Unfortunately, during the decades since many African countries have gained independence, their politics have been characterized by corruption and instability. Such political instability seems poised to continue with the most recent example of the coup in Mali in August of this year, but it has been prevalent in many other west African countries as well [1].  However, fairly recently, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional intergovernmental free-trade organization has sought to protect democracy in the region with well-known organizations like the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU). In the past decade, ECOWAS has shown its willingness to use different tactics to restore a degree of democracy in west African countries on a case by case basis with the help of the UN and AU. For example, ECOWAS played a noticeable role in restoring some degree of political stability after Guinea Bissau’s coup in 2015 and Mali’s coup in 2012 by brokering the Conakry Agreement, using sanctions, and observing elections.  During Mali’s coup in August of this year ECOWAS played a more significant and direct role in Mali’s domestic politics than in years past by implementing harsher sanctions than in Guinea Bissau and even using military pressure to eventually restore some semblance of democracy in Mali. These are not tactics that have often been used by the organization, as its primary purpose of ensuring free and fair trade between its member states [2], but ECOWAS’s increasing intervention on rogue governments shows a sentiment among west African states today that the constant illegitimate power transitions of yesterday will no longer be tolerated.

In general, ECOWAS seeks not only to promote economic prosperity in the region, but also extends its goals to encompass “inter-state cooperation,” “regional peace, stability, and security,” and the “promotion and consolidation of a democratic system.” [3] ECOWAS was established on 28 May 1975 and is a regional trading bloc that promotes economic integration among its 15 member states which are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’ Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo. With its headquarters based in Abuja, Nigeria the organization seeks to equitably represent its members via a commission. The ECOWAS Commission is headed by a President with a Vice President, 12 Commissioners and an Auditor General, all of whom are referred as Statutory Appointees with four-year terms. ECOWAS encompasses multiple institutions and specialized agencies which carry out the different processes and necessary functions of the organization [4]. It is capable of using the collective economic strength of all member states to economically isolate individual states in order to push its political objectives via the ECOWAS President and its Commissioners.

We can get an early glimpse into ECOWAS’s ability to apply effective political pressure on its member states by examining its intervention into Guinea-Bissau in 2015 after the country descended into political turmoil. The events that precipitated ECOWAS’s involvement were as follows. In July 2015 the President, Jose Mario Vaz, denied accusations by local media that he intended to dismiss the Government of Prime Minister Pereira in a bid to gain more political power. During early August of 2015, the political rifts widened, and tensions intensified between the President and the Prime Minister [5]. The ruling the African Party of the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in parliament threated to withdraw support from President Vaz, and the second largest party, the Party for Social Renewal, issued a statement on 5 August blaming PAIGC for the inadequacy of existing institutions and supporting President Vaz [6]. Guinea Bissau’s deteriorating political stability led ECOWAS to initiate its own multilateral peace agreement so as to ensure the continuation of democracy in the country.

In order to restore some political stability, ECOWAS worked with the UN to fix Guinea Bissau’s democracy and mediate talks between Guinea Bissau and other ECOWAS members through the Conakry Agreement. On 14 October 2016, Guinea Bissau implemented the Conakry Agreement which inevitably led to the creation of a Stability Pact which would ensure an inclusive government with proportional representation in the National Assembly (parliament) as well as accountability/transparency in institutions, and constitutional reform [7]. ECOWAS also monitored the formation and implementation of the Stability Pact and acted as a mediator between officials from Guinea Bissaua, the ECOWAS Commission, the UN, the AU, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Angola during the talks leading up to the Conakry Agreement [8]. Furthermore, ECOWAS and the UN also provided constitutional experts to ensure that the constitutional reform was being conducted impartially and fairly. According to the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS), ECOWAS assisted the UN and AU by assisting Guinea Bissau’s democratic and national security institutions improve their accountability, efficiency, and stability [9]. Furthermore, ECOWAS was also praised by the UN Security Council for its initiative to designate a presidential mission for Guinea Bissau, comprising the heads of state from Guinea, Senegal and Sierra Leone [10]. This presidential mission culminated in a meeting between ECOWAS’s Authority of Heads of State and the Guinea-Bissauan government in Dakar on 4 June 2016. At this meeting, discussions were held between ECOWAS and Guinea-Bissauan government officials who were involved in the political crisis ensuing in Guinea-Bissau [11]. ECOWAS’s integral role in the creation of the internationally praised Conakry Agreement and the successful constitutional reform of Guinea Bissau shows the organizations ability to successfully broker multilateral agreements alongside the UN.

