ECOWAS Heads of State to hold another Extraordinary Summit on the Political Situations in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso


H.E. Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana and Chairman of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has convened another Extraordinary Summit of the Authority on the political situations in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.

The Summit will hold in Accra, Republic of Ghana on Friday, March 25, 2022.

The Heads of State will be considering and discussing reports on recent political developments in these Member States.

In the last two years, three fragile countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso – succumbed to instability and experienced military takeovers. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in pushing these countries over the edge, they were on the precipice of instability long before the emergence of the virus due to deep-seated vulnerabilities such as chronic insecurity, political corruption and mass unemployment.

Indeed, in all three countries military interventions came not as a surprise but on the back of long-ignored systemic failures and growing societal discontent.

In Burkina Faso, repeated attacks by armed groups and a failure to govern (partly evidenced in the apparent ill-equipping of the country’s security forces against such groups) created a security vacuum. Attacks in November and December 2021 left nearly 100 members of the security forces and community defence volunteers dead. The army blamed its failure to adequately respond to these attacks on the government. As a result, in late January 2022, what initially appeared to be a mutiny turned into a coup that toppled the country’s civilian government.

In Mali, attempts by the ruling party to manipulate the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections in favour of candidates supported by the then president led to street demonstrations during which aggrieved masses called on the government to resign. After months of impasse, the military took advantage of the situation and staged a coup in August 2020. It initially facilitated a transitional arrangement, but overthrew that too only a few months later.

None of these coups, or the challenges that led to them, materialised suddenly. International development organisations and think-tanks have been pointing to the extreme security and governance challenges facing these countries for years. Even before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, US-based think-tank The Fund for Peace had rated these countries as on “high warning” or on “alert” in its Fragile States Index, suggesting that their vulnerabilities could lead to instability if not outright armed conflict. Similarly, the Economist Intelligence Unit, in its Democracy Index of 2019, had suggested that there was a steady decline in the quality of democratic governance in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali.

Beyond the long-term threats to constitutional democracy and security they were born out of, the recent coups in these three countries had another surprising common aspect: civilian support.

In countries with relative stability and security, as well as functioning constitutional guardrails against threats like electoral fraud, manipulation of courts, and illegal attempts at presidential tenure elongation, armed forces may stage coups, but they often fail to convincingly justify their intervention or gain the support of the majority of the population.

In Mali, Burkino Faso and Guinea, however, the lack of such safeguards resulted in civilian populations enthusiastically embracing the recent military interventions.

So far, all attempts by regional bodies like ECOWAS and the AU to turn back this trend have failed, largely because such attempts focused on punishing the militaries rather than understanding and attempting to help fix the underlying causes that led to civilian populations supporting their actions. As a result, the recent wave of military coups in Africa has raised questions about the role regional and continental multilateral organisations can play in averting democratic backsliding.

Today, citizens in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea clearly feel that they have “found their voice”, and punished corrupt political elites who have long ruled their countries, by ascribing legitimacy to military takeovers. The legitimate fears that citizens across the continent can follow their lead can put underperforming democratic rulers on their toes and push them to swiftly and efficiently address political and socioeconomic challenges facing their countries. Of course, whether this trend will have long-term consequences for the wider region will be dependent on how the militaries will choose to manage state-society relations, and whether they will be able to maintain public support.

Whatever happens in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and other African nations that have experienced coups in recent times, if the continent’s democratic leaders and multilateral bodies continue to ignore the conditions that triggered this new wave of military interventions, what we have witnessed so far might very well be a foretaste of what is to come.