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In what is probably the poorest region of the world, West Africa, there is an unsung success story. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) doesn’t just work for economic integration; it tries to defend democracy and prevent war among its member states, and often it succeeds.
Right now, it is trying to deal with a recent military coup in Mali, a country with devastating poverty, runaway population growth, an Islamist insurgency and a long record of military takeovers: four since independence in 1960. Intervention is always a tricky business, because the tangled ethnic and political details are different for each of the 15 member states.
The Mali coup of Aug. 18 was driven partly by frustration among the military, who are taking heavy casualties in the war against the jihadi groups and often go unpaid, but also by the soldiers’ awareness that there would be some civilian support for a coup. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita won reelection last year in a fairly honest vote, but only because the opposition parties were so badly split.
Keita did not get a majority of the vote, and he got very few votes in the capital, Bamako, where the corruption of his entourage is most visible. Massive demonstrations against him began in the capital in June, and by last month ECOWAS was trying to mediate between him and the protesters. He dug his heels in; the soldiers saw their opportunity; and they acted.
The crowds in Bamako rejoiced at the coup, but the 14 other ECOWAS countries, aware of how vulnerable they are to similar events, took a different view. Almost every one of them has seen a coup or a civil war, and now that they mostly have elected civilian leaders their priority is to defend democracy.
Their concern deepened when Col. Assimi Goita, leader of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People –—the coup leaders always chose names like that — announced that the military would stay in power for three years to carry out “reforms” before holding elections.
So ECOWAS sent a delegation led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan to Mali to help restore constitutional order. (Nigeria, which has half the population of ECOWAS, cannot give orders to the other members, but it is definitely first among equals.)
At first Jonathan tried to persuade the military to put Keita back in office, but the elected Malian leader was already in their hands and had agreed to renounce the presidency. Besides, the street in Bamako would not tolerate his return. At that point, the Nigerian ex-president switched to trying to persuade the soldiers to hold an election after only one year — and that’s where the talks are stalled today.
Not a particularly edifying tale, and it may not even end well, but look what’s actually happening here. A bunch of West African countries, each with its own huge problems, has learned to act together to protect the civil and human rights of the citizens they are supposed to serve. They don’t always succeed, but they win more often than they lose.
They cannot send military forces into another ECOWAS country uninvited, but they have a joint peacekeeping force that frequently gets asked to help (Ivory Coast in 2003, Liberia in 2003, Guinea-Bissau in 2012, Mali in 2013 and The Gambia in 2017). Indeed, ECOWAS has become the second most effective regional organization in the world.
Second, because the European Union definitely comes first. In a continent that has seen more destructive wars and more dreadful regimes than any other, the EU has brought its citizens two generations of peace, considerable prosperity, and even a common identity.
It’s hard to build regional organizations that defend democracy and prevent war, because they inevitably infringe on the absolute “sovereignty” of the state. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations can’t bring itself to condemn genocide in Myanmar, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation doesn’t even criticize China’s oppression of Muslim Uyghurs.
The Organization of American States is still too much under U.S. influence, the African Union is only a modest improvement on the old Organization of African Unity and the Arab League is a joke in poor taste. ECOWAS often fails, but it is a beacon of hope.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”