Even though the agreement was passed, President Vaz eventually failed to abide by and even actively undermined the Conakry Agreement. So, on 1 February 2018, ECOWAS reacted by placing sanctions on Vaz and 18 other individuals in his government for undermining the agreement. In order for ECOWAS to best implement the sanctions, a committee consisting of officials from the Togolese and Guinean governments as well as the ECOWAS Commission was put in place to oversee the implementation of the sanctions [12]. ECOWAS’s use of inputs and consent from smaller members states as it implements disciplinary sanctions or brokers international agreements gives the impression that ECOWAS can promote the equitable representation of all member-states on the regional and international stage through its policies.

Even with these most recent sanctions, President Vaz continued to undermine the democratic process in Guinea Bissau by once again removing the country’s then-prime minister, Aristide Gomes in late October of 2019. Vaz then named Faustino Fudut Imbali, a non PAIGC party member, as the new prime minister and dissolved the government in November, thus angering the opposition party and increasing the fragility of Guinea Bissau’s democracy. ECOWAS called Vaz’s actions “illegal” and threatened sanctions if the newly appointed Imabli government didn’t resign which prompted Imabli’s resignation on 7 November. In order to restore the public’s faith in the democratic process prior to the November election, ECOWAS sent election observers and set out guidelines for the election process, even though, critics like Gomes stated that Vaz’s actions were illegitimate as his term technically ended on 23 June. Ultimately, ECOWAS didn’t want to have Vaz step down with an election on the horizon and agreed that Vaz could stay in power until the 24 November election so as to provide an opportunity for the people to participate in a democratic election and settle the dispute [13]. During the election, ECOWAS sent observers to monitor the polls and helped set the condition that if no candidate won more than 50 percent of the votes in the November election then a run-off election should be held on 29 December 2019 [14]. The election continued into December and resulted in a successful and peaceful transition of power to Umaro Sissoco Embalo [15]. Embalo won the December election under the Movement of Democratic Change with 54 percent of the vote and was sworn in on 27 February. Although the PAIGC saw it as a coup, election observers from the AU saw it as a transparent and free election. ECOWAS’s calculated ability to weigh out the costs and benefits of not removing Vaz from power prior to an internationally monitored election meant all the international and local attention would be focused on the election and not disputes between Vaz and the PAIGC. 

Throughout the political conflict ECOWAS has urged restraint and responsibility to those in charge of the political system in the country [16]. During the election the AU launched an African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM) to assess the process. The Mission is comprised of various third-party mediators and observers such as African Union Officials of Election Management Bodies, members of African civil society, African election experts, Human Rights specialists, Experts on Gender and Media Experts among others. The AUEOM officials stated “the vote was conducted in peace and security necessary for the free expression of suffrage” about the country’s election [17]. The results of the election in Guinea Bissau can be seen as credible and legitimate because of ECOWAS’s ability to sanction and negotiate with local leaders, third party mediation during the election processes, as well the verbal and institutional support from the AU and UN.

Like Guinea Bissau, Mali struggles with corruption and a fragile democracy but Mali’s security issues in the north of the country created much more of an immediate concern for other ECOWAS members. In 2012, ECOWAS took aggressive economic action when it became clear that the Mali coup could potentially jeopardize security for the whole region as radical Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels in the north were poised to take advantage of the situation. Eventually, ECOWAS member states closed their land borders to land-locked Mali, thus denying it access to their seaports and essential daily imports of products such as oil. Such aggressive actions by ECOWAS led to then-President Keïta, a civilian, taking power from the junta [18]. In the case of Mali, ECOWAS was willing to use tougher economic sanctions to essentially isolate Mali which prompted the junta to immediately cede some of its power, and tentatively restored a degree of security in the region.

When Mali fell into political crisis again in 2018, ECOWAS intensified its tactics even more so and eventually used military pressure to guarantee a return to democracy. In 2018, then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta won a controversial second presidential term after being accused of corruption and inept governance by grass-roots movements such as the June 5 Movement as well as the general public. On 18 August, mutinying soldiers took over the Kati camp, and they marched on the capitol with crowds cheering for the President’s resignation [19]. The forced resignation of Keïta was condemned by the UN, AU, Mali’s former colonizer France, and ECOWAS as an undemocratic means of changing power. ECOWAS also called for an “immediate buildup” of its ECOWAS Standby Force, a security force comprised of military, civilian, and police elements while the coup was still underway. In order to appease the concerns of its neighbors and avoid a military conflict with ECOWAS forces, the coup leader, Colonel Assimi Goita, promptly assigned former Defense Minister Bah Ndaw to be the leader of an 18 month long transitional government with Colonel Goita as vice president. This was seen as a welcome sign, as it showed that the military was willing to share power with civilian officials. ECOWAS made clear, however, that the appointment of a civilian President was a necessary condition to be rid sanctions, but the junta had to appoint a civilian prime minister as well. Both of these positions are expected by ECOWAS to be filled by the end of the 18-month transitional government when elections are supposed to be held [20]. These successful negotiations and an eventual return to civilian rule of Mali was once again made possible by a combination ECOWAS’s threat of sanctions as intense as in 2012, intervention in Mali’s democratic process, and most recently the threat of military intervention.

In the cases of Guinea Bissau and Mali, their political situations still have not entirely stabilized to the point that either of them would be called well-functioning democracies. However, given the progress that has been made in the past decade in terms of their own democratic processes, elections, and a peaceful transition of power, it can be said that the prospects for a more stable west Africa have gotten better. ECOWAS was able to assist in the restoration and preservation of democratic processes in both cases by successfully implementing sanctions, intervening and navigating local political disputes, brokering multi-lateral agreements, and monitoring elections. In the cases of monitoring elections and brokering agreements, ECOWAS has become a valuable ally to organizations like the UN and AU, both of which often bestow much credibility and praise onto ECOWAS. As a result, all three of these organizations have demonstrated that they can work coherently and cooperatively with each other towards achieving the ideal goal of a more stable and democratic west Africa.


[1] BBC. “Mali Coup: Bah Ndaw Sworn in as Civilian Leader.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Sept. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54292919?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Ftopics%2Fc78q34zzqy5t%2Fmali-coup

[2] ECOWAS. “Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).” Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), 2016, www.ecowas.int/about-ecowas/basic-information/. 

[3] ECOWAS. “Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).” Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), ECOWAS, 2016, www.ecowas.int/about-ecowas/fundamental-principles/. 

[4] ECOWAS. “Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).” Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), 2016, www.ecowas.int/about-ecowas/basic-information/. 

[5] UN. United Nations, 2015, pp. 1–17, Report of the Secretary-General on Developments in Guinea-Bissau and the Activities of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau.

[6] Ibid.

[7] UN. “Security Council Press Statement on Situation in Guinea-Bissau | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, United Nations, 12 Aug. 2015, www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12005.doc.htm.


[9] UN. United Nations, 2015, pp. 1–17, Report of the Secretary-General on Developments in Guinea-Bissau and the Activities of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau

[10] UN. “Security Council Press Statement on Situation in Guinea-Bissau | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases.” United Nations, United Nations, 15 June 2016, www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12405.doc.htm. 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Mayaki, Harouna. “Economic Community of West African States(ECOWAS).” Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), ECOWAS, 2 July 2018, www.ecowas.int/ecowas-imposes-individual-sanctions-for-non-implementation-of-the-conakry-agreement-in-guinea-bissau/. 

[13] News Agencies. “Guinea-Bissau President Fires PM amid Political Crisis.” Guinea-Bissau | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 29 Oct. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/29/guinea-bissau-president-fires-pm-amid-political-crisis. 

[14] Mohamed, Hamza. “Guinea-Bissau Presidential Election: Here’s What You Need to Know.” Guinea-Bissau | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 23 Nov. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/23/guinea-bissau-presidential-election-heres-what-you-need-to-know/. 

[15] Cascais, Antonio. “Guinea-Bissau: Coup or Legitimate Change of Power?: DW: 04.03.2020.” DW.COM, Deutsche Welles , 4 Mar. 2020, www.dw.com/en/guinea-bissau-coup-or-legitimate-change-of-power/a-52632844. 

[16] Ibid.

[17] Branco, Joaquim. “African Union Election Observation Mission To The Second Round Of The Presidential Election On 29 December 2019 In The Republic Of Guinea Bissau.” African Union Election Observation Mission To The Second Round Of The Presidential Election On 29 December 2019 In The Republic Of Guinea Bissau | African Union, African Union (AU), 30 Dec. 2019, au.int/en/pressreleases/20191230/au-election-observation-second-round-2019-guinea-bissau. 

[18] Look, Anne. “ECOWAS Imposes Sanctions on Mali.” Voice of America, Voice of America, 1 Apr. 2012, www.voanews.com/archive/ecowas-imposes-sanctions-mali. 

[19] BBC. “Mali Coup: Bah Ndaw Sworn in as Civilian Leader.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Sept. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54292919?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Ftopics%2Fc78q34zzqy5t%2Fmali-coup. 

[20] BBC. “Mali Coup: Military Junta Seeks Transitional President.” BBC News, BBC, 21 Aug. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53854372?intlink_from_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.bbc.com%2Fnews%2Ftopics%2Fc78q34zzqy5t%2Fmali-coup.