The coup d’état in Burkina Faso this week – the third in less than two years in west Africa – is an unwelcome sign of the weakness of democratic governance in the region. Like previous coups in Mali and Guinea, the overthrow of the government in Burkina Faso appears to have been led by a mid-level officer from the ranks of the country’s elite forces. The new junta, which is led by Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba and calls itself the Mouvement Patriotique pour le Sauvegarde et la Restauration, will pose an immediate challenge to the rule of law at home and security and political cooperation in the region. The junta will also create further difficulties for the embattled Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an organisation that has struggled to respond effectively to previous coups.
ECOWAS imposed far-reaching sanctions on Mali last week after the country’s military junta reneged on its commitment to organise elections in February. But this only provoked popular outrage in Mali, demonstrating the limits of the regional organisation’s current response to the challenge. Demonstrators in Bamako accused ECOWAS of being overly harsh on this poor, landlocked country, which is already struggling to deal with violent extremist insurgencies, climate change, and the fallout from the covid-19 pandemic.
The protesters seemed to ignore the fact that elections are the cornerstone of the agreement on a transition to civilian rule that ECOWAS and Mali struck following the two coups that have taken place in the country since 2020. By reneging on that agreement, the junta openly undermined the credibility and authority of the regional organisation. The junta did not ask for a delay of a few months – as it could have on potentially legitimate technical or security grounds – but instead announced that it would hold elections in 2026. This is a particularly grim prospect for a country that has already experienced 35 years of military rule since independence.
The sanctions were part of a push by ECOWAS, under the energetic leadership of President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana, to halt democratic backsliding in the region – of which the coups in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso are only the most vivid illustrations. As explained in a report recently commissioned by the Kofi Annan Foundation, there are many facets of this democratic recession. Indeed, Freedom House observes that west Africa has seen one of the fastest deteriorations of democratic standards in the world since 2015.
Coups explicitly violate the African Union’s Lomé Declaration and its Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, as well as the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. The first article of the protocol enshrines a policy of “zero tolerance for power obtained or maintained by unconstitutional means”. This prohibition was widely acclaimed as establishing a norm that helped spur the rapid growth of democracy in Africa after 2000 – until the recent string of coups began to erode it.
Democratic decline in west Africa is a global cause for concern because, as Kofi Annan stressed, democracy is not only an objective in itself – it is also the political system most conducive to peace, inclusive development, and respect for human rights. Surveys by Afrobarometer, a polling organisation based in Accra, consistently find that most west Africans rejects military rule and are committed to democracy. They know what is at stake: military governments on the continent have an abysmal track record.
That is why ECOWAS decided to take stern measures in the face of the Malian junta’s open disregard for both its past commitments and regional norms. Yet these norms have lost some of their deterrence value partly because the AU and ECOWAS have sometimes failed to stand firm against recent coups. ECOWAS’s muscular sanctions on Mali are part of a bold effort to hold the line in a region that, historically, has been plagued by military takeovers. Nonetheless, like many other international and regional organisations before it, ECOWAS now stands accused of exerting excessive pressure on the domestic politics of one of its member states. And the sanctions have had a counterproductive effect, mobilising significant popular support for Mali’s military government against perceived outside interference.
Sanctions, even if targeted, can be a blunt instrument that hurts the wellbeing of ordinary citizens. It will be important for ECOWAS to pursue diplomatic efforts with Mali, and to encourage dialogue between the country’s military, political parties, and civil society – in the hope of bringing the elections forward. This dialogue could be facilitated by the United Nations or another honest broker that is acceptable to all sides.
As ECOWAS inevitably follows its sanctions with mediation, it should aim to challenge the notion that the junta represents the nation. This approach can counter the junta’s efforts to build up its domestic legitimacy with claims that the organisation’s sanctions are an attack on Mali as a whole. ECOWAS should also draw attention to the country’s domestic political transition – a tactic that may prove effective in Burkina Faso as well.
In the medium term, ECOWAS could also bolster the credibility of its own commitment to democratic norms by adopting the revised version of the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance that was presented to its Council of Ministers in December 2021. This version of the protocol calls for presidential term limits and stronger constitutional protections.
The European Union – as a key humanitarian, development, and security partner of west African countries – can play a constructive role in this too. By announcing that it will impose sanctions on Mali, the EU has rightly shown support for ECOWAS’s efforts to deter coups. But the EU should only impose these sanctions on individual coup leaders rather than the country as a whole. European leaders should not halt or weaken aid programmes that help ordinary Malians. As the members of ECOWAS – of which Mali is a member – gather for a meeting today, they should push for a mediated solution to the political crisis in the country. Sanctions should only be a temporary tool – never a permanent solution.
West Africa is at a turning point: its democracies are in jeopardy. ECOWAS chose to send a strong signal to the Malian junta, and may feel the need to do the same thing in Burkina Faso. It should also engage with all states in the region to promote constitutionalism, the rule of law, and accountability, aiming to minimise the need for crisis response measures such as sanctions. The EU should continue to support these efforts to build more democratic states, which are vital to long-term stability and prosperity.
As Akufo-Addo noted in his opening speech at the Kofi Annan Peace and Security Forum in December 2021, “even with two decades of democratic elections in the ECOWAS Community, our Member States still remain works-in-progress as democracies. Out of duty towards our children and grandchildren, we must not give up.”
Sébastien Whitechurch Brack is a senior adviser to the Kofi Annan Foundation.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.