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Ecowas U-turn on sanctions yields lessons for AU

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Picture: Supplied – Headquarters of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) based in Federal Capital Territory, Nigeria.

By Koffi M Kouakou

Relief, resilience and a win-win result qualify the aftermath of the outcome of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) meeting held in Accra, Ghana on July 3.

Ecowas sanctions were lifted in a quid pro quo with Mali’s military-led transitional government. In return for agreeing to a firm February 2024 democratic election deadline, Mali has secured an end to the sanctions. This is a spectacular turnaround as most sanctions last much longer by international standards. Indeed, Ecowas has made a U-turn in a short time. Both sides have been frantically and acrimoniously working for months towards a democratic rule of law, civilian rule, political stability and peace in Mali and, by extension, to West Africa for the past two years or so.

Imposed in January, after the military seized power last year and announced a four-year delay in the transition to an elected civilian rule, the sanctions have had devastating impacts on Mali. Seen as compliant to the archaic Ecowas protocols, counter-productive, coercive, unnecessary and belligerent, they included a raft of imposed restrictions from “the recall of Ecowas member states ambassadors accredited to Mali; closure of land and air borders; suspension of all commercial and financial transactions except for food products, pharmaceutical products, medical supplies, and equipment, including materials for the control of Covid-19, petroleum products and electricity; freezing of Malian assets in Ecowas central banks; and the suspension of all financial assistance and transactions.”

That’s just the short list among many other suspicious bullying tactics and rumoured coup d’états sponsored by neighbourhood countries to topple the Malian transitional authorities. But emboldened by popular public support and the favours of a UN security member, Russia, the authorities, successfully whipped up nationalistic and pan-Africanist sentiments mainly against France, accused Ecowas of acting on behalf of international handlers and being “exploited by extraregional powers with ulterior motives”. They demanded that the unjust economic blockade be lifted. The sanctions have had severe impacts on the fragile economy of Mali which is under the burden of a decade- long jihadist insurgency. Two trends characterise the economic consequences of the sanctions – shocks and resilience. The political shocks are seen in the effects of the speedy Ecowas decisions, the surprise of the military junta, the anger of civil society in Mali and pan-Africanist movements across Africa. The economic shocks included “cutting off the country from regional trade, finance and security assistance could potentially affect the economic well-being and physical security of the vulnerable population”. “They also included increase food prices and loss of income and government revenues from exports due to business slowdown.”

The mandatory border closures disrupted intraregional trading activities, especially in agriculture and manufacturing sectors. As such, the trade embargo affected Mali and the economies of other West African countries. They were felt in Mali, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and neighbouring countries, where maritime and land routes were abruptly closed, leading to a fall in cross-border trade revenues that were redirected to Mauritania and Algeria.

The resilience describes the political, diplomatic and economic abilities of the military to circumvent the sanctions, with Russian support and propped up nationalistic sentiments. Surprisingly, the Malian transitional government held up well in the face of the unprecedented sanctions designed to send it a strict warning about re-establishing democratic rules in Mali. The economy also showed resilience despite its vulnerabilities. According to the April 2022 World Bank economic update, the real GDP of the Malian economy, surprisingly grew a steady 3.1% last year. In the end, the economic consequences of the sanctions and its boomerang effects gravely affected neighbouring countries. But they appear not to have achieved their desired goals and lacked the realistic approach to “expeditiously return the country to long-lasting constitutional order”, said an African observer.

Realising their regional wide-range effects, Ecowas leaders quickly made a reasonable U-turn to cut a win-win deal with the military government. Overall, the lifting of the sanctions is a welcome relief as the news brings, beside the sense of relief, some hope about the democratic normalisation of the twice-abruptly interrupted civilian and transitional governments.

Resilience because the lifting of sanctions lasted only six short months against a determined military regime, overwhelmingly supported by a civil society fed with nationalistic overdrive. Another outcome of the long-held tug-of-war is the successful negotiation with an agreement that bars military leaders from running for the next elections in Mali. Such a rule could deter potential putschists and help entrench democratically elected civilian governments. This unprecedented Ecowas U-turn yields few hard lessons for the AU’s silencing-the-guns project. Potential putschists might view the fast turnaround as a weakening of regional African institutions and continue to use guns and military might to undermine democratic institutions on the continent.

This outcome could also be perceived as a rushed, incompetent and gross Ecowas mishandling of sanctions. More so, it could be seen as a Malian and pan-Africanist victories that embolden many disgruntled Africans to stand up to the unfair diktat of their regional institutions. Ultimately, Ecowas’s U-turn is an encouraging endpoint to celebrate the AU’s 20th anniversary. It gives measured caution yet hope for the future of conflict resolution in Africa.

Kouakou is an Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre of Africa China at the University of Johannesburg