by ECOWAS, as reported by DW news.
“We must not accept that the democratic order in our region is repeatedly endangered by coups. West Africa must be able to effectively combat military coups and those responsible,” Banga told DW.
“It’s necessary to support ECOWAS in enforcing sanctions on coup plotters.”
As the region looks to build as a regional economic powerhouse, the new leader will need to reign in lawlessness and make tough decisions, even if it upsets his neighbours.
Since 2019, there have been six attempted coups in West Africa, two failed and four successful.
During its 61st Ordinary Session of the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of State and Government, Embaló was elected unanimously as the new chair, announced Akufo-Addo. He is the first Bissau-Guinean ever to occupy the position.
“Despite the challenges that we are faced with as a result of violent extremism and the current global crisis, I believe, the solidarity within ECOWAS will enable us to overcome these challenges,” Embaló said in his first speech as the chairperson of the regional economic bloc.
So who is Dr Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embaló and what do we know about him?
Well, he certainly has youth on his side. At 49 years old, Embaló is one of the ‘younger’ leaders to hold this high office, any office on the continent for that matter.
He is a political scientist and military officer who previously served as prime minister between 18 November 2016 and 16 January 2018.
Ethnically his family is a part of the Fulani people. He has a BA in international relations from the Higher Institute of Social and Political Sciences at the Technical Institute of Lisbon (Portugal). He received both his master’s degree in political science and his doctorate in international relations from the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain, according to the website blackpast.org.
Embaló served in the military and studied national defence and national security in Japan, France, Spain, Belgium, Israel, and South Africa.
He achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the Guinea-Bissau Army before retiring in 2012. That year he began his political career with his appointment as state minister.
Embaló continued to work with the government, specialising in African and Middle Eastern affairs and international operations and development. He also launched several businesses. Embaló has served as an advisor to the President, Speaker of Parliament, and Minister of African Affairs of Guinea-Bissau.
What’s next for ECOWAS?
The West African bloc is facing a tumultuous slew of coups, growing insecurity in the region which include, but is not limited to, election related violence, longstanding ethno-national conflict, drug trafficking, maritime piracy, and extremism.
The challenge of stability and security in West Africa remains a concern.
In February this year, 11 people were killed when soldiers tried to overthrow Guinea-Bissau’s president, Embaló, and his government, in what was labelled as a failed coup-attempt on the small West African country.
On the evening of February 1, Embaló said the situation was under control. However, the precise course of events remains uncertain.
The president later appeared in a video post describing the foiled coup as “an attempt to kill the president, the prime minister and all the cabinet”.
Embaló assured the nation that the situation in Guinea-Bissau was “under government control”, describing the coup attempt as an attack against democracy attributed to “the work of isolated elements” linked to drug trafficking.
I think the real question is, does the new ECOWAS president have what it takes to lead the embattled regional bloc and stamp out the bad, or is it the case that a new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows the corners?
According to the World Bank, the vast majority of armed conflicts in West Africa since independence have been intrastate conflicts, marked by five large-scale civil wars.
West Africa’s latest successful coup, in Burkina Faso on January 24, 2022, has renewed unease about coups “returning” and democracies “dying” in Africa. The recent attempt in Guinea-Bissau, too, recalled the first decades after independence, when coups were rampant.
Analysts say that development policy will play a critical role in supporting stability to reduce conflict and violence over the long term, but this requires interventions in many areas including support for lagging regions, strengthening local governance, improving land management, and spurring job creation among others.
Sadly, ECOWAS has not been able to step up to the task, after being in the game for almost 47 years, as the examples of Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso illustrate.
Nevertheless, ECOWAS has had some success in solving regional political and security issues that may well lay the basis for improved future efforts at economic integration.
Let’s see what Dr Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embalo can do differently.
Williams is a multimedia journalist at African News Agency